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They're Not Much, but Their Owners Dwell on Them

July 22, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Here's a man who could have left his stamp on the skyline. Mega-story towers, soaring office buildings--they were within his reach.

But architect Lester Walker abandoned these possibilities to follow yet another aspect of the American Dream: the love of small, simple things.

"I started finding these little tiny houses," he said. The first one was hidden in a cranny along the Maine coast. There seemed to Walker to be no way the builder, an 80-year-old woman, could have toted her hammer and saw to the site over slippery rocks and treacherous cliffs.

"But there it was," said Walker, 47, "a tiny little gable-roofed cabin no larger than 8 feet by 10 feet, built entirely of tar paper and driftwood."

That tiny house led to others. Walker, a resident of Woodstock, N.Y., put them all together in his new book, "Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All" (Overlook Press: $19.95).

Among the 40 diminutive abodes in the book are a San Francisco earthquake-refugee shack, and a Space-Age dwelling module from the pages of Popular Science magazine. There is George Bernard Shaw's writing hut, constructed around a central steel pole so that the whole thing could be picked up and rotated to follow the path of the sun.

There are ice-fishing shanties in Minnesota, wind-scarred sand-dune huts in Cape Cod, and, of course, the author pays homage to Henry Thoreau's cabin on

Walden Pond, built in 1845 for $28.12. It is Thoreau, after all, who has influenced scores of Americans to appreciate simplicity and practicality, the very values Walker espouses.

"You have to edit your life to live in a small space," Walker said. "Edit out the stuff you don't need, until everything has its place and every room becomes like a piece of sculpture."

Behind each tiny house in the book is the story of an owner who, like Walker, made the decision to scale down instead of up.

One such homeowner, Mary Carrabba, 64, said: "I just believe that having enough is wonderful and having too much is not worth the effort."

Carrabba, a retired schoolteacher, spent her youth in an older neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, where the standard residence was a sprawling two- or three-story home with a surplus of closets and bedrooms.

Carrabba's decision to dwell in a tiny house originally stemmed from economics. Unmarried, she believed that she could not afford to own her own home unless she built it herself. It was cheaper--and easier, for a first-time carpenter--to build a small place.

At 900 square feet, Carrabba's first small house, where she still lives in Spokane, Wash., didn't qualify for "Tiny Houses"--Walker limited his finds to 325 square feet.

Walker does include Carrabba's second home, her mountain retreat built completely by hand without power tools. The compact house, he wrote, "is a remarkable exhibition of human perseverance, imagination and dreams."

When he was a boy, Walker built a little palace of scrap wood and discarded furnace parts next door to his parents' Pittsburgh home. His folks made him tear the eyesore down, but the mold was set.

By the time Walker was in the eighth grade, he knew he was going to be an architect. He later did, indeed, become a big-time architect in New York City. In 1969, the first year his firm was in business, it won Progressive Architecture magazine's First Design Award. The following year it won the City Club of New York's Bard Award for the best interior in New York City. There would be more awards, more recognition, but after five years of this, Walker became disillusioned. There were too many agencies and committees mucking up his work.

Walker wanted to return to being master of his creations. That meant whittling down the blueprints. Ever since the first manned space flight in 1961, Walker has been interested in "perfectly designed tiny living spaces."

After escaping from New York City to Woodstock, he lived for a while in a 300-square-foot cabin with no indoor plumbing. Then he got together enough money to build his own little house of 675 square feet. Today, Walker, who recently won House Beautiful's competition for Best Small House, lives with his wife and two sons in a house he built himself. At 1,000 square feet, it's small enough that the family occasionally grumbles over lack of space.

Walker, the author of "American Shelter" and "Housebuilding for Children," among other books, began to encourage his clients that small can be beautiful: "All you need is a bed and maybe a place to write, and if you want to throw in a kitchen . . . ."

For those who buy this philosophy, "Tiny Houses" will serve as a guide to building your own little house. Included are floor plans and construction diagrams. Because they are small and simple, the residences should be within the means of most readers, Walker said.

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