Compact Living Questions and Answers

Jim Tolpin is a cabinetmaker-turned-journalist who has written a number of award-winning books on woodworking and home design. His book, The New Cottage Home (Taunton Press, 1998), is featured on this page. Jim has written a number of books on various aspects of woodworking, all published by Taunton Press, including Building Traditional Kitchen Cabinets; The Toolbox Book; Working Wood; and Built-in Furniture. Jim's most recent book is titled The New Family Home. In the course of researching and writing The New Cottage Home, Jim had the opportunity to explore small, unique houses from all parts of the country. All were filled with careful, yet sometimes quirky, craftsmanship and design work-- comfortable dwellings that set quality of place far ahead of quantity of space. Speaking more to his heart than his head, these houses awoke dreams of his childhood, dreams of living in a house in which he felt completely at home.


Q: I just turned 63 and am in great health. I am getting ready to build what I hope is my last home so I want it to be elderly friendly, small yet spacious and very comfortable. My problems are as follows:
1. I know that cathedral ceilings make a house look spacious and open however I do not like carpeting and it is difficult for me to hear as sounds echo. I find it difficult to hear the TV (which I very much enjoy) and other people.

A: Cathedral ceilings do make a room feel spacious, but that doesn't always translate as being comfortable or cozy to many people. If you do like the look of a high ceiling, but want the coziness then think about creating niches within the room (with just furniture arrangement and/or semi-walls) for cozy sitting areas and for watching TV. There are a number of good examples of this strategy in my book "The New Family Home". Reduce echoes by using throw rugs on the floor and hanging tapestries on the walls.

2. Most houses now are built on the ground and I feel that is not good for the environment of the house. I have been told for years that a house should breath and that having the house off the ground is better for the conditions inside the house. Yet I am told that it cost more to have the house built off the ground and at my age my funds are limited and I need to get the most I can for the least amount of money. I don't want to deplete my savings to build this house. I am also concerned if plumbing problems should arise how do you get to the plumbing, do they have to tear up the floor.

3. Living in Florida I know what serious damage can be done to a house by tornados or hurricanes. I would like the house to be built to withstand strong winds but there are so many choices of material to use that I don't know which way to go. As stated I want to keep the cost down but I want to be safe and secure.

A: Most modern, well-built houses are sealed below and ventilated in the living spaces to reduce the buildup of mold spores that might come in from the ground below the house. All would have at least crawl spaces for plumbing. In Florida, I believe that codes have been updated since Hurricane Andrew so all new construction is built to withstand high winds.

4. I am concerned too about some of the material used to build the house being toxic. I have been told that the material I see being used today which appears to be wood chips glued together emits toxic fumes. At this point I am within an inch of purchasing a manufactured home. Greatly appreciate any information you can give me and I am going to purchase your book The New Cottage Home.

A: The problem with many new homes is the high level of volatile gases that are emitted from new flooring, cabinet and wall finishes and from unsealed edges of fiber boards like MDF. You can ask a builder to use less toxic finishes and materials--and check with makers of manufactured homes to see what they use and/or do about these problems. In any case, I would heat a brand new house and leave the windows open for the first few weeks before I moved in. The heat and ventilation will help clear the highest levels of off-gasing materials from the new materials.

Q: I am considering buying an A-frame house for a year round home. The upper 1/2 story is the bedroom. It is approximately 15'x30'. However, it has no storage at all. As you can imagine with the steeply sloped walls, and at the peaked end there is either a door or window, there is little opportunity to add storage. I'm afraid to proceed with making an offer because of this problem. Do you have any suggestions for creating storage in this area? Especially something for hanging clothes? Thank you for any ideas!

A: I don't know how to help other than to suggest that you install an armoire or to spend a chunk of money and push out a dormer that can include a closet. Not sure either is a particularly creative solution, however. A frames are lousy living spaces generally--which is why they aren't used much for anything beyond weekend retreats as far as I can see.

Q: My husband and I want to replace our storage unit in the back yard with one that is sustainable. Who do you know that could help us with that?

A: In my area, If I wanted to get a storage unit built of green-certified sustainable lumber, I would contract with a local carpenter and specify that only certified lumber be used in the construction. Check with the building supply stores in your area to see if they carry certified lumber. You could also ask local carpenters and contractors to see if they know of any sources.

Q: My son and I want to build a small earth friendly room. This will be outside in our garden, free standing, and my son will live in this room. Can you help with some design ideas, size for a teenager, and materials??? We live in southern Calif., with temps ranging from low 30's to high 90's.

A: Earth friendly! Nice to hear those words in association with creating dwellings! The first thing I think of is how much fun it might be to build a strawbale or a cob-type cottage with a teenage son. These structures are labor intensive, but the materials are generally readily available, low cost, and not too demanding to work with--they just take a lot of old-fashioned, out-door labor full of camaraderie and good memories. Then there are always Yurts and Tipis to consider as well. Kits for these vernacular structures are available from many sources. As far as size goes, a young man rarely feels the need for much...in fact small and cozy is what most of us really want until we get older and get in "a family way". Or maybe its just the ego that gets big and needs a house to match!

