Sometimes good things do come in small packages.
As the housing market in America continues to super-size and homeowners demand more square footage for their new homes each year, Sarina Speed and her husband, Ben, went the opposite route: They decided to build the smallest house possible to fit their needs.
Their two-story home in Franklin clocks in at 640 square feet and stands 18 by 18, smaller than some American garages. The couple shares the home with their toddler, Noah, and a cat.
Quirky small houses are a part of Maine building tradition, often quickly constructed to accommodate a burgeoning work crew. The Speeds’ construction effort was as carefully planned as some coastal mansions. Speed says it was important for her and her husband to build an environmentally friendly home that required a minimum amount of fossil fuels. “I wanted to build a really energy-efficient house.” The couple originally planned to build an off-the-grid home powered by solar panels, but the initial investment was too great. After months of research, the couple decided the easiest way to achieve energy efficiency was to reduce house size and heat with wood. It worked; their monthly electric bill hovers around $20. That’s amazing in this day and age, says Dick Brown, program manager for Efficiency Maine, a program that helps Mainers save money on their electric bills. “Somebody with a $20 light bill is basically using the minimum amount of electricity,” Brown says.
The couple acknowledges that the roots for their decision to build a small house were probably put down early on: Sarina Speed was born into a home that measured just 16 feet by 16 feet. “I was fairly accustomed to the idea of smaller,” she says.
It helped that since she and her husband met, the two have pared down their belongings to the bare essentials. There isn’t a lot of space in the home to store things that might be used someday. “You only really keep the things that have memories for you,” she says.
But creating a comfortable home is about more than paring down; it’s about good design. In a small home, every square foot of space is important. “Every corner has to be sort of planned,” Speed says.
The Speeds bought their small-house plan from legendary small-home designer Jay Shafer through his company, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Shafer, who lives in a 100-square-foot home, has constructed or provided plans for 70 small homes, ranging in size from 70 square feet to 750 square feet. The Speeds then modified the plan to fit their needs.
In small-home design, the devil is in the details. The home employs dozens of space-saving tips: Stereo speakers are wired into the home and a flat-screen television is mounted on the wall. Vertical space is maximized with small shelves, and kitchen implements are hung from the ceiling. The bathroom and bedrooms are just big enough to move around comfortably. And there’s even an ingenious washing machine that doubles as a dryer. At the same time, they also employed a host of tricks to make the space seem bigger than it is: A high percentage of windows to wall space lets in plenty of natural light. The walls are brightly colored, creating an airy and spacious feel in each room. And instead of a wide-open floor plan, each room has its own distinction or divider to differentiate it from the others.
To top it off, everything is clean and beautiful within, right down to the glass jars full of grains on the kitchen windowsill.
Living in a small home for the past two years, says Speed, has changed the way she goes about everything. “It makes for a lot less cluttered life,” she says.
John Gordon, who is an architect with Gordon-Stanley Architecture on Mount Desert Island and last year’s winner of the Maine State Housing Authority’s Mainestream Green Home Design Contest, is impressed with the Speeds’ home size. He says he’s constantly trying to help his clients think smaller in the same way. “It’s quantity versus quality,” Gordon says. “We’re trying to convince people to just build better.”
Gordon thinks small-home design will become more popular as the price of home heating continues to climb. Besides being cheaper to maintain, the home was also cheaper to build, costing $55,000 with road and foundation work included. To keep costs down, the couple did much of the nontechnical labor themselves or with the help of friends.
Speed understands her home won’t have the same resale value as a 2,000-square-foot home, but she’s found the value is comparable when adjusted for size. Still, she knows the next owner of the home, if there’s to be one, probably won’t be as efficient at space management. “We’d market it as a summer home,” she says.
Though they’re considering having another child, the couple has no plans to move to more spacious digs. Speed thinks the house may benefit from a mudroom and another bedroom someday, but all additions will be designed to be just as cozy as the main house.
“I doubt it will ever exceed 1,000 square feet,” she says.