Fool-the-Mind Design

When I first decided to build a tiny home I searched for ready-to-purchase plans but didn’t find one that was ‘just right’ either as offered, or that could be easily modified for my site. So I decided on a custom designed house. Tiny homes these days (defined here as approximately 500 square feet or less) have become mainstream enough that there are numerous sources providing guidance on almost every aspect of the interior design. But there wasn’t anywhere, or anyone, I could turn to for design guidance when the house will be inside a greenhouse.* Which begs the question – are there elements of interior design that are different for a tiny house inside a greenhouse than for one outside a greenhouse?

Known vs. Unknown

Tiny homes are cozy by default. The challenge is to make the space both work and feel larger than their actual square footage. A tiny house can work larger than its size by incorporating as much storage as possible, having spaces do double duty, and reducing or eliminating hallways. But those techniques only go so far when each room is within sight, and often within reach, of each other. The bonus to the house within the greenhouse is it increases the usable ‘indoor’ space by ‘borrowing’ space from the greenhouse.

The additional challenge is to make the space feel larger than expected for the actual square footage. To do this, in addition to the common advice, I incorporated a couple psychological tricks that I’ll call ‘a sense of mystery’ and ‘long sight-lines.’ These take advantage of our brain’s tendency to extrapolate, like in the photo above, from the known to the unknown.

Sense of Mystery

Anyone who’s watched a suspenseful movie knows our imagination will fill in unseen details by extrapolating from our experience and what is seen. In the case of interior design, when we see, for example, an entrance to a kitchen but not the entire kitchen, our imagination fills in the space and details from our experience of ‘kitchen.’ And in much of the western world, especially the United States, where homes in the media and in reality have become super-sized, our imagination is likely to fill in the unseen with a larger space than is actually around the corner.

There are limited options to incorporate this sense of mystery in rectangular tiny homes. The most common ways are that the bathroom is unseen behind a closed door and/or a bedroom may be unseen upstairs in a loft. Despite my initial request to the architect for a rectangular foot print, this lack of mystery is one reason I gravitated to the irregular footprint.

This tease of what’s around the corner will be enjoyed from almost everywhere I’ll regularly sit or stand. Even better, from the livingroom I’ll be able to imagine the kitchen is clean!

With the house inside the greenhouse there’s the additional facet of mystery of what’s in the greenhouse ‘rooms’ just out of sight around the corner.

Long Sight-Lines

If you’re trying to make a small space feel more open and spacious, there are a handful of tricks that are listed in nearly every tiny home article or video; you can probably recite them in your sleep. Make a space feel larger by painting the walls a light color, by minimizing visual clutter, and by having high ceilings. One trick you won’t find mentioned is what I refer to as incorporating long sight-lines. The objective of this trick is to maximize the distance between an observer and an obstruction to the observer’s view. In other words, to give the observer the longest possible sight-line to allow the brain to perceive more volume within the enclosed space. This is where geometry comes in handy.

Geometry of a right-angle triangle tells us that in a square or rectangular space, the longest line between one corner and another corner is across the diagonal to the opposite corner. Applying that to sight-lines within the home, the longest view is diagonally across a space and even longer if the view goes through to the next room. Further, the observer doesn’t even need to be looking directly at whatever is across the diagonal; there doesn’t need to be something across the diagonal for the observer to engage or interact with. Just as we are aware of things in our peripheral vision, the observer’s brain will perceive that ‘extra’ space across the diagonal.

With this trick in mind I was always looking to maximize the diagonal view when designing the shape of the rooms, door and window size, and furniture and appliance placement. When the curtains and interior doors are closed the rooms will feel intimate and cozy. When the interior doors are open, I’ll be able to look into at least one other room from each spot where I’ll spend significant time sitting, standing, or laying.

With the curtains open, and especially the french doors open, the sight-lines lengthen to the greenhouse walls. My expectation is that, just like when standing inside a greenhouse the brain recognizes the translucent panels as boundaries that enclose the space, when inside my house looking out the double-doors the brain will perceive as ‘inside’ the entire distance to the greenhouse walls.

Borrow From the Outdoors

Another common design strategy for a tiny home to work larger than its size is to add outdoor living space such as a deck, or auxillary work space such as a shed. While outdoor living space helps alleviate being cooped up in a small space with the added benefit of getting closer to nature, unfortunately its use is limited by the weather. Here in the Pacific Northwest, rain limits outdoor dining to only a few summer months. Even a covered deck is usable for only about five or six months due to cold.

Inside the greenhouse my tiny home will not only visually borrow from the ‘outside’ to feel larger, it will actually borrow from the greenhouse for daily outdoor activities like gardening, swimming, and relaxing. Although my livingroom won’t be large enough to entertain more than a couple friends, the greenhouse provides room for a sizable group to gather together or in clusters.

In conclusion, by the end of the interior design process I’d say there are not different design elements for a tiny house inside a greenhouse but the greenhouse presents additional facets to the tiny home design elements.

*Naturhusvillan – Is the only design firm I could find with experience in greenhouse-sheltered homes but they are limited to Europe and their projects are substantially larger and more expensive than mine.

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