Q: I am converting a 16' x 16' 2 1/2 story building into a small home. Bath, kit and live on 1st floor, 2 bedrooms on the second floor, and 2 lofts above each bedroom. Need a design for space saving stairs, I realize they will not be to code but must be space efficient.

A: One of the best solutions for creating a stairway in a limited space is to use an “alternating step pattern” stair system—a cross between a standard stair and a ladder. The neat trick to this design is that by accommodating only one foot on a tread per step (alternating treads are cut back to allow the climbing foot to pass by), the run of the stairs can be kept extraordinarily short. The disadvantage—easily overcome by habit—is that you always have to start up the stairs with the same foot. This type stair--which does meet code--is not, however, for the mobility impaired or easy to navigate by small children. Check out some examples at www.architecturalstairs.com.

Q: On page 83 of your book, The Toobox Book, you show a picture of a number of metal wood planes hanging in a cabinet in front of you with no visible means of support. Can you tell me how you did that?

A: Good eyes!! Not many people notice that....I simply drilled small holes in the sole that fit on brass pins inserted in the back panel of the cabinet. These days, to avoid drilling the holes, I would use super magnets!

Q: What are some tips for making the best use of a small interior space? Design ideas?

A: (Kelly) I have lived in many very small spaces, and they can actually be quite convenient if they are well-organized, so adequate storage space is essential, and finding ways to utilize the space for a variety of functions is also important.

Q: Last year we finished a strawbale accessory dwelling unit (granny unit) for my 85 year old parents. The 640 square foot home is fully wheelchair accessible with an open floor plan. The home's design included loft space for a future live-in care giver bedroom. The space available for the stairway is very limited so we would like to go with an alternating step design. We would like to build this ourselves rather than going for a prefab unit but need a detailed design to work from. Any suggestions?

A: Not sure I can help on this one....I have seen commercial versions of these alternating step systems, though no plans. Bet a marine architect might have plans though (they are common on certain working craft such as tugboats).

Q: A question about venting a propane cook stove. I'm off-grid, running on a small solar/battery system. Currently building a tiny house on wheels with tiny kitchen. Have antique 1920s Wedgewood stove running on propane (eventually will have a wood stove installed, on which I can cook in winter; and a solar oven is part of the big picture; but for now, all cooking will be on the propane Wedgewood). I want to properly ventilate this thing, for carbon monoxide, vapor, grease, and what-all. I am adapting some copper roofing to be a hood -- that's not too hard. The real question is ventilation with filtration -- something that won't wear out my batteries! All the stove hood systems I can find use a lot of power. I'd love to find some sort of passive stove ventilation system, but don't see anything that would pull air through a filter to catch the grease (yes, even sauteing homegrown veggies in organic olive oil creates atomized grease). What are your thoughts, suggestions?

A: (Kelly) I would be somewhat more concerned about proper inlet air ventilation than the exhaust in terms of your health. Direct vented appliances are the best, since they automatically supply the needed oxygen for combustion with a dedicated vent. Older stoves are not going to have this option, so be sure to provide some inlet air near your stove. As for exhaust, I suggest finding a large DC computer fan that you can run off your battery.

Question of the moment is air inlet, as you suggested. All I'm seeing on the web are all extensions of big hunky HVAC systems, with their own fans. Sheeesh. I want a simple, passive air intake system, of course. What can you suggest? Where in the wall to put it? under the stove? over the stove? behind the stove? How big should the vent be? I'll want to protect the vent from outside big events: wind storms, heavy rain, fire in fire season. BTW, decided to go with the computer fan as hood fan. Replacing the antique stove with newer early 1950s Wedgewood, with a vented oven. So the computer fan should be able to handle the stovetop stuff (or at least I'll find out if it will ... ;).

You don't need a fan for air inlet; the air will naturally be drawn in by the air that exhausts. Normally the size of inlet and outlet vents are more or less the same. I don't know how you are heating your little space, but you may need the air inlet for this as well. You could always have a vent closure so as not to introduce too much cold air when not using your stove.
I just bought an AC computer fan at Radio Shack for $25 that I am using to push air from my attached greenhouse into my office, and it is working pretty well. This fan measures about 5" in diameter.

Q: I am building my long anticipated (8years!) tiny trailer. First, I am looking for lightweight, eco friendly, and most importantly, chemical-free wall options. I have estimated my design for 6 inch outside walls and 2-3 inch inside walls, but left room for size adjustments if necessary. Second, I am looking for roofing options. The trailer is mapped out much like a shipping container, with a squared roof, however the roof on the front of the trailer to the bedroom loft has slight downward incline starting from each end and then joining together in the center to create a inverted-triangular funnel. The funnel then joins with a hollowed out support beam incorporated into the structure interior plans to send rainwater down to the water reserve under the floor... pretty cool right!

A: For the rainwater catchment part of your roof you might consider standard metal roofing, as it doesn't impart toxins, lasts a long time, works at slight pitches, and is largely recycled metal. 6-inch walls may be thicker than necessary, since space is precious in a tiny house; this depends partly on climate and insulation choices. Many tiny houses are made with recycled materials, such as wood. Many natural materials require walls that would be too thick and heavy.

Q: Can you give me short tip or pointer for living in a small space?

A: (Kelly) Living in a small space can be an opportunity to focus on what is really important in life, without the constraints of too many material possessions demanding attention and financial support.

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