Tiny houses. The American (mini) Dream

Tiny Houses, or How to Get Away From It All, by Lester Walker. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press (distributed by Viking). 224 pp. $19.95. IN an America where the number of homeless is only slightly less than the number of condominiums seasonally vacant in overbuilt ski developments or along southern beach fronts, a book about tiny houses might seem absurdly escapist.

But Lester Walker's brilliantly presented designs for 40 tiny houses show how simply and economically, given a patch of land, Henry David Thoreau's simple dream of getting away from it all can become a small-scale reality.

Unless one claims use of the land, as Thoreau did, ``by squatter's right,'' the Catch-22 in this dream is, of course, that only if you can realistically afford to own land can you afford to act out the fantasy of inhabiting one of these remarkable (and not necessarily escapist) houses that Walker invites his readers to build.

Cabins, cottages, Capes

``Tiny Houses'' provides dimensions, panel-patterns, photographs of existing buildings, plans and elevations, construction details, and exploded-perspective drawings of the interiors of tiny houses as various as Thoreau's cabin, George Bernard Shaw's writing hut (which spins on a pole to follow the sun), and Thomas Jefferson's honeymoon cottage.

But such historically famous tiny houses are only a few of the houses Walker draws and details with a lucidity equal to the very dream of owning such miniatures.

If one's sense of whimsy inclines toward a revivalist campground cottage, it is here; so is your basic back-country outhouse (complete with Chic Sales's classic 1929 essay on the philosophy of outhouse design), or a dune shack, an architect's studio, a raft house, or an ice fishing shanty.

Five contemporary prefabricated houses handsomely hold their own with such vernacular classics as a motel cabin, a bandbox townhouse, or a Cape Cod honeymoon cottage (which is conveniently expandable into a half-Cape or a whole Cape as family necessity may warrant).

Few of these tiny houses have running water or conventional plumbing; all are engagingly imaginative, and range from about 325 square feet down to a 5-square-foot school bus shelter. The mean is about 250 square feet, which would include Walker's own design for an appealingly angulated cottage in the woods.

A simple and literate book

``Tiny Houses'' is, if measurably smaller, as fascinatingly various as ``The Last Whole Earth Catalog''; it's as literately authoritative as the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Walker's text is a model of modesty, his architectural drawings are a joy to the eye; the design of the whole book will no doubt gain it some national award.

Even if one is left with no more than $28.12 (with which to match the cost of Thoreau's own cabin) after one buys this book, the most devoted Thoreauvian will find it a bargain.

Any of these tiny houses that one might choose to build (or to invent their own variations upon), is almost sure to prove, as Thoreau would have it, to have ``grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller.''

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