There's Lots to Learn From These Small House Plans From the '60s

Small house designs
credit: CMHC

Every January, as we build up to the big International Builders Show, there are a million stories about model homes and dream house plans, all many thousand square feet and full of many rooms serving so many different functions. The average American house is now over 2600 square feet and growing again. Fifty years ago, houses were a lot smaller. There was a lot of building going on, so the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (equivalent to the US Freddie Mac) prepared plan books to help Canadians and builders produce efficient, relatively easy-to-build houses. In her Lambert Prize-winning PHD thesis, (PDF here) Ioana Teodorescu notes that these were not ordinary plans.

...the postwar houses in Canada, despite their small size, are a major arena for the expression of modernism defined as it were by ideals of an egalitarian democracy and by scientific rationalism embraced by Canadian leaders at the time and projected unto the Canadian society. The particularities of this specific form of modernism are apparent in CMHC’s approach which combined the seeking of definite solutions to practical house design problems – an aspect explicit to the Modern Movement – with an ‘imaginative experience’ to which social aspects, professionalism and possible regional interpretations brought new dimensions and interpretations.

I have owned a copy of the 1965 Small House Design book for many years, and have always been impressed with the houses. My late mother-in-law lived in one of them, and having grown up downtown in big old houses, I was blown away by what my professors used to call, "Economy of Means, Generosity of Ends."- efficient, clever and immensely livable. I have been going through and scanning my favorites from the book, and there are so many that I am going to do two slideshows. Since everyone is now building single storey houses for aging boomers, I am going to start with single floor houses and will follow up with splits and two-storeys.

credit: Henry Fliess

Many of these houses were designed by young architects, who later went on to significant careers. Ioana Teodorescu wrote in Canadian Architect:

These house designs respected the latest building standards at the time and any architectural practice submitting a design had their name associated with the drawings. The CMHC paid architects a fee of $1,000 [ a lot of money back then] for every selected house design, plus royalties of $3 for every set of working drawings sold. For $10, a new homebuyer could buy a set of blueprints for a high-quality architect-designed home.

For example, this one is designed by the late Henry Fliess, who went on to become to design many remarkable modern houses in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. Dave LeBlanc

that he "designed [big mall] Sherway Gardens (phases one and two) with fellow architect James Murray, as well as the Village Square in Baltimore's Cross Keys Village for influential American developer James A. Rouse. He also created about 15 designs for home in Don Mills."

credit: Henry Fliess

The house is actually pretty unremarkable, though it packs a lot into 1160 square feet. But it does share many of the attributes of the other plans we will see: In almost every case, the kitchen is separated from the living space (this one is larger than most), there are three bedrooms and one bathroom. Most have basements; this one puts the stair in the right place, that you can move things from the side door straight down. The bathrooms almost never have a tub under the window, standard practice before electric fans were common (though they were in most bathrooms in the sixties). There is no main floor laundry in this design; that's what basements were for.

credit: Alan Hanna

Alan Hanna of Winnipeg produced a few that caught my eye. He has gone on to an illustrious career. From his bio:

Alan Hanna, a forty-year member of a partnership that would eventually be called Number TEN Architects, was born in Regina and received his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Manitoba in 1955. He spent the next year studying under Louis Kahn at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, where he completed his Masters of Architecture degree in 1956.
credit: Alan Hanna

This house plan is actually very unusual for the program, and packs a real punch for 1,166 square feet. Note from the elevation that windows to the front are inconsequential, with the master and living space opening to the rear. There are two full bathrooms, and the bedrooms separated from each other, with a convertible space "study or bedroom." The dining area is pretty terrible, given that it is only 8'-8" and is really in the hall. However the living room, at 17-10" by 11'-6" is big enough to serve both functions. Note the size and location of laundry, this is big.

credit: Andrew Chomick

The plans and elevations were supposed to all work coast to coast, but you can often tell which architects are from the west coast and see those California influences. This is designed by Andrew Chomick, who designed a lot of houses; there is even a book of them, put together by Steve Chomick.

credit: Andrew Chomick

This relatively big one at 1,339 square feet has 1-1/2 baths (I think they could have really given up a closet for a shower but economy!) but other than the wall around the kitchen that we would leave out today, it is wide open from the front door.

