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
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.
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
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
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