Height, light and imagination help make a compact dwelling work


June 13, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Sometimes the biggest imagination shows up in the smallest projects. That's no accident: Tiny spaces call for major creativity to make them work. What's surprising is how often the solutions are dramatic and/or beautiful as well.

A tiny house we saw recently in southwest Baltimore is a perfect example. There are many of these tiny houses in the city's old neighborhoods. Built largely as servant or labor housing in the late 18th and 19th centuries, they are usually two stories tall and may be no more than 10 feet wide and 24 feet deep.

Because they also usually sit on tiny, narrow lots, lack of space and setback restrictions mean opportunities for expansion are limited.

That was the case in the tiny house on Dover Street, which has interior dimensions of 11 feet by 25 feet. So the rehabbers went down --digging out the basement -- and up -- taking advantage of space between second-floor ceiling and roof to get critical head space on the first and second floors.

They also opened up what space they had; each level is a single space, with multiple uses defined by subtle changes in height. Well, not all the changes are subtle.

Because the back wall of the house had fallen down, the rehabbers replaced it with a wall of glass. There are three openings at each level. To make sure all interior spaces get some advantage of the light, one corner is cut out of the floor at the back of the top two levels. It makes a sort of atrium that soars from the eating area on the ground floor to the master suite on the top floor.

The overall effect is a cross between living aboard a ship and living in a loft; white walls and lots of white-painted wrought iron and wood trim enhance the feeling.

Here's a floor-by-floor analysis of how the space is used:

The middle level is the entry level. Outside, there's a short flight of stairs to a landing at the front door. Inside, just on the right of the door as you enter, is a small closet. To its right, in the front corner, is a spiral staircase linking all three levels.

Diagonally across the room is a fireplace, and directly across is the expanse of wall where a sort of clipped triangle opens up to above and below. The ceiling level rises as you move into the room.

Downstairs, on the ground level, the floor was dug out about a foot, to provide a regular ceiling height. The side walls were reinforced with concrete buttresses at the floor level. They're concealed behind the walls, so this level is somewhat narrower than the upper two floors.

At the back, windows flanking each side of a door open the house to the lower patio level. To keep water from being a problem, there's a sump pump, but the patio also has a 75-gallon-per-hour dry well under a drain in the middle. Steps at the back lead up to another patio with a small seating area.

Inside, the lower space contains the home's kitchen, dining area and a combination laundry and bath.

On the second floor, the ceiling was opened to the roof peak, which allowed the floor to be raised -- giving more head room in the living room below. At the top of the spiral stairs on the second floor is a space with master bath, closet and dressing area. Up two steps -- the steps are also set on a diagonal that roughly imitates the open corner -- is the sleeping area.

It's still a tiny house -- just one bedroom -- but the spaces fit together so neatly and so efficiently, and they're so light-filled and airy that it's hard to remember that the entire dwelling isn't much bigger than a three-car garage.

Next: Answers to readers' questions.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

xTC Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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