Monthly Archives: December 2011

Review: Nano House

I recently picked up a copy of Phyllis Richardson’s book NANO HOUSE (Thames & Hudson). Looking for some creative inspiration for my project, I figured there would be several great examples to borrow from, and as it turned out there certainly are.

The book breaks categorizes the projects by the following chapters:

1. Built Compact Houses
2. Small and Mobile
3. Micro-Retreats
4. Big Ideas for Low Energy
5. Big Ideas Multiplied

The projects discussed range from 65 sq ft (“Soe Ker Tie Houses”, TYIN Tegnestue Architects) to 732 sq ft (“A Forest for a Moon Dazzler”, Benjamin Garcia Saxe). The projects use various materials including: concrete, reclaimed wood, bamboo, fibre-reinforced gypsum board, hand-crafted polyester, and aluminum finishes. The location of the projects span worldwide and the designs overall seem to compliment the sites in which they are placed. One project in particular, “Casa XS” (BAK Arquitectos) uses a minimal amount of materials that are cohesive with its surroundings, while designing a form that is both interesting and efficiently spaced.

The 2 most important chapters in this book are chapter 4, “Big Ideas for Low Energy” and chapter 5, “Big Ideas Multiplied”. Both of these chapters capture the true message behind micro-homes, and that is:

1. Less is more in relation to energy efficiency
2. Good and smart design should be multiplied

One could certainly argue with either of these points, however if you really believe in energy efficiency you cannot deny how inefficient and wasteful large homes are. The projects presented in chapter 4 integrate passive solar, thermal mass and solar power, and these systems are much more efficient in a home that has a smaller footprint. In chapter 4 several projects from previous Solar Decathlons are discussed. I recommend researching these projects if you have any interest in low energy consumption in homes. Chapter 5 discusses projects that are designed to be multiplied whether through a pod system or in mass pre-fabrication. The “Half-a-House” project (Elemental Chile Architects) is 194 sq ft unit that would ultimately be part of a public housing unit. The houses are built with pre-fabricated techniques and designed so that it can be repeated multiple times. The difference is that the Architects designed with the following principle: “…..humane in purpose, appearance and scale”. All under 200 sq ft!

One thing that can be said about this book is that there is no shortage of photographs of each project. I would have liked to see more plans and sections, but perhaps that’s because I was using this book for ideas. The only criticism that I have, and I see this with other design books, is that I see too many renderings and less actual built structures. I do understand that these designs are a work in progress or have been pulled from design competitions, but as a reader who is interested in designing and building a micro-home, I would like to reference finished projects.

Overall I recommend this book if you are thinking about designing and building a micro-home, studio, or office space. The information inside is very helpful and the projects might be the answer to any of your design problems.

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Technique: Concrete Basics

What is concrete made of?

1. Aggregate: sand + gravel
2. Portland cement: Lime, silicon, aluminum, iron, + gypsum
3. Water: *the weight of the water should be no more than 60% the weight of the cement

What is the ideal temperature for mixing/pouring concrete?

It is ideal to mix + pour concrete in a 70-60 degree range, but this is not always possible so a rule of thumb is to not mix + pour if the temperature of the concrete will fall below 50 degrees. Likewise, if the temperature is too hot it can cause the water to evaporate from the mix. Since I will be pouring my concrete in a Mid-East winter climate I shouldn’t encounter any issues.

What is a slump test?

A slump test is method of testing the durability and consistency of concrete. A mix is poured in a cone-like form and then allowed to sit; the mix is then checked for 3 different types of states: collapse, shear, and true. A true slump is desired over the other 2 conditions. I won’t be performing a slump test since I am only pouring 4 spread footers, but I will make sure that the mix is at the correct ratio.

What force does concrete work well under?

Concrete works best under compression; however it performs poorly with tensile forces. Since concrete is such a dense material it can be compressed with a large amount of weight, this is why it is a great choice foundations. If concrete experiences tensile forces it will fail quicker because the material does not want to be stressed in that manner. In fact concrete’s tension strength is less than 10% of its compression strength.

Is there a more sustainable option for concrete?

Concrete by nature is a fairly sustainable product due to its ingredients and low impact on the environment, post-construction. There are also sustainable alternatives for the standard concrete mix:

• Fly Ash
• Slag Cement
• Silica Fume

These materials are industrial by-products that can be substituted for the other additives, and act as great pozzolans (cementitious additives). Fly Ash is a by-product of coal plants and is added to the concrete mix, mainly in replace of the Portland cement. Slag Cement is a by-product of iron blasting furnaces, and claims to reduce embodied carbon dioxide emissions by 59%. Silica Fume is a by-product of the production of silicon metals and ferrosilicon alloys. I hope to be using fly ash concrete for the foundation footers.

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Design Part I: Foundation

This post is the first of a four part series covering design of the micro-studio. Below is a diagram showing the four parts of the design:

*This diagram is a simplistic assembly of the micro-studio, but it is not the design itself.

