When less is much, much more: ‘The New Small House’

© The Taunton Press, Inc. Photographer: Ken Gutmaker

This book is not about tiny houses, those cute habitats you can pack on the back of a pickup truck. Nor is it meant as any kind of reproach to the egregiously large trophy homes that bulge out over hill and dale as if to say, “This is a metaphor for my bank account.” No, the McMansions will require a new kind of shaming — like the protests back in the 1970s that convinced a majority of women it was slightly evil to wear fur coats — to convince people to stop building homes the size of shopping malls.

The slim, coffee-table-gorgeous new book “The New Small House” (Taunton Press, $32) by architect and writer Katie Hutchison speaks to the nearly universal longing for a home that’s lovely and inviting, cozy without crowding, and spacious without being a square foot overdone. In response to a post-recession decrease in the average footprint of single-family homes, Ms. Hutchison has pegged the houses in her new book at 1,700 square feet or less.

In her introduction, Ms. Hutchison recounts the tale of how she and her husband, sailor, photographer, and Oxfam exec Chris Hufstader (son of Edgartown doyenne and realtor Margaret Steele) came to settle on their single-story, raised-ceiling, high-window home in Warren, R.I. She describes all the quaint accoutrements, including daylight streaming through the southwestern nook, and the late-1940s bead trim and crown molding, then sums up, “Mostly it was all of these bundled into a small 1,550-square-foot package that appeared to live larger than its modest size would suggest.”

She goes on to explain her book’s mission: “Despite the post-2009 return to increasing median new single-family house size, there seems to be a movement afoot among those who remember the lessons of the recession to live small deliberately.” (And, of course, here we can’t help but think of Thoreau’s famous line in “Walden”: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” His equally famous cabin measured 15 feet by  10 feet, a bit tight for Ms. Hutchison’s parameters.)

Katie Hutchison is not only a fine architect and writer, she’s also an excellent organizer. Her intro lays out her 10 defining strategies for building or renovating a first-class small house:

  1. Be sensitive to the site.
  2. Pay attention to the third dimension (that which you see at eye level, so that your vision takes flight over plans sketched on a page).
  3. Borrow daylight and view.
  4. Make a big statement (tall windows, columns, soffits, etc. can leverage expanse into small settings).
  5. Create multipurpose spaces (with use of such items as partitions or doors on tracks, built-ins that fold into walls, and cabinetry on wheels).
  6. Shape pockets for privacy.
  7. Bring the indoors out and the outdoors in (there’s a dreamy dog-trot breezeway mounted by an outdoor table and benches that frames the view of the bay from Lopez Island, Wash.).
  8. Select a succinct finish palette: “Since much of a small house may be visible all at once, it’s a good idea to reduce the palette of finish materials to a handful of elements that work well together.”
  9. Invest in quality materials that matter.
  10. Design distinctive details that relate to the big picture.

The architect roamed all of North America from coast to coast, and over the border into Canada, to find beautiful exemplars for her small-home agenda, laying them out by geography:

  1. By the Water
  2. In the Country
  3. In the Village
  4. In Town; and, finally,
  5. Retreats, a category which puts us in touch with small exquisite shelters set on private parts of people’s property.

Ms. Hutchison took many of her own photographs, and also relied on architects to submit not only pictures but blueprints. At Taunton Press, her editor Peter Chapman helped her pore over piles of photos and select candidates for the book. For anyone who is seeking inspiration for a new home, a remodel of an existing home, or who simply loves architecture and interior design the way foodies adore pictures of portobello mushrooms in a puttanesca sauce, “The New Small House” is a treat for the senses. Of particular delight to this reporter were pictures of the two-story, gray-shingled house on the cover, with a nighttime amber glow streaming from the interior against the bay of Peak’s Island in Maine. Also, the tiny houses of the retreats section caught my eye, including a quatrain of open “swamp huts” around a central deck with an open fire drum, and a gorgeous open-red-door guest pavilion in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Perhaps the keen attraction to these tiny half-outdoor houses reveals an unconscious longing to sleep out under the stars much as our Cro-Magnon ancestors must have done when no caves were handy. Ms. Hutchison writes about a couple in Wyoming, the husband an architect, who built their guest house before the main house on their mountain property. The wife said she loved sleeping in the tiny bedroom with a sense that her “toes were almost outside.” The magic died on the night they glimpsed a black bear outside the bedroom window, gnawing on the glass.

In November, Ms. Hutchison gave a presentation and signed books at the Bunch of Grapes, where some signed books are still available.

For more information, go to taunton.com.