Earlier this month (March 8), the Toledo Museum of Art hosted a program featuring Jay Shafer, the founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and one of the proponents for the tiny homes movement. “Tiny” in this case means only a few hundred square feet, and most of the Tumbleweed designs are under 200 square feet. A newly constructed, 65-square-foot Tumbleweed house, mounted on a trailer and parked on the front steps of the Museum, is among the works presented in the Museum’s “Small Worlds” exhibition.
I attended this program, in part, at the invitation of a friend who lives in Toledo – because I am an architect, and I am working on the design of a small bunkhouse for their summer cottage in Ontario.
Architecture is about creating meaningful spaces and about communicating that meaning to the occupants and users of those spaces. For me, the Small Worlds exhibition triggered a series of thoughts about elements of physical culture in Ann Arbor and whether that culture is successfully serving its purpose in the city.
I’m going to wrap a lot into this notion of physical culture – from pedestrian amenities, to accessory dwelling units, to a phone booth. The phone booth is something I’m planning to add to the physical culture of my own workspace – at Workantile on Main Street in Ann Arbor. So that’s where I’ll start, with something tinier even than Jay Shafer’s 65-square-foot house.
Workantile, a co-working community at 118 S. Main St., is housed in a large, open office space in an old storefront where independent workers can work in the company of others, rather than in solitude. Chronicle editor Dave Askins and I are both members. On any given day, a handful to more than a couple dozen people might be at work throughout the space, all focusing on their own projects. And life in the 21st century means that people get phone calls and need to have conversations that they don’t necessarily want to share.
The open, unbroken space of Workantile, with its hardwood floors and exposed brick walls, makes it very acoustically “live.” The space can be very quiet even when there are a dozen people all working on their own projects, and the ring of a cell phone, or the subsequent talking, can carry through the space. A small “phone room” – a closet with a glass door – provides one bit of acoustic privacy.
If that space is taken, members have learned to use other nooks, such as the landing down the back steps, or a corner by the kitchenette, to avoid intruding on other members. But there are times on busy days when several people all need to talk on their phones at the same time, and there aren’t enough corners for everyone. So I am working on the design of an indoor phone booth.
Workantile members using their phones will have some additional privacy for their conversations, and other members will have less of a noise distraction.
The phone booth will be a tiny place, more a piece of furniture than a room, and it won’t even include the amenity that phone booths have traditionally offered – a phone.
Instead, it will indicate through its physical attributes that it’s the place you go to use your phone. It’ll look like a phone booth, and the sides will be transparent, so when Workantile members use it, it’ll be clear what they’re doing in there – using their phones.
The current “phone closet” already offers the functionality that the phone booth will. But for a visitor or a new member, the intended use of the phone closet is not self-evident. It looks and feels like a very tiny office, with a door like any other door in the Workantile. You can’t see what people are doing in there. We could put a sign next to it to identify it as a place for phone calls. But that would not convey as clearly and as intuitively, even from 40 feet away, a basic fact about the Workantile community: The phone booth is a good place to take phone calls, and generally we try to be considerate of other people working.
Once it’s built, new members won’t have to ask where they can go to have a phone conversation. The physical form of the phone booth will serve to define and reinforce the intended activity. And it will do that with less confusion and conflict between different users who are sharing a single space.
Most Ann Arborites are not Workantile members, so they do not need to worry about how to share indoor space cooperatively by using their phones in the right places. But outdoors, we share space with each other throughout the city – as phone users, pedestrians and motorists.
I recently had a near encounter with a young woman (likely a student, given her apparent age and proximity to campus) who, while talking on her phone, walked out in front of my vehicle in the middle of a block, emerging from between two parked cars. She crossed the street with the seeming certainty that the law gave her the right to cross wherever was most convenient. There are those who think that a new city ordinance gives pedestrians carte blanche (and that the city’s laws take precedence over the laws of physics).
Many of the pedestrian/vehicle crossings in Ann Arbor offer little beyond some road paint, and a tiny local law sign in some instances. These don’t do a particularly good job of encouraging pedestrians to cross at particular points, nor do they help manage the interaction between pedestrian and vehicle. Establishing ordinance language coupled with enforcement does not necessarily encourage the main behavior we’d like to see motorists and pedestrians display: caution. Instead it encourages people to think in terms of “rights.”
