A designer of perfect homes no one can live in

Meet the backyard architect whose book shows off inventive micro-homes with eye-popping, comic-book-style art SLIDE SHOW

Topics: Books, Author Interviews, ,

A designer of perfect homes no one can live inAuthor Deek Diedricksen in his $100 disaster relief shelter, the "GottaGiddaWay." (Credit: Bruce Bettis/Reprinted with permission from Lyons Press)

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Photographs of tiny houses — like the ones Derek “Deek” Diedricksen regularly shares on his blog — tend to fascinate even those of us who might never be moved to try amateur carpentry ourselves. But open the new, expanded edition of Diedricksen’s book, “Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts, and Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here!” (out Feb. 1 from Lyons Press), and you’ll see this backyard architect’s inventive micro-homes through an entirely different, more exciting artistic lens.

Builders, be warned: This is not an instruction manual. Instead, Diedricksen’s book is bursting with abstract creative concepts, all outlined in eye-popping, full-page black-and-white comic-book-style drawings (you can see some examples — along with a number of photographs — in the slide show that accompanies this piece).

Over the phone, the author explained that, while small house fans shouldn’t necessarily look to him for step-by-step tutorials, his ideas (particularly his recycling tips) can be adapted in countless construction-related contexts. And you don’t have to be a tiny house fanatic to admire Diedricksen’s resourcefulness, or to wonder as you read — as the author himself wonders in his introduction — “how much space … you really, truly need to live well.”

This started out as a self-published project. How did it get picked up by a publisher?

I started selling the book out of my basement. Before that, I’d tried to get a children’s book published; I went through all the avenues, and spent a lot of money copying it and sending it out and all that, but it just never went anywhere. So I put this book together later, and hesitantly released it on my own, thinking that if anything it’d just be a gift for my brother or my father, or other like-minded people. I didn’t even pursue any publishers; I said, forget it — with the Internet and YouTube and all that, I’ll just try to push it on my own. And in a year and a half or so, I sold a couple thousand copies, just by word of mouth. There was a sort of snowball thing with the press; NPR was the first big media entity to cover [my work], and later I was covered by the New York Times and other organizations. That certainly helped move copies out of my basement.

Fast-forward a bit, and then, out of the blue, I had a couple of different publishers approach me. I never looked for any of them; they came to me. I already owned a ton of books from Lyons Press — they’ve done a lot of stuff with micro architecture, including many books that have influenced me — so choosing them was a no-brainer. I couldn’t even keep up with the book anymore anyway, so I [figured I'd] give it to someone else!

The illustrations really make this book stand out from other, similarly themed titles. You do have some experience as a comic book writer, right?

I used to do some comic strips. “Comic book writer” is kind of a misnomer; it was more just comic panels for a couple of Boston-area papers and magazines. I was one of those high school kids … I did well, but was always in the back of the classroom, never really paying attention, just doodling in my notebook the whole time. Eventually, I took that and tried to make it more constructive.

Why do you think tiny houses are so popular these days? Many people who probably wouldn’t ever build one for themselves seem to be fascinated — and there’s clearly a dedicated community devoted to actually making them.

I think there are a couple of reasons. One of them is the economy. With the job situation the way it is, there are a lot of people looking for ways to cut costs, and wondering: “Why do I necessarily need this gigantic house I’m working 80 hours a week to pay for, to heat, to furnish, to maintain?” Bigger houses require much more of all of that. And a lot of people think, “If I can build a smaller house (or even just find a smaller house) to live in, I’m saving myself a ton of money.” I was talking recently to someone who brought up an interesting point — that if you have a smaller house, you’re more or less not allowed to spend more money on junk, because you just don’t have the room for it.

But there’s a whole creative aspect of it, too; there’s a building faction of people who [want to break with the mainstream] in these days of automation and having everything done for you. I did a speaking thing at MIT, and was talking to some of the people there. I said, “Why do you want me out here? You guys are geniuses; I’m this idiot who builds with plywood and recycles garbage.” One of them said that these days, people don’t do as many things with their hands — so what I’m doing is very foreign to them. They were just curious.

Do you think more people come at this movement from the creative perspective? Or because of their political or economic beliefs?

