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  • Mike Erkkinen

Small Building Design

geometry, construction methods, and details



One of my favorite aspects of creating small structures is that the economy gained in the small size can allow more resource (time and money) to go into raising the quality and getting the details "just right." I have noticed that most designers and craftspeople have their own "signature licks," the re-occurring themes that make their designs noticeable across different projects. Some of these might be: amazing finishes and color schemes, sleek and clean zen lines, or re-purposing trash into gorgeous and practical uses. My own unique flavor seems to be an intersection of colonial artisan tradition, exposed joinery, classical proportion, and a certain rustic beefiness. I've never met a golden rectangle, a Fibonacci sequence proportion, or a pentagon proportioned gable end that I didn't like. I favor local woods, which in new england include: white oak, black locust, and white cedar for weather resistance, white pine for general indoor or outdoor use, tulip poplar for painted indoor work, and cherry, maple,ash, and black walnut for special interior details.

In a small house or building, we'll be focused on a smaller amount of structure, so it makes sense to me to put more attention on the details that we'll be looking at or feeling often - making sure that they inspire us. An extreme example of a small space with a dizzying array of cool details would be a traditional Romany Gypsy Caravan.

This past week I started building a composting outhouse for our use at our Maine site. It will probably take about 2 weeks to build and perhaps $600 in materials - an investment that many would consider foolish for a modest 3'-6" x4'-0" building, but a nice building with an outstanding view of the harbor seems like a priority at the moment for "doing business" in.


Many folks have been drawn to the tiny house movement because it seems much less daunting to a DIY type person to build a tiny structure, than taking on a full size house. I have mixed feelings about this. I appreciate folks wanting the independence of doing their own building, and using their own 2 hands to create a home. However, given that I've spent over 40 years developing my own design and building skills, the idea of someone reading a book or watching a couple of youtubes before setting off to build a home seems a bit optimistic. I both appreciate people being able to 'steer their own ship", and also appreciate the environment that is developed by skilled craftsmen filling the world with well crafted, beautiful, and durable buildings. I'm not sure what the answer to this conundrum is, but believe that education that is similar to the European guild system of the 1600's - 1800's could be a good model. Most of the most beautiful homes in new england were created by european craftsmen of that time period. However you approach your own small home, whether by hiring a skilled professional or DIY, or somewhere in between, I suggest deeply contemplating

all aspects of the project, at a birds eye view, down to a micro detail level to use this opportunity to create the best that you are capable of. All of these photos, except for the gypsy caravan, are of details of my own projects over the past 20 years or so.













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