The Rise of the Micro House
A Small but Important Solution to Affordable Housing
By Rob Minearo

The Ikea furniture company recently announced that it was planning to revamp its U.S. stores in the next few years because Americans are starting to change their buying habits. Ikea reported that American consumers, particularly the millennials, are buying less. Ikea attributes this change in buying habits to “a nation that is buried in too much materialism.” The new Ikea stores will be smaller and with higher-end designs fortunately, they plan to keep the Swedish meatballs.

The buying trends of highly-educated millennials can be attributed to overwhelming student loan debt, stagnating wages, a higher awareness of social and political issues such as climate change and garbage accumulation around the world, and a higher cost of living than their baby-boomer parents. “Too much stuff” has become a mantra.

Whatever the reason, the trend to a more streamlined living environment has fueled the rise of the micro-house in America, particularly in the startup hot spots growing across the United States. Micro-living is taking hold in San Francisco, with cooperative housing being built offering 300 square-foot apartments.

Elizabeth Herrmann Architecture + Design is at the apex of small and micro house innovation in Vermont. Elizabeth was awarded the Peers’ Choice Award by the American Institute of Architecture for her Little Black House design. She recently completed a building project for a micro-house in Huntington, Vermont that has received much praise and interest by developers.

Elizabeth is not a Vermont native, but, like many who move to the Green Mountain State, she brings an energy and vitality and a love for the area. Elizabeth was born in Connecticut; her family then moved to Pennsylvania. She graduated from Cornell University’s School of Architecture, briefly lived in Chicago, and then moved to San Francisco, where she met her husband Jacob Tropp. After a few years in San Francisco, they moved to Minnesota where Jacob attended graduate school. A few years later, they moved to South Africa, where Jacob continued his graduate work and Elizabeth worked in architecture.

After Jacob received his doctorate degree in African history, they searched for opportunities in academia. Jacob found a position at Middlebury College and they settled in Bristol, a short drive from the college.

Middlebury College is a world-class institution that offers cultural and educational events to the community. The College has a brilliant art museum and the Hirschfield International Film Series that previews independent movies—major motion pictures have been viewed here before market release, with directors and producers looking for feedback from the audience.

Close to both skiing and Lake Champlain, Middlebury and Bristol are an ideal living environment for those who yearn for a smaller town experience but want to have access to both outdoor and intellectual pursuits, like Elizabeth and her husband. They have found a home and a community in Bristol and Middlebury, although they had to adjust to rural living after so long in big cities.

Before she started her architecture company, Elizabeth did work for other firms in northern Vermont. Working for others opened up opportunities and contacts in networking, clients, suppliers and builders. She highly advises anyone who moves to Vermont from a large city or different part of the U.S to get a feel for the Vermont environment in a local company or organization first before striking out on their own.

Elizabeth took a traditional approach to building her architectural business in her small town. She got involved with the town building committee and has gotten to know her community, especially through her children’s school. Most of her work is now word-of-mouth. The benefit of working in a small Vermont town is that you know all your neighbors.

Bristol has a good mix of community, with native Vermonters and new additions from out of state. People get along with each other, and the town has embraced the idea that bringing in new blood will develop new opportunities for Bristol—especially people like Elizabeth and her husband, because with all their travels and experiences they bring a unique diversity of views and understanding to the community.

As an architect, Elizabeth is in a good position and doesn’t need a lot of equipment or employees to start up a business. She started her company off small and built it incrementally without acquiring debt or need for state assistance. While there are grants and funding supports to start businesses from the local and state Vermont government, she was able to establish her company without dealing with the heavy paperwork of funding.

Elizabeth collaborates with the Efficiency Vermont Excellence Network. Efficiency Vermont partners with clients wanting to build or renovate a house, helping them take part in available incentives to make homes energy efficient. The Network initially worked with just builders, and now is working with architects.

Efficiency Vermont vets architects for clients who want to work with an architect who is dedicated to building energy efficient housing. They also offer builders and architects free energy efficiency services. Vermont is a leader in green building in the United States; not only architects but builders and construction companies focus on energy efficiency.

Elizabeth’s primary background in architecture is commercial work. She feels her ideas, that grew during her tenure working as an architect in San Francisco, Minnesota, and South Africa, are different from mainstream architecture. When she first put out her shingle, she started to do small, detailed residential work. She has found that there are many highly-skilled craftspeople in Vermont doing creative and innovative work.