credit: Andrew Chomick

Chomick also did this one, which I think is a very strange house, with no windows to the front. The plan is a mess too, which makes one wonder how designs get selected; Ioana Teodorescu wrote in Canadian Architect:

Countless letters from architects demanded to know why their designs were rejected. In response, the CMHC would simply state, “your design was not suitable for our purposes.” Only very determined applicants received an answer from the CMHC when complaining about the lack of guidelines. The CMHC would often answer, “If we knew what we were looking for, we wouldn’t be asking you!”
credit: Andrew Chomick

The most prominent part of the house sticking way out in front is... storage. The carport is a mile from the kitchen, the circulation to the dining room is nuts, the fireplace opposite a wall of windows makes the living room impossible to furnish, and come holiday time when you want to feed a big family, the 10 foot long dining room is cut off by a flower box. Like I said, a mess.

credit: Alan Hanna

Here's Alan Hanna of Winnipeg again, who today would be into shipping container architecture, since that is how this looks at first glance. But the idea was that if you have a back yard to play in, that's where the windows should be.

credit: Alan Hanna

This plan has a lot going for it, for just 1223 square feet. Two full baths (with a bath under the window in the master, very unusual for the time) a vast living dining room with a sloping ceiling and clerestory windows, eat-in size kitchen with laundry and a full basement too. The side entry door makes it all very efficient, and this would make a perfect prefab.

credit: J. Klein and H. Sears

The week after I opened my architectural practice in the early 1980s, Klein and Sears, who were in the building next door, did a major cleanout of their office and dumped drawings of a thousand different houses on to Toronto's Davenport Road. I got everyone in my office outside in the snow to grab those drawings and bring them in so that I could learn from them, these designs from one of the best residential firms in the City. I never copied them, really I swear; I never did their kind of work. But I learned so much about how to draw, how to detail, how to lay out a drawing, from pawing through their garbage. And when I closed my practice, I shredded everything. From North York Modernist Architecture Revisited, via ERA:

Toronto architects Jack Klein and Henry Sears focused on affordable, contemporary residential dwellings. They produced publications on housing theory and built a wide variety of both functional and experimental projects, including modernist row housing, apartment buildings and private homes. Klein and Sears were most concerned with the quality of built environment in which we live; row housing of the time was slum-like and ill-considered, and suburban housing was becoming too expensive for the average homeowner.

Seeall of their work here.

credit: Jack Klein and Henry Sears

The plan is in fact pretty ordinary; if it was not K&S; I probably wouldn't have included it. But it is very efficient at 1,008 square feet and most notably, is the first raised bungalow we have shown. These were hugely popular (still are, actually) because they were inexpensive to build (excavation is not very deep) but more importantly, the entire basement is bright, useable space with decent windows. They were true Grow Homes, where you could buy the finished upstairs and then do the basement yourself later. They also make perfect prefabs; when I was in the prefab biz I must have done a dozen versions of this side entry raised bungalow.

credit: F. W. Sunter D. L. Sawtell

This is, I think, my favorite house in this slideshow. It is so California mid-century modern, such a neat plan, and I cannot find anything on the architects anywhere.

credit: F. W. Sunter D. L. Sawtell

It's interesting right from the entry, through the carport, the first design to really figure out how to get into a house in the age of the car. Then you come in and to your right- a sunken living room. To the left, a perhaps too small dining room but it opens on to a patio in the middle of the house. A few tweaks (put a bathroom in that storage closet off the master, with a big door to an outdoor shower in the patio!) and clean up that utility room and this is just a fabulous six million dollar house for the Vancouver climate.

credit: Ray Affleck et al

It looks more like a ski chalet than a house, but it is in fact an 889 square foot wonder by Ray Affleck (or someone from his firm) who was not an architect just starting out in the mid sixties, but in fact was one of the most prominent in the country at the time. Concurrently with this little house he was designing a brutalist monster project, Place Bonaventure, a giant convention center with a wonderful Hilton on the roof, built around a heated outdoor pool that you could use in the middle of winter. ( I know, I couldn't get my kids out of it). Nothing he or ARCOP did was ordinary, including this little house.

credit: Ray Affleck et al

I like how you enter off the balcony, there is a big eat-in kitchen (unusual at the time), three modest bedrooms and a tiny, almost substandard bath by today's expectations, but hey, it is a raised bungalow and you can finish the whole downstairs.

