Aesthetics—the study of why people find some things more beautiful than other things--is an endlessly fascinating inquiry, and it’s the very air that architects breathe. But when it comes to small things, including small houses, the cognitive mechanism involved is pretty simple: We like them because they’re cute.
Architect, green blogger, and Katrina Cottage designer Steve Mouzon calls this phenomenon the Teddy Bear Principle.
Public response to the first Katrina Cottages was so strong that it shocked me. I was one of a dozen or so New Urbanists who manned the Katrina Cottage at the International Builders Show in January 2006. People were falling all over themselves to express how much they loved the little cottage. Later prototypes got the same response. For over a year, I was at a loss to explain why so many people acted the way they did about this little cottage.
I finally realized that it was the Teddy Bear Principle at work. When you make a house substantially smaller, not everything shrinks equally. The windows, for example, can only get so small before they fail to meet building codes. Windows are the eyes of a building, and so windows proportioned larger to the face of the building take on the same infant proportions as cubs, babies, fawns, puppies, and kittens.
It all goes back to mammalian evolution. Caring for our young conferred a selective advantage, so we developed an innate soft spot for their big-eyed, cutie-pie faces. The funny thing is, we apply that same aesthetic template to all sorts of things that are not our children, including Mini Coopers, Apple computers, and small houses. As a result, just as cuteness confers survival advantage on young mammals, it may also help small houses gain traction in the marketplace.
This is important because when we build smaller and smarter, all sorts of virtuous cycles kick in to help us build more frugally. Cross ventilation and daylighting, for example, come naturally in tiny buildings that are only one room deep, whereas they require increasing doses of cleverness as the building gets larger. Compound frugal patterns like these with the fact that you're conditioning a lot less space, and you're saving even more.
The great thing about the Teddy Bear Principle is that if you know about it, you don't have to sell the idea of building smaller and smarter on cost savings alone. If you follow Teddy Bear Principle rules of proportion, then your designs will be much more lovable as well.