Recently, an artist approached Elizabeth with a significant project that was initially rejected by other architects, because they felt that the client’s vision and budget did not match. The client had an ambitious goal of creating a beautiful, tiny, energy-efficient house on a tight budget.

The project had all the ingredients of a good challenge, as well as many aspects of residential architecture she’d been eager to combine in a single dwelling. Elizabeth jumped at the opportunity.
Elizabeth was particularly interested in creating a high-performance micro house that, as she says, “took the discussion to the next level” and didn’t appear to be driven just by size and performance. Rather, she wanted to design a home that was first and foremost a lovely place to be, with all the variety and interest of a much larger home. It had to feel spacious despite its size—a mere 430 finished square feet plus loft—and never feel like a claustrophobic box.

The plan was simple: bathroom with a tub, sleeping area, kitchen, clothing and household storage, dining table that doubles as a work table, living space that doubles as guest sleeping, and a sleeping loft.

The plan includes a full basement to store additional items, mechanical equipment and laundry machines so that the upstairs wouldn’t be cluttered. A hatch door that camouflages to blend with the floor opens easily for basement access.

The living level is designed so that each of the different areas of use has a definition and a sense of place without being static or confining, and the house can comfortably accommodate visitors.

Windows have a wood, shadow-lined surround, a subtle detail to punctuate the openings without detracting from the view. The framed views of the beautiful Vermont landscape help define interior spaces and give each room a distinctive focus with plenty of daylight and ventilation. The primary view at the heart of the house is of Camel’s Hump, a famous Green Mountain landmark.

The intimacy of space calls for a level of finish that can stand up to scrutiny and heavy use, and, similar to a boat, the house has a designated place for everything to maximize space and keep the interior spare and neat. It was important that the house, despite its micro size, contain those important transitional spaces that give one a sense of privacy, arrival, or simply a change in scale appropriate to use.

For example, the bathroom does not open directly onto the living space but is approached through the built-in storage area. A corner was subtracted from the house footprint to form a welcoming front porch while also helping to shape the sleeping area on the inside, and the roof shape slopes so that the more private and intimate spaces, the bath and sleeping area, are contained under the lower part of the slope.

The materials are kept simple and light in hue to make the interior feel fluid and spacious. Local maple floors cut in short lengths and laid perpendicular to the view give the floor a shimmering, water-like texture that makes it feel expansive and tranquil. 

Custom cabinets are white for the kitchen, birch plywood with expressed edges for wall storage and the built-in daybed. The countertop and a bath ledge are white concrete.

Outside, the house is a kind of shapeshifter. A cedar rain screen milled for a shadow line, light gray-stained, wraps the house. The corners at opposite ends—one subtracted to form the porch, the other extended to form the loft—creates a playful sense of movement and interplay with people and landscape. A bright yellow door adds a pop of color in a pure geometric shape.

It is an unpredictable house but is also the logical and whimsical expression of its contents, its function, and views.

Working on the micro-house has opened Elizabeth’s eyes to the downsizing trend in the United States, particularly in Vermont. People are looking for a simpler life and living environments. She has had a considerable amount of positive feedback on the micro-house project.

Elizabeth has been working on similar projects and has lately partnered with Vermod Homes, a company that started after Hurricane Irene moved through Vermont, building affordable prefab houses to help with the rebuilding after the hurricane. They specialize in zero-energy modular homes.

Elizabeth sees a need for professionals to purchase small prefab housing at a reasonable price. She has been asked about the potential for micro houses: Is the micro-house scalable?; Can a community be built up around the micro-house design?; Is there potential to pre-fab the design?

Small houses and micro housing are taking root in towns around Vermont. The fourth annual Tiny House Fest Vermont is coming up this summer in Brattleboro, which features a pop-up tiny house village of more than 30 micro houses.  

Elizabeth Hermann is looking forward to working with developers to take micro houses to the next level of building.

Elizabeth Herrmann Architecture + Design
Elizabeth Herrmann, AIA
29 North Street
Bristol, VT 05443
(802) 453-6401

Efficiency Vermont
128 Lakeside Avenue, Suite 401
Burlington, VT 05401
(888) 921-5990

Vermod Homes
Steve Davis, Owner
PO Box 566
Wilder, VT 05088
(802) 295-0042
Tiny House Fest Vermont
29 Flat Street
Brattleboro, Vermont 05301