'MicroDwell' Celebrates Diminutive Digs

By  Stina Sieg
February 14, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
"MicroDwell 2014" features 14 dwellings, all less than 600 square feet. Above, architects Hunter Floyd (left) and Damon Wake work on what they call the Cinder Box.

This may come as a surprise in a place like Phoenix. In the world of housing, some people think smaller is better. A microdwelling is a miniature living or work space, a kind of antidote to a McMansion. Right now, the concept is being celebrated with a show at Phoenix’s Shemer Art Center. So, I decided to drop by few days before “MicroDwell 2014” opened to the public.

When I arrived at the grassy acres surrounding the center, Dan was installing windows across the front wall of a small, rectangular building. It is energy efficient, partly made of Styrofoam and coated in something that looks like cement. I asked Dwyer about the structure’s rounded corners, reminiscent of an old-school Airstream.

“We heard that looked way cool,” Dwyer said. “And then people said it looked like a beer cooler. I liked the ‘retro look’ better. That was a better description.”

And “tiny” might be even better. It is less than 200 square feet, which is about the norm for MicroDwell entries. More than a dozen bantam buildings have popped up on the Shemer’s grounds. In the words of exhibit founder Patrick McCue, the show honors “simple living.”

“Some of it is repurposed building,” McCue said. “Some is salvage. Some of it is ecology. Some of it is celebrating new technology. And all of that has a place in this micro movement.”

McCue is all about the salvage side. His entry is a pint-sized pizza joint made out of a 1920s steam shovel. (Picture a bulldozer-meets-oven situation.) McCue owns a fabrication business and likes seeing people take lofty concepts and actually construct them.

“You can feel there’s a little bit of a buzz going on, and you know, there’s a little bit of camaraderie between the builders,” McCue said. “People are borrowing tools and getting things done, a little stick or a piece of wood here and there. They’re trading places with each other, helping out.”    

I’ve got to admit, the last-minute flurry of nail pounding and painting was pretty vital, but that does not mean it was easy.

From the middle of his mini structure, architect Hunter Floyd showed off an unfinished office nook, loft bed and bookcase that doubles as a ladder. It has warm, wooden interior and burnt wood exterior. He and his collaborator, fellow architect Damon Wake, call it the Cinder Box.

But Floyd said you could also call it “a man cave, or woman cave.”

Or even a yoga studio. Or writer’s retreat. Floyd and Wake make their living designing spaces, but it is the first home they have ever actually built.

“So, we’ve learned a lot, and I think we’ve done pretty well for ourselves,” Floyd said. “Just don’t look too closely in a couple of little places.”

And was the construction harder than they expected?

“Everything is harder than you think,” Floyd responded.

“And takes significantly longer,” Wake chimed in.

Conquering the challenge of how to design and build small is a major part of this exhibit, but learning how to live small is something else entirely.

Architect Lynne Reynolds knows it. An experienced small-space dweller, she has lived in Paris and New York in less than 100 square feet. That makes her 200-square-foot design in Phoenix seem downright spacious.

“I think that we’ve all been led away from what we need, to believing that we need much more than we actually do,” she said, taking a break from her structure of wood and recycled signage.

Reynolds explained that when you live in close quarters, you cannot collect too much stuff. And if you live with another person, you have to make sure the two of you are really getting along. She feels that if you are going to be only a few feet away from someone every day, you want to pick that “someone” very carefully.

But Reynolds thinks the most substantial benefit of living smaller might simply be that it is cheaper. You do not have to work so hard just to pay for a roof over your head.

“There has to be a spiritual and an emotional advantage to not having that kind of pressure applied to your living and your choices – every single day,” Reynolds said, drawing out those last three words for emphasis. “It’s freeing.”

And you can see it in action in Phoenix, at least for the next few weeks.

MicroDwell 2014 has opening receptions this weekend, Feb. 15-16. It runs daily through March 23 at the Shemer, located at 5005 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix.