Nano Homes by Architect Clara da Cruz Almeida

Architect Clara da Cruz Almeida was trying to come up with practical advice for a recent intern – a former student who’d moved back home after graduating and was now effectively camping in his mother’s garage, using public transport to make his way to a new job in plush, triple-A-grade offices. The disconnect between the two spaces rankled. “I told him he had to invest in property before buying a car,” says Clara, adding that a car would only lose money. But when they started looking at available options, Clara quickly realised that purchasing freehold land would be completely beyond his budget. Determined that he should still be able to “start small, with top-of-the-range facilities” – and not have to compromise on aesthetics or design – she proposed a more novel solution: what if he could purchase just a house, and negotiate for a lease on land?

Clara’s idea was to create a pre-fabricated, compact housing module – one that could stand alone, or integrate with other units, fit into a backyard or the side space of an existing house and, on its own, be bonded (mortgaged) in the same way as conventional property. “You bring the house, someone else provides the land, you sign an agreement and then you can build up your savings until you’re able to buy your own property, or you simply move the house when you’re ready to move. It can be your site office during construction, or it could become a beach house. Or the land-owner could buy the house from you and use it for rental accommodation.”

The first requirement was that the finished product would be something her former intern – who inspired the idea, but didn’t see it until it was completed – could afford. “That’s why we called it at first,” she says, “a House for a Young Graduate. Although I thought there’d be many other people who would want it: a woman who wants to run her psychoanalysis business from outside her house; people who take on lodgers, or who run backpackers’ accommodation.”

The specifications of the design were determined by three factors: firstly, the “minimal space you need to live; the space you really need for things”; secondly, the size of the boards used to finish the inside of the unit – by using their existing dimensions as a guide, Clara was able to minimise waste; and, finally, logistical limitations (the unit had to be easily transportable).

On a visit to Stockholm, Clara met a landscape architect who’d converted a cupboard space into a toilet – as with many older homes, indoor plumbing was a relatively recent luxury – and the design (perfectly) served a family of four. “I measured it, made a plan… and I’ve wanted to use that plan since forever,” she says. She also looked at Japanese approaches to living in extremely small spaces. “They have very flexible rooms,” says Clara. “It comes from the sliding wall system: what can be a lounge to one person can be a bedroom to another. In a tiny house, every space should have dual usage – if not triple!”

The Pod-Idladla therefore has “spaces, not rooms. You could use the task room to store clothes or keep your sports equipment. You could have an upstairs study if you don’t want to sleep on the mezzanine.”

Even the shower is integrated – into the passage space. “Is it logical that a facility you use once a day, for five minutes, should have a room to itself?” asks Clara. The area’s fitted with the kind of duckboarding used on boats so that the timber gets “humid after showering, but not wet”.

The rest of the materials – wood, steel and, in future iterations, also light steel – were selected based on local availability, while minimising waste and construction time. “The idea was to use materials that can be completed in a factory, reducing time spent on-site, which allows the owner to be more precise and fixed with costs,” says Clara. The interior of the pod is veneered in plywood, removing the need to paint, while the timber-clad exterior can, with proper treatment and maintenance, “last for over 100 years”.

For the interior design and fittings, Clara approached Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo of design company Dokter and Misses. “I loved their spirit, their minimalism and their use of materials,” she says, describing the duo’s work as “kind of industrial, but with a humorous quality”.

With limited floor space, storage solutions were applied vertically: Dokter and Misses installed a plywood box system that could easily be moved between spaces, using universal brackets. Light fittings were modified to be similarly transferrable – hung from sockets or hooks and plugged in at the wall. Because the cables were no longer hidden, Adriaan and Katy elected to make them even more visible in beautiful, bright orange.

“Moving things around lets you customise the way you live,” says Katy. “Because it’s such a small space, you really have to customise it to your own specifications. You also don’t have the luxury of saying: ‘This is an office and it’s always an office.’ Sometimes it’s a laundry; sometimes it’s a spare room…”

The furniture, too, was developed with a dual purpose. The dining room table can be used fully extended as a sideboard or a coffee table. The foam couch can be folded into a cube-like ottoman, a lounge chair or, pushed together with another unit, transformed into a small mattress or full-sized couch. “It’s a pretty basic thing,” says Adriaan. “The proportions make it work – it’s big enough for one person, but it also folds up and stores neatly against a wall.”

The graphic “scribble” pattern on the couch was commissioned from textile designer Nicole Levenberg. “Because it’s a small space, you don’t want any one thing to be too loud,” says Adriaan. “But a bold black and white pattern offsets the clean white space and is quite forgiving. This is something that needs to be moved around a lot and must look just as good on one side as the other.”

The key, says Katy, was ensuring that dual purpose also meant ease of use. “I don’t want to sit with something that does 10 million things, but means I have to do a lot of work to use those things. If a product takes too much effort to change, you’ll just leave it the same all the time. You have to make sure you actually want to use an item in all the ways it’s designed for.”

For Clara, the next challenge – aside from a slight redesign to the ladder which, she says, is “a bit wobbly” – is to finalise local production and look at ways of making the pod more thermally responsive, so that it’s adaptable to different climatic zones. “None of the skin, as we have it at the moment, is using a thermal mass material,” she says, but adds that there are several ways of coping with that – through installing water tanks, or having a rock bed below the base; or, in other conditions, working with extra screens above specific aspects of the unit.

The underlying idea, however, is not to spend all one’s time at home, but to “live smaller, spend less
money and go out more often”.

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