What we have, then, are crossings where pedestrians have a legal right-of-way, but little more than crosswalk markings and signage to distinguish the point. Pedestrians (if they want to be safe) must still play a waiting game to see if traffic will slow stop before they can venture into a cross walk. Motorists must estimate whether someone standing in the general vicinity of a crosswalk intends to cross, or perhaps is merely waiting for a bus at an immediately adjacent bus stop.
As more motorists conform to the requirement that they yield to pedestrians, other motorists are confronted more frequently with stopped or slowing vehicles ahead of them. A stopped or slowing vehicle by itself is sometimes not a sufficient cue to an inattentive following motorist – and that can result in a rear-end collision. I’ve seen the aftermath of at least one such incident like this along Plymouth Road.
Changes to physical culture that go beyond road paint and signs can convey meaning to pedestrians and motorists alike – and provide additional cues that their behavior needs to accomodate a special circumstance. Take for example Ann Arbor’s relatively new HAWK pedestrian crossing signal and the very new rapid flashing beacons. The HAWK has been installed along Huron Avenue just west of downtown, and the rapid flashing beacons have been installed at crosswalks along Plymouth Road and at Seventh & Washington.
Such signals invite pedestrians to do something more than just stand there – they’re meant to press a button to activate the signal. And the signals provide an unambiguous indication to motorists of a pedestrian’s intent. The flashing lights provide an additional cue to following motorists, to alert them to a possibly slowing or stopped car ahead.
However, meaning-laden physical infrastructure need not take the form of signalization. An example of a simple, meaningful infrastructural element – that conveys the same message as a blinking yellow light or a sign that reads “SLOW” – can be found in a residential street in Bloomington, Ind. (pointed out to me in a conversation with Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan). On South Lincoln Street where it crosses Dodds Street, the curbs are bumped out into the roadway on both sides.
Motorists and bicyclists need to exercise added caution to navigate through the narrower space. And a pedestrian who’s crossing Lincoln Street can venture into the roadway by the width of the bump-out, to get a clear view of traffic that might be approaching. It’s also clearer to oncoming motorists what the intention of such a pedestrian might be. The bump-outs also reduce the width of roadway that pedestrians must cross – reducing their potential risk of being struck by a car.
Of course you don’t have to travel to southern Indiana to see bump-outs. They’re also a part of the Fifth and Division streetscape improvements that were undertaken in downtown Ann Arbor over the past year.
The bump-outs are consistent with an idea that’s been tried in several European cities – completely removing signage and signals.
The distinct lack of all traffic signs conveys meaning – that everyone needs to proceed with care and be fully aware of their surroundings; no traffic light or street sign will tell you what to do or who has right of way. In these cases, drivers have to adapt and be more considerate of other drivers and pedestrians.
Everyone using the space, drivers and pedestrians alike, have equal rights. They pay attention to what is going on around them. They also work more cooperatively, because everyone instinctively understands that two people or vehicles can’t occupy the same space at the same time. People who are given no external cues at all tend to work together to get through each encounter with a minimum of disruption to all. And the rate of accidents and of injuries to pedestrians has been reduced where this approach has been tried.
As Matthias Schulz notes in writing about cities without traffic controls, “Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.”
It was the use of physical limits on space, and the extreme example of Jay Shafer’s tiny houses, that first got me thinking about physical culture. The initial drive to create a tiny house came from Shafer’s belief in a lifestyle that does not require a large number of possessions. The tiny house movement may just be a counterpoint to the inflation in house sizes that has occurred over the last half century. Instead of pushing to add space to a house because, “we’ve got too much stuff,” opting for a tiny house is a choice that requires more materially-limited living.
It would be possible to attempt a simpler lifestyle living in an average-size house. But one of Shafer’s tiny houses creates a physical limitation on the occupant that enforces a simple lifestyle requiring only a few physical possessions. It is much easier to live a life with just a few possessions if your home offers only 65 instead of 2,700 square feet. That latter figure was the average-sized American new home in 2009 – more than 40 times the size of the XS Tumbleweed house.
