Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 907:
TINY HOUSES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 907.

Today, inventive minds build themselves a place apart. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lester Walker's Tiny Book of Tiny Houses describes an odd architectural sidetrack -- houses that range in size from 26 to 288 square feet. These strange little buildings throw an odd light on the creative process.

Here's one: It's the 8-foot by 8-foot hut where George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, St. Joan, and more. This is no simple shack. Shaw mounted it on a central pole so he could rotate it into the sun. His phone could be used only for outgoing calls. Shaw designed just the flavor of privacy he needed in order to write.

Thoreau did much the same thing. He spent $28.12 building his 150-square-foot cabin on Walden Pond. Thoreau, who often identified himself as a civil engineer, left drawings for the place. Today, Thoreau fans build copies from those same plans.

The movie Grumpy Old Men featured another of these small houses -- the 7 by 5-foot Minnesota ice-fishing hut. You slide these tiny houses out onto the frozen lake in mid-winter, open a trap door, and drill through the ice to fish. You cluster your huts in small sub-zero villages. Then you fish in solitude.

A whole class of tiny houses followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Army built almost 6000 portable shacks of redwood and fir. The design was robust and simple. The 140-square-foot model cost $100. They were meant to be temporary, but you still find them scattered about the city a century later. They have an appeal that gives them peculiar staying power.

The typical frontier cabin was only a little larger, and it also had staying power. Many of these one-room dwellings have survived for more than two centuries.

The smallest of these small houses is poet Carol Anthony's lovely little poetry house in her garden. It's where she goes to be alone and to write. Then we look at it more closely, and we're jolted to learn that she'd made it by converting an old outhouse.

So the small houses run in every conceivable form. The Sunday houses of central Texas are where ranch families stayed when they came in on Saturday to shop and to attend Sunday church. They ran 200 square feet with attic lofts. The great turn-of-the-century revival meetings were surrounded by camp cottages -- tiny houses with wild Victorian gingerbread trim.

What are these tiny places that feed thought and buoy the spirit? They're built for privacy, yet they often huddle together like small magnets. How can smallness, which so cramps the body and the soul, be used to set us free? These little houses fly in the teeth of reason. At the same time, on some deep and visceral level, who doesn't feel that they make perfect sense!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Walker, L., The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1993.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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