I think it’s a mix of all of them. There are a lot of people out there — I’m one, too — who don’t like to be told what to do. I do have a “normal” house (on the very small side). But when we were shopping for houses, I thought, you know, I really wish I had some really cool homemade, organically built (not in terms of organic cotton, or this and that — more like “free-flowing”) [place].

If you look at books by Lloyd Kahn, for instance, they have all these houses with almost hobbit-shaped rounded walls; they just have a more natural, comfortable feel to them, instead of looking like white-walled boxes. Half the stuff I build, I really don’t draw many plans; I just go out there, have some lumber, sit there, think about it and start just piecing stuff together to see where it takes me.

It seems like many of the houses in your book couldn’t be — and aren’t even meant to be — full-time residences.

There are a few in there that could be, actually. But, I mean, this is true of my videos, too; there are some people who misunderstand it to a certain degree. With my videos, I build these really tiny things, and they say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous; there’s no bathroom or guest bedroom; you can’t live in those.” I tell them to keep in mind that I need to deliver one video a month … Just take the recycled material ideas from this and apply them to a bigger dwelling that you design yourself. I’m just trying to convey the ideas. I’m all for small houses; I’m trying to push that too. But with some of these, I need to explain: Don’t take it at face value; just take some of these ideas and run with them. You can take them and make a 300-square-foot, very livable house. But in two weeks, I can only build something that’s 100 square feet or smaller. I don’t have the time, the money or the yard space for anything else.

Readers should know that this book doesn’t offer step-by-step instructions.

There are definitely a lot of educational elements, especially with recycled materials and construction approaches. I think there’s actually a ton crammed into it — especially visually. I want people to open it and have half a heart attack from the visual avalanche of sketches. Someone compared it to a “Where’s Waldo?” book.

In terms of step-by-step stuff, one publisher approached me and said, “We love the book, but we want step-by-step instructions for every design, and materials lists.” I said that would take me 10 years to do, and the book would have to be 3,000 pages long — because there are something like 60 different cabins in my book. I’d rather throw out a bunch of different varied and eclectic ideas in a hundred-odd-page book. If you wanted full plans and materials lists, there’d probably be four or five cabins in there, and that’s it.

At the end of your introduction, you pose the question: “How much space do you really, truly, need to live well?” How would you answer that question yourself?

The answer’s different for each person. I live in a house in the 1,000-square-foot or so range, but there are four of us and a huge dog. A lot of people say I don’t live in a small house, but it’s about a third of the U.S. average, which is almost 2,500 square feet — and I have quite a bit of stuff. I feel we have quite a bit of space, considering. There are people who live out there in 200-square-foot houses — but keep in mind, they’re by themselves; it’s a single person. So if you do the math, it equates, more or less.

My problem is that I have a lot of hobbies. I own a couple of drum sets; I do some musician stuff and play in a couple of bands. I need some space to store that kind of junk. I keep joking that in my second life I should take up the kazoo or the harmonica. It’d be much more space-efficient.

There’s really no set answer for this question, unfortunately.

How about in the abstract?

I think people could live comfortably enough — two, three people or even four — in a house that’s 500 square feet or less. And that’s a house with laundry in it. (For most Americans, a house has to have a washing machine and a dishwasher; people forget you can go to a laundromat if you want.) Even if you do want to plug all that stuff in, it could be very doable.

A lot of what prevents houses of this size are the codes in certain regions, unfortunately. People feel smaller houses are going to detract from the value of neighboring houses in certain communities — which isn’t really true. There’s a whole political thing behind it, but I won’t bore you with that.

Finally, are there one or two houses from the book that you’d like to single out as the most fun or unusual?

The one that most people — even some real-deal architects — seem to like the most is the “Inverted A-Frame.” I’m a fan of the A-Frame style, based on those cabins that were built as second homes in the ’50s, ’60s and before — and so for the heck of it, I said, “What if you just took it and flipped it upside down? What would happen? Why not?” I had never seen it done before, so I did a sketch of that, and I’ve gotten a great response from that. A couple of people said they wanted to build it, but I haven’t heard from them since.

There’s another one that’s really simple — it’s called “The Pimple” or “The Terrapin,” and it’s a tiny houseboat. I think it’s just a fun sketch; it’s got a giant squid attacking the boat. That’s one I actually haven’t built, but I want to build it at some point in time, and chronicle traveling up some marsh or river somewhere in a mini-documentary. I’ve always wanted to do that.

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Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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