You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Playhouse, tiny house, innermost house

The other day I came across a great post by Umair Haque, How Our Economy Was Overrun by Monsters and What to Do About It.

Haque, who doesn’t stint in criticizing vapid consumerism, in this post describes a kind of decline-of-the-[Roman?]-empire trend in which the very rich provide their progeny with elaborate (and very expensive) “playhouses.” He references what he calls an eyebrow-raising New York Times piece.

In that article, a Texas multi-millionaire wife enthusiastically endorses her daughter’s $50,000 “playhouse”:

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. But she sees it as an extension of the family home. “My daughter loves it,” she said. “And it’s certainly a conversation piece.”

Exactly what the conversation would be about is left to the reader’s imagination. Since the playhouse is supposed to impress with its amenities (air conditioning, stainless steel sinks and mini-fridges, vaulted ceilings – all the trappings of The Big House, in other words), one can’t help wondering if one’s mind is supposed to assume Lilliputian dimensions as it’s clearly directed to admire the same things already installed “for real” (and super-sized) elsewhere. Coming up with different sizes of the same thing is an old retailing trick – and why not retail one’s lifestyle as just another desirable commodity.

Or not?

I was struck by how these over-designed “playhouses” (in which every detail has been filled in, with nothing left to the imagination) contrast with Tiny Houses built for adults.


From Small House to Tiny House

The tiny house movement started coming into its own when architect Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House in 1998, giving rise to a small house movement. The point was to give up size (quantity) in favor of quality. From there, it didn’t take long for the small house movement to be linked to environmental sustainability and to evolve further into a tiny house movement.

Adults started getting very creative, using the constraint of small size to unleash innovations in architectural design. The tiny houses were not mini-Big Houses, as the luxury playhouses of children of the very rich seem to be.

In a luxury playhouse, old ideas rule the day insofar as the houses echo what the children can find in the  homes of their parents – and the extreme expense has congealed the play. Nor were the tiny houses fantasy castles or jungle-gym aeries, a kind of privatized replica of what used to take place in improvised form in the commons (in woods, fields, or public parks).

Certainly, tiny houses are private. But what happens in some of them is real fantasy – that is, real play – which in this case means a reinvention of how to live, not a copying of how others live.


The Innermost House (on Tiny House Blog)

Innermost House

Perhaps the most intense Tiny House I’ve ever come across is Diana and Michael Lorence’s Innermost House. I’m still not sure what to think about living in a 12-foot cube in the woods, without electricity or running water. But Diana Lorence seems to be on a mission to teach others what she’s learning on her journey:

There Are Two Ways to Simplify Your Life

One way is eliminating the things from your life that don’t really matter, until you are left with what you need.
This is the rational way to proceed, and it works. Experts and practitioners speak of it with authority. There are steps to take and things to accomplish and ideas to exchange. You can really get somewhere this way.

The other way is the art of filling your life with what you love most in the world. Love has a strange emancipating power that lets everything else fall away.

Your heart allows you to sense this mysterious force. In some way, Love has the power to displace many things. (source)

Useful advice, whether you’re editing a home or a life, downsizing or contemplating an acquisition.

See additional essays by Diana Lorence here and here.

In an essay about design, Sacred Game, Lorence writes:

How do you design a house without designing it?  How do you grow something to be wild?  Sometimes we could almost see it in the distance: “Beautiful Necessity” Emerson called it.  It is the need to be  that has gone out of things.  In the world today we are all free to design whatever we can think of, but we are powerless to make things necessary.

Michael and I were seeking a way of getting behind  the designed world, inside design to something more essential.  We weren’t looking for new designs or for old designs. (source)

Provocative questions – probably not to be answered with miniature stainless steel appliances and all the mod-cons of already-existing built forms…

A list of websites for Tiny Houses

Via House Beautiful (where, of all places, I came across the Lorence House), a list of 15 websites for Tiny Houses:

See also:

I’d also add Victoria’s own Zigloo, which builds beautiful dwellings out of cargo shipping containers.


Umair Haque concludes his post as follows:

Our monsters are reflections of us. And our modern-day monsters are a reflection of our own monstrous appetites. They might just be shadows on the wall, reflections of our insatiable thirst for self-destructive stuff. But that just means that the power to vanquish them is already resting gently in our hands.

Tiny Houses reflect back a less monstrous world. For one thing, there’s just not as much room to put self-destructive stuff inside them…




  1. We built our daughter’s playhouse for about $400 of new supplies and ReStore purchases; plus leftover materials from other projects.

    When I was a kid, we were always making forts, tree-houses and playhouses. We made one out of bike racks and particle board. I wanted to give her a place she could hang out in, we had the space and the time. More than that: we turned a deck were breaking up into much of the structure (floor, siding and steps). We turned $200+ of dump fees and landfill into part of the playhouse and gave her a little chunk of autonomy.

    Our daughter is fascinated with the idea of small houses and wants to make one of her own one day.

    Comment by Mike DeWolfe — August 2, 2011 #

  2. That’s the way to do it, Mike. You and Cheryl kindled her imagination and now there’s a real interest. Have to wonder whether some of these other children don’t end up feeling dissatisfied instead of on fire with interest in things.

    Comment by Yule — August 2, 2011 #

  3. I’ve been pondering similar disparities recently too — clearly the invisible hand isn’t cutting the mustard when two such different realities such as the $250K playhouse and 44M kids on foodstamps can coexist. I’ve been thinking perhaps we might consider taking a cue from the principles of permaculture and see how they apply to our economic systems — can’t be any worse than what we’re seeing play out.

    On the tiny house note. I am a borderline hoarder by nature, but do toy from time to time with the idea of simplifying (working out of my home does NOT help though!). I’m reminded every time we go camping in our fibreglass trailer, of just how few things you really do need to survive and thrive.

    Comment by Janice — August 2, 2011 #

  4. Thank you for mentioning our site! I enjoyed reading your article. For me it all started when I looked at my life and I was unhappy with my situation. I realized that by simplifying I could create freedom to do what I want. I’ve been in love with small spaces ever since because I believe they can do the same for others who are unhappy with their situations.

    Comment by Alex Pino — August 2, 2011 #

  5. Nice work, Alex – and thanks for commenting!

    Comment by Yule — August 2, 2011 #

  6. Well, we homeschooled for 10 years and worked from home for 9 – and, wow, did that ever take its toll on the clutter-quotient (and the “need” for space). So I totally get being a borderline hoarder, especially if you’re working from home, Janice. But once it’s fewer people (in our case, the kids are more or less fledged), it’s possible to simplify, too.

    Many many years ago, I read a book by the official witch of Los Angeles, Louise Huebner. She insisted that every object in your domain has to have meaning or a purpose, otherwise it’s just clutter and saps your energy. Today, we’d probably categorize that under “feng shui.” I always thought she was right – but also realized (with some horror) how much harder it is to control (and it’s all about control) your environment when it expands due to children and/or work circumstances.

    I also like beautiful things. A lot. Things with history attached to them, things with many layers of meaning and rich textures… But then again, it’s also way too easy to let them turn into “noise,” too. 😉

    Comment by Yule — August 2, 2011 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Recent Posts



Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
Entries and comments feeds.