When Irmhild Liang, 82, began planning her relocation from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the San Francisco Bay Area, where two of her three children live, it brought up many questions. Where would she live? What sort of boundaries needed to be set? How could she be close to her children and their families, but also maintain her own privacy and independence?
The answer, it turned out, could be found in her youngest daughter’s backyard.
“We got the idea because there was this existing, shed-like structure with a bathroom in the backyard,” says Stefanie Liang Chung, 43. Stefanie and her husband had already been contemplating how to make use of the shed, so the decision to turn it into a tiny home came naturally. Luckily, they knew just the person to consult—Stefanie’s brother, Peter Liang, principal of the architecture firm Blue Truck Studio.
Peter proposed removing the shed entirely, as well as a deck which was occupying much of the backyard, and building a proper tiny house in the unused, lower portion of the yard. While he took the lead on the design, all members of the family gave feedback and contributed ideas, including a sister who lives in New York City.
The resulting 265-square-foot house sits tucked downslope behind the two-story residence that Stefanie and her husband share with their two young children, ages five and three, in Oakland. Peter, 47, lives nearby in San Francisco with his wife and two children. The family calls Irmhild’s home the Kleines Haus, which means “small house” in German, Irmhild’s first language.
Though the tiny home shares the lot with the main house, it is independent by design. “It’s intentional that you don’t really see the front house from Kleines Haus. It has an autonomy to it,” Peter says. It has its own entrance, which is accessible via a path at the side of the property that meets the street.
The house may be small, but it feels airy inside with tall ceilings, ample natural light coming through large windows, and clean design. The main living area has a Murphy bed, which Irmhild can fold up into the wall, a couch, a desk with her sewing machine, and a small table where she spends much of her time reading. In the kitchenette is a small fridge and induction cooktop.
Storage spaces abound, from cubbies in the wall to cabinets in the kitchen; there’s a closet tucked between the bed and bathroom. There is a place for everything to be put away. The bathroom, tidy and clad with white subway tiles, is surprisingly large with an ample shower area.
“Generally in the tiny house movement, you see a lot of spatial compromises for obvious reasons, but I think the trick is to find opportunities to make it feel more generous in some ways too. This contributes to the livability,” Peter says.
Although it took Irmhild a few years to warm up to the idea of a tiny home, once she moved in, she adapted to it quickly.
“First of all, I like that it’s my space,” she says. “I can let people come in, or I can send them back out.” When the kids come by to see if Grandma wants to play, it has the fun feeling of a visit.
Kleines Haus is not Blue Truck Studio’s only tiny house project. In recent years, many California municipalities with high costs of living have relaxed regulations to encourage accessory dwelling units. Peter is working on tiny homes for other clients who are figuring out their own intergenerational living situations.
“There are a lot of generic solutions for putting a box in your backyard that complies with the code,” he says. “What’s really magical about Kleines Haus and other tiny homes I’ve designed are the stories that contribute to their germination and their relevance. Who is going to live there? What sort of cultural factors influence the layout of the space or the proximity to the main house? It’s designing a structure around somebody—and that is a really enjoyable process.”
Irmhild has lived in her tiny home for about a year now and has settled into a routine. She spends much of her time in the tiny home and steps out to exercise at the gym, take a yoga class, or pick up groceries. In the evenings, she joins the family in the main house for dinner. After dinner, as Stefanie and her husband put the children to bed, Irmhild helps clean up the kitchen.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic, the entire family has been sheltering in place at home since mid-March. Everyone is seeing much more of each other, their usual routines upended. Though the Kleines Haus is just steps away on the same property, its autonomy makes it feel separate.
The change of scenery is very welcome, Stefanie says. Sometimes, she just needs to get away to create some space for herself. Similarly, the kids sometimes want to get away from their parents.
“It feels like a whole other house,” Stefanie says. “Psychologically, it’s helpful to have another spot for everyone to visit.”