Design begins with a dream

Some of you might have noticed, although shifts in society seem to happen so slow they are hard to notice, that housing has become not only a low to no income issue, it has hit the middle income. It is actually identified as a crisis in most major cities in the US. The shameful housing crash of 2008 should have guided us to a course correction in housing and not just in lending. But it didn’t, not really. Builders continue to churn out cheap mass housing, cities continue to allow speculation on land that drives up premium real estate in amenity-rich neighborhoods, and houses remain big as do mortgages. The lenders and the builders make money, the people go into debt and begin to dream about being free from all the stuff and the mortgage they had thought necessary for happiness. Stuff and a big mortgage are necessary for the lenders’ and builders’ happiness. Meanwhile the people dream about doing work that is satisfying not just providing a paycheck, they dream about freedom to travel and learn and experience and live the life they choose. The dream shows up on blogs and travel diaries and YouTube videos. And the dream has shown up in tiny houses and ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Unit – second small houses on a single family lot). Places where the owner is in charge to make the sort of house they want to live in and to support the life they want to be in.

I have been dreaming about small houses. I am one of those hundreds of thousands who has lived in a city I love for decades while the real estate industry crept in with its speculative for-profit goals, eroding so much of the original fabric and shooting up land value and property taxes. The uber-rich are buying up all the good stuff, but I don’t want to sell my good stuff and fade quietly into the setting sun. I want to fan the dream of a vibrant community and small houses for intentional simple living. I want what the Boomers want, I want what the Millennials want, I want what the wealthy think they have and what those with little know they have. I want to live my one wild and precious life with intention, every day not just on weekends or while on holiday. I want to cast off all the things that society (read capitalism) has deemed necessary for a good life. No, I will not refinance in order to get that new car; or pull out a credit card for the must-have new shoes. Sorry merchants, you will have to make your fortunes on some other back. I will continue to reject cheap goods over human or environmental rights to wellbeing. It is time the housing industry took a tumble toward the people. I have been dreaming about small houses and everything they foretell.

My adventure to realize this dream begins as all good design does, by unearthing what exists. By listening. Beside my house in one of Boulder’s most sought after neighborhoods (I was here before it was deemed so and when the houses were mostly 800 square feet) stands what used to be a two-car garage. In the 1980’s I converted the unused garage into my architecture studio.

26 years later, the world has changed and that 480 square feet should have a higher purpose. It is heading toward becoming a small house. And it will get there by very unconventional means… I will not demolish nor will I build as big as I am allowed. I will reuse and reconfigure to create a remarkable small house that will go forth and tip housing toward people and the world we want to inhabit.

I emptied the studio except for a few vital pieces. There are the lamps I made from the Mylar I had drafted projects onto; there is the tufted faux leather minimalist sofa acquired on Craigslist for $60; and there is the skinny oak table eighteen feet long reclaimed when CU’s art school moved and they were tipping all the furniture into the dumpster. These pieces, all reclaimed from a former life, sit confidently in the space, knowing that in my studio things do not get thrown away. Good design is like that.

I lay on the cool concrete floor and dream, empty feels so very very good.



The alessi 9091 kettle designed by Richard Sapper is beyond beautiful… it sings, it shines, it boils water and it gets better with age…

Launched by Italian brand Alessi in 1982, the kettle features two whistles, each tuned to a different note, so that a harmony is produced when water in the kettle boils. Richard Sapper was a German designer and the story goes that Black forest craftsmen used a small pipe (pitch pipe) to tune musical instruments as the pipes produced the perfect note. Sapper took this lead and designed the small pitch pipes into the kettle whistle that is made from gold plated brass.

I purchased my 9091 kettle shortly after they were released in 1982. I love a cup of hot steamy tea – even in the summer. There is something transcending about immersing my senses into a just filled hot cup. Being an architect, I also love beautiful things.

In the thirty plus years of use, the first thing to vanish – about a decade in – was the little rubber grip on the spout pull. I was told by the house sitter that “it just popped off”, never to be seen again. OK. So I got used to using a potholder to pull the spout. Then the plastic handle cover slowly started to melt away at the bottom, like a Dali painting. I tried to clean it up but eventually a majority of the plastic was just gone and one day it was down to bare metal. Definitely had to use the pot holder now. On a recent birthday, my husband announced that he was going to refurbish the kettle and replace the parts that had been lost in time. I was having nothing to do with that. The kettle had come into its own. Like a great old building, it was losing unessential parts and becoming more of its essence. I loved the patina and clean lines. I believe the kettle has purposefully discarded everything that did not serve and is aging with elegance.  Good design is like that.