credit: Dave Plumpton

Winnipeg is an odd place to design a house with a flat roof, given the amount of snow it gets, but there is a lot to like in this 1277 square foot house by Dave Plumpton. There is not much information about this architect; he was partners in a firm called Plumpton Nipper and Associates, and did a church at about the same time. But there are some nice modern touches in this house.

credit: Dave Plumpton

For 1277 square feet, it has a lot going on. The kitchen has a lot of space, there is a separate family room beside it with door right to the car port, a dining room and living room and with a little work, there could be at least a bathroom and a half. Note how when you enter you are looking right through to the door to the garden, he is grinding all his axes. This is a really liveable house.

credit: J. De Keresztes

This is perhaps the wackiest house of the lot, with a carport right out front as if it is a hotel drop-off and a front facade without a single window. I found absolutely nothing about the designer, but he was from Montreal, which makes the plan even more fun.

credit: J. De Keresztes

But imagine, you come in through that front door and right before you is an enormous patio. The living room has a wall of glass onto the patio, and a Mad Men style sunken sitting area at the end. Silly waste of space in the lobby, he could have fit another bath in there, and grossly undersized dining, should be combined with living, but it certainly is dramatic.

credit: J. L. Blatherwick

There is a lot to like about this 1,290 square foot house by John Langtry Blatherwick; I really like the elevation. Blatherwick designed a few houses that are in the book, and was on staff at Ryerson University for many years. He thankfully didn't win the competition to design Toronto City Hall with this entry. but he could certainly design a house.

credit: J. L. Blatherwick

It is unusual in that there is a real focus on the family room. This became pretty much standard through the next 30 years, that if there was a living room it was formal and not used that much; the living space with the aspect to the rear, the connection to the garden, was the family room. There is a lot of room for a house so small.

credit: Donald Manning

It almost seems that when you gave an architect a little more room, they didn't know what to do with it. Douglas Manning of Vancouver designed this 1590 square foot house and just threw everything at it.

credit: Douglas Manning

Four bedrooms! A strange half-bath between the back door and the bedrooms! A giant storage room taking up valuable rear wall space! a peninsula in the kitchen! It is hard to believe that after looking at so many tiny plans, that 1590 almost seems grossly excessive.

credit: Dennis and Freda O'Connor

This raised bungalow was designed by Dennis and Freda O'Connor of Edmonton, the only male/female team in the book. Freda O'Connor "was the first woman elected to Alberta Association of Architects, 1966, and was an early example of a spousal partnership, with Dennis O’Connor." According to another Edmonton architect, "Freda kinda gave the women’s movement a little jolt when she came, because she was upwardly mobile and she was going to do as well as any man.” Their firm continues today as Maltby & Prins Architects.

credit: Dennis and Freda O'Connor

They certainly could do an interesting and unusual plan. It's a raised bungalow so that lower level is bright and useable, but upstairs, the plan is split with kids' bedrooms on one side, master on the other. This is very common in apartments now but was probably unheard of in the mid-sixties. Turn that washroom into a full bath (and how about a coat closet?) and you have a real liveable house here.

credit: George Banz

I will end with this elevation of a totally unremarkable house designed by George Banz, who I knew better than any other architect in the book. He later wrote Elements of Urban Form served many years on the City of Toronto Committee of Adjustment, and was a pioneer of the use of computers in architecture, writing Computer uses in the construction industry in 1976. In later years he developed an early computer program for financial analysis of buildings; I was a very early beta tester. A lovely man. There were many lovely men and women designing these houses; some remain obscure and others went on to significant careers. There are many interesting lessons from these houses. They were designed for the baby boom world with mom at home at work in her separate kitchen, with separate bedrooms for the kids. We were not yet obsessed with bathrooms as spas, with kitchens as entertainment centers. They provided the essentials. But they were flexible, adaptable and many are still in use today. In these times when everyone complains that young people cannot afford houses, perhaps it is appropriate to look at what we really need, get rid of all the excess and build simple, straightforward small houses again. During the course of my research I found that the Government of Canada has stored this book I have treasured as a free PDF you can download here. Also, Ottawa architect Elie Bourget has modeled many of them in 3D.