by Kara G. Morrison – Nov. 3, 2011
Courtesy of The Arizona Republic

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Architect’s 425-square foot home shows style and design
[Editor’s Note: The world may need to evolve into smaller homes in the future. LRA Real Estate Group supports efficient and smart home purchases]

When Lila Cohen and Teina Manu started remodeling a falling-down guest casita on their downtown Phoenix lot, they were out to prove that two people could live in style in a house the size of some Scottsdale closets.

They also wanted to prove that through thrift and skill, the home could be finished for less than $5 per square foot.

Granted, this 425-square-foot labor of love took them three years of hard work to complete. But today, their teeny, tiny quilt of a home is a marvel of style, space planning and innovative materials.

The home will be featured on next weekend’s Architects’ Own Homes Tour, hosted by non-profit arts and humanities group Gnosis. (Ticket sales support student projects at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.) Gnosis executive director, Suzanne Johnson, calls Cohen and Manu’s home “a lovely little jewel box of good design.”

“This residence showcases that good design can be delivered on a shoestring budget, which is something many folks don’t realize,” Johnson adds.

Cohen, an architect who recently left a larger firm to start her own practice, concedes that Manu’s carpentry skills and her design know-how made it work affordably.

“You have to have the craftsmanship or it could turn bad very fast,” she says of their quiltlike approach, which involved repurposing dozens of found materials. “Every single piece is salvage.”

Manu, a designer-builder who creates custom furniture pieces, also wanted to make an eco-friendly statement, proving that people can live in luxury without using up all the resources that a sprawling home requires.

“Small and cheap to me is green,” he says.

Cohen admits most people would have torn down the tiny structure (they think it dates to about 1916) behind a larger bungalow (slated to be their work studio) on the property. Instead, they gutted it and found a way to make it as efficient as possible.

“It was improvisational design,” Cohen says, because they had to rely on incorporating salvaged items as they found them. “That’s really hard as an architect.”

First, to save space, every door in the house is a sliding one. And scale is key. Every thin, metal shelf, every piece of furniture, fits without overwhelming its area.

From inside the red Dutch front door, every room but the bathroom is visible, making the house feel open and airy.

After one steps inside, a sleek, steel breakfast bar opens into a full kitchen on the left, and to the right is the living room, complete with a large steel bookshelf, an electronic piano and a Barcelona chair and ottoman.

In this space, Manu and Cohen left the wooden trusses visible, making the ceilings a lofty 10½ feet high.

Finished ceilings in the rest of the house are 9 feet high, helping to define the other rooms and making them more formal.

The bedroom is behind the living room and can be closed off via two sliding screens and a sliding closet door that hides a surprisingly large space.

On the opposite end, behind the kitchen, is a bathroom that feels downright roomy.

Both here and in the kitchen, every tiny design detail was key.

Manu sank a bathtub 4-5 inches below the floor and crafted the basin from marble tile pieces. The skinny vanity top is made from an L-shaped piece of Corian, refabricated with slits that serve as towel racks.

A wall divider serves as both a privacy screen and shower wall between the tub and toilet, and a bamboo serving tray ($2 from Goodwill, Cohen says) was repurposed to create a shallow vessel sink.

In the kitchen, the couple sacrificed the convenience of a full-size range and refrigerator to create more room. Deep recessed shelves below the counter/sink provide plenty of kitchen storage, and plantation shutters were repurposed as cabinet doors.

Between the kitchen and the bathroom entrance, the couple splurged on a full-size, stackable Bosch washer and dryer (although they were a scratch-and-dent bargain at $700 for the pair) hidden behind a sliding closet door. And a small, vintage sewing-machine cabinet between the bedroom and living room serves as a tiny office. Above it, Manu used two colors of cork flooring to create an art wall/bulletin board.

In all, Cohen and Manu are proud of their project, which they call their “microhome.” They joke that the style is “shanty-town chic,” but the fusion of materials creates more of a vintage-inspired, industrial-chic, urban-cool space.

“We wanted to see if two humans could be happy in a space this little,” Cohen says. “Keeping it clean is actually hard, but it’s really kind of a joy. It’s so personal.

“You’re not yelling at each other from one side of the house to another.”