As with any construction the building starts with a foundation. After some research and site analysis, I decided to go with an “at grade spread footing”. By using this type of a foundation I avoid having to dig below the ground (or at least no lower than 6”) and I do not have to pour a foundation wall. Since the micro-studio will only be 56 square feet and technically one story, this foundation type will more than suffice structurally.
The form that I will be using to pour the spread footer is a Square Foot form, manufactured by Sound Footings LLC. The dimension of the footer that I will be using is 22” x 16.6” (56cm x 42cm).

This is the form. As you can see the form “spreads” out, similar to a pyramid. The top has a round form for putting sonotube on top for a deeper foundation. Since my foundation will be at grade I will just cut the top portion off and then pour into the base of the form.

The metal connection on the left is a Simpson Adjustable Post Base (ABA44Z). This will connect to the top of the spread footer and secure the 4×4 beams under the subfloor construction. The bolt on the right is a 12” L x ½” diameter anchor bolt, which is required for securing the post base to the surface of the spread footer. When I pour the concrete into the form I will set the anchor bolt in the top, but I will cover the construction of the foundation during the building phase. For now I am just covering the type of foundation and the products that will be used.
Below is how the spread footers will be laid out for the 7’ x 8’ footprint.

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Project: Building An Affordable Desk

The state of my previous work space was crowded and unusable. The space acts as a tool room, bike room, and general miscellaneous room, and it’s only 6’w x 8’d x 9’h. This also happens to be the exact dimensions of the micro-studio, and that got me thinking: why not use the room as my test space? It’s perfect because it allows me to visualize how the space can be used efficiently and what the space will be like to work in. So the first I thing I decided to do was organize the space, then build a desk for the work that I will be doing for the micro-studio.

The goal was to build a desk from scratch. Here is what I needed the table to have:

• Designed so that it could be taken apart and reassembled multiple times
• Built with high enough so that I could store stuff under the desk
• Built long enough so that I could lay large roll-out documents on the surface (i.e. plans)
• Durable
• DIY and affordable

That was pretty all I needed the desk to have. After looking into some ideas online I decided that the sawhorse desk had potential. The only thing I didn’t like about the sawhorse desk designs that I saw were that the sawhorses themselves didn’t look very functional in case I actually wanted to use them. But this was an easy fix if I was building it myself.


(2) Sawhorse Brackets: $13.94
• (5) 2x4x8: $12.25
• (1) 72”x 24” ¾” Pine board: $25.00 (your choice)
• (1) 1.5”x 8’x ¾” Pine Finish Piece: 4.96
• (1) Can of Zinsser Low VOC Shellac: $12.96 (optional)
(4) Joist Hangers, for 2×4’s: $3.84

Total: $72.95

Tools Needed:

• Circular Saw
• Drill
• Decking or Drywall Screws
• Tape Measure + Pencil
• Paint Brush
• Level
• Sander

The Frame:

1. I cut all of my 2×4’s to the desired length:

• (8) Legs: 42”
• (2) Top-supports: 24”
• (2) Mid-supports: 59”

I cut the legs for the desk at 42″ because I happen to have a 32” high bar stool that will work great for the desk, and this also gives me the option to stand at the desk when I get tired of sitting.

2. Fit the legs into the brackets, screw them in place.

3. Clamp the top supports in the brackets, screw them in place.

4. Measure the distance between the top supports, this is where you will be placing the joist hangers for the mid-supports.
5. Screw the joist hangers in place (make sure they are aligned with each other).

6. Place the mid-supports into the hangers

The Surface:
*The pine board that I purchased was 72” which was about 6” longer than I needed, so I trimmed the 6” off.
1. Measure the finished 1.5”x 8’x ¾” edge to the top surface. My piece was 72”- 6” or 66”. Then cut.
2. Glue the edge and finish nail it to the front of the top surface.
3. Sand the surface of your desk top. The pine that I was using was already had a smooth finish so I just used a 220 grit on both sides.
4. Apply as many coats of the Zinsser Low VOC shellac. This will give the surface of your desk a protective coating. I applied 4 coats and may apply more at a later time. Whatever type of wood you use remember that if you choose to use the shellac it will give the wood an amber finish.
Below you can see the finished product:

• I keep my tools in a work chest that fits perfectly under the table and actually acts as a foot rest.
• The books are sitting on a piece of Mahogany that I had left over from a project which makes a great elevated shelf.

The next post will begin the design process.

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Website of the Week

Recently I was doing some research on simplifying techniques and downsizing, and I came across a great blog that discusses just that. “Living a Simple Life: Rethinking Voluntary Complexity” is a site that aims to inform their readers on how to eliminate much of extraneous complications that often times we add to our already complicated lives. Check this site out, cause if you’re like me you’ll appreciate their approach to living a simpler life.

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