Shafer doesn’t try to satisfy all possible needs within a small house. Instead, he believes in living in the larger community. The town becomes your living room, with all of its amenities to choose from; the local restaurants serve as part of your kitchen, which help supplement the lone hotplate in a Tumbleweed house.
Legal Limits on Space
If living in a tiny house means living in the larger community, part of that includes putting your tiny house on some land somewhere in the physical space of that larger community. Most communities have laws that govern how land may or may not be used – zoning laws. Zoning laws define, among other things, what kinds of buildings may or may not be built on a particular piece of property, and where a building can or cannot sit on the property.
When Shafer lived in Iowa, where he built the first model of the tiny house, he originally had it on a piece of property six miles outside of town. But he wanted to reduce his travel distance into town, to align better with a lifestyle of reduced material consumption. When he went about moving his house into town, he found that the house was smaller than the minimum allowable building size. What he wound up doing was buying the cheapest house in town and moving his tiny house into the back yard of that lot. He then lived in his tiny house while he rented out the “main” house to others.
Of course, Ann Arbor has done its own dance around the issue of tiny houses. That’s taken the form of a conversation about whether to allow the construction of an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or so-called “granny flat,” a detached building, usually just a one-bedroom apartment, on the same lot with a house. ADUs might be a bit larger than the Tumbleweed tiny houses, but they’re still generally no more than a few hundred square feet.
Although the city of Ann Arbor planning commission has looked at the issue of accessory dwelling units several times over the last decade or so, the matter has never been brought before the city council for consideration. That’s because it has been a focus of vocal opposition from some quarters.
Currently, the only kind of “accessory apartments” allowed in Ann Arbor are those that are attached to the principal dwelling and are less than 600 square feet. Additional requirements include: The principal dwelling must be owner-occupied, and the occupant of the accessory apartment must be a relative of the owner. The special exception use for accessory apartments has been sought only twice since it was added to the zoning regulations for residential properties in the 1980s.
A Tumbleweed tiny house parked in an Ann Arbor backyard could not meet the conditions of the special exception accessory apartment use. But as a detached accessory dwelling unit, a tiny house, whether a trailer-mounted Tumbleweed house or a site-specific small accessory building, could offer great benefit to those who would like to have a family member live on the premises, but not necessarily under the same roof – such as an elderly parent or a teenager who needs a bit more private space.
And a tiny house could offer an older homeowner the option of having a tenant who could also help with some chores as part of a rental agreement. But that arrangement would also fail to meet the current standards of a special exception accessory apartment use.
Allowing detached ADUs on appropriately-sized lots with less strict conditions on occupancy arrangements would provide immediate benefits to property owners. And it would permit an incremental increase in total population density over time. Even if such an ordinance revision were to be approved by the city council, it would likely take a number of years before many homeowners added such buildings to their property.
Using the physical environment to express a rule and to enforce a concept is nothing new. We’re familiar with the idea that keeping people off the grass is more effectively achieved with a security fence, not just a sign that reads “Keep Off the Grass.”
But security fences aren’t necessarily pretty. A border of flower beds might just as effectively keep people from trampling on a lawn. As we think about building a physical environment that helps shape our interactions, I think it’s worth focusing on making those physical elements attractive as well as functional. Too often, a design gets focused on serving just one function or achieving one goal, and it may accomplish that end adequately, but it’s not terribly attractive.
HAWK signals and rapid flashing beacons are examples of a functional way that physical infrastructure can help support the goals of a pedestrian-friendly city. But they are not things of beauty.
It’s not hard to imagine a more attractive way to manage the interface between cars and pedestrians, even though I’m not a traffic engineer and have no expertise in designing aesthetically-pleasing traffic infrastructure. But I do know something about designing indoor spaces for people to inhabit, even if it’s just for the brief time required to take a phone call. I’m hoping to complete the first version of the phone booth in a couple of months.
If you’d like to see it in person, stand outside the door at 118 S. Main and peer inside. For a member of the Workantile community, your standing there will convey meaning. And someone will likely come open the door for you.
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