Tiny Tuesday: Ten Principles of Tiny House Design

Dieter Rams is an industrial designer. His designs include the Universal Shelving System (which inspired The Container Store’s elfa system and many others) and consumer products for the company Braun (which influenced the look and functionality of Apple). But Rams is best known for his Ten Principles of Good Design, which transcend far beyond industrial products and even apply to tiny houses. Here they are.

1. Good design is innovative. Builders today have more options than they did 50 years ago. They can choose chemical-free wood products and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. They can make beds disappear in a dozen ways to free up space for other activities in the daytime. A person building or renovating a house should consider all modern technologies and make decisions that reflect their values.

2. Good design makes a product useful. Above all, a house needs to provide shelter. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.” Beware the pitfall of valuing aesthetics over basic function.

3. Good design is aesthetic. Humans crave a sense of home, and the appearance of a house influences that sense. For some, an apartment or a manufactured home doesn’t provide that satisfaction; hence the interest in small but standalone tiny houses.

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Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams.

4. Good design makes a product understandable. It should be easy to find the lightswitch and to adjust the heat. Spaces for dining, working, and sleeping should be obvious, even if they overlap.

5. Good design is unobtrusive. If the house is in a neighborhood, it should look like the houses around it. Building out of scale or in a different style guarantees the ire of neighbors.

6. Good design is honest. Houses tend to hide a lot from view: the structural lumber, the pipes and electrical cables, the insulation. The occupant expects a house to be well-built and safe. The post-Katrina FEMA trailers are an example of dishonest design because formaldehyde off-gassing made so many residents ill.

7. Good design is long-lasting. The building should not cut corners on material selection and construction quality. A house should also meet relevant building codes and mitigate natural hazards like floods and landslides. Proper siting and skillful construction help a house to achieve these ends.

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Braun clock radio by Dieter Rams.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Do rooflines shed rain and snow away from entryways? Does the kitchen have a comfortable work triangle? Are all utilities and storage spaces easily accessible? A great house doesn’t spare the details of comfortable living for the sake of some larger vision.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly. The materials used should have minimal embodied energy, and the house should require minimal energy input to maintain adequate light and temperature levels.

10. Good design is as little design as possible. Unused spaces mean higher construction costs, higher energy bills, and more cleaning. The best house is the one that contains everything you need… and nothing you don’t.

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