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Efficient and Durable Little House with a Touch of Zen

Guest Post by Michael Mckenna

Zen House… I often hear that term about my little houses; breathe out, open your eyes, feel that feeling…Peace, soft edges, captivating small views of an otherwise big picture, a house that fits the land, and you, and, ahhhhh, tells you, you are home. Not modern, but not old-fashioned.  I think my houses sum up what most of us are looking for: to be comfortable in our skin. I am a great fan of Christopher Alexander and his book, Pattern Language.

He reminds us to think of the smallest detail: where to put the light switch, what is the most comfortable height for the kitchen counter, details that eventually make my houses as unique, as comfortable, and as “just right” as your favorite slippers. Pictured is Josefina’s House, a minimalist Artist, who gathers inspiration from nature and transforms it into large art forms for public places. She lives and makes art in a 600 square foot house.

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Small Zen Small Home on a Foundation

Plaster Tiny House in Texas

Living Room in Small Home

I am a stonemason by trade, and I chose to build a Styrofoam core house, a house that is extremely well-insulated: its 4” thick insulation is rated at R7 per inch, so R28 on 4”. I plaster 2” of concrete over wire mesh on each side, making a sturdy, resilient house. With a coat of paint periodically, this house is virtually maintenance free. No CFC off gassing, quiet, draft free. I felt the huge energy savings over its lifetime would dwarf the energy used to make the Styrofoam.

Kitchen in Small/Tiny Home

The technology I am using was first developed in Italy 60 years ago and has stood the test of time.

Hand-fabricated from the hand-rubbed plaster to the custom-built cabinets, the house looks, and feels – and is – organic.

Nicely Tiled Bathroom in Small House

Thanks for reminding me about the bedroom, Carrie!

Tiny Zen House View of Bedroom, Living and Kitchen Efficient Small House

I also offer an easy-to-build kit for this house, for the adventurous plasterers!

The average kit price:

FOB Laredo, Texas is $25,000 USD.


  1. http://simplechoicefarm.com/

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Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Kat
    May 26, 2012, 10:32 am

    AWESOME!! Totally LOVE the open, natural, and, yes, Zen feel of the place! I could soooo be comfortable and happy in a place like this. . . Those cabinets are terrific – love the glass fronts! And the shower is just what I have been wanting – big enough to move in! The construction method seems wonderful – I would like to learn more about it! I am wondering if it would work in a mountain region such as eastern TN or northern GA? Thanks. . . ~Kat

    • May 26, 2012, 12:46 pm

      Hey Kat I’d like to know if it’d work in other regions too.. I’d imagine it would work even in a wet climate like Florida but not 100% sure so maybe Michael will stop by later and answer our concerns. Thanks!

      • Michael Mckenna
        May 26, 2012, 10:45 pm

        Hi everyone,first let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comments,and taking the time to look at my Zen home..Alex you are one hardworking guy..and I love the news letters.

        The houses have a tar/felt based roof system the same construction as a shingle only 36″ strips wide and the length of the house, The roof can be pitched from the centre of the house up to 6″ the rain water would flow to both ends of the house. I have not done any engineering for snow loads,to date.

        I use a revent system for the stoves, it would be easy to plumb a 4″ vent pipe up the wall to the roof if desired.

        Organic, i live the life on my organic farm, I think organic to me means the life, the fit the feel my houses are hand made the plaster is hand rubbed we weld the front window and doors build the cabinets, its all about..hands.. that to me means “Organic” to feel this soft comfort the homes exude.

        Again thank you for your kind comments..they are very much appreciated

        • June 7, 2012, 1:41 pm

          Thank you so much Michael it’s an honor to feature your homes here. I hope we can show everyone one of your others again soon. I totally understand what you mean by organic and we all appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us.

        • Mary Charest
          March 19, 2016, 2:32 pm

          I heard you are not selling kits anymore BUT I would love a floorplan for the two zen homes, esp zen one. I want to build rental properties that will cover my retirement. I know it will cost about 25,000 to build and that will be perfect if all goes well. It will be in a desert settint (Terlingua/Study Butte, Texas) Please respond to me, if the plans are in a book, i’ll pay for it. Please respond asap. Thank you. Mary

  • Charlie
    May 26, 2012, 11:38 am

    Very nice indeed. However, I don’t see an obvious vent over the kitchen stove. Is that a problem or I am just missing it.

    • May 26, 2012, 12:43 pm

      Good call.. I think it has a fan but it’s not vented through the roof. My apartment is this way and works fine but it’s probably better vented of course. At least there’s a nice big window nearby 🙂

      • Mary Charest
        March 19, 2016, 2:36 pm

        Alex I gave been reading the posts — do you have the plans for both Zen buildings — I sure would love to have the plans. If you wrote a book with the plans in it for the Zen’s — please notify me asap. Thanks — Mary

  • Stacey
    May 26, 2012, 11:41 am

    I agree with Kat. This house is gorgeous.
    To me it looks like it should be in the high desert near Santa Fe – which is why I think I love it so much. So aesthetically pleasing. Everything about it is designed well and you’d never guess it was only 600 feet. You have everything you need – and then some. When can I move in?

    • May 26, 2012, 12:42 pm

      Thanks Stacey I’m really glad you liked it. I agree it seems like it has a larger “look & feel” than just 600 square feet. Very well done!

  • Alejandro
    May 26, 2012, 12:39 pm

    Love the overall idea, I just question the use of the word “organic”, especially as an adjective, in describing a house made out of styrofoam. They seem pretty antithetical to me. Or am I missing something here?…

    • May 26, 2012, 12:41 pm

      Definitely an over-used word along with “green”.. This example doesn’t bother me as much as when I see it on every cleaning product, meat, food, etc but can’t let that drive you crazy right? haha Thanks for your comment Alejandro I def see what you’re saying.

  • carrie adams
    May 26, 2012, 1:39 pm

    Clean tidy lovely……..Would like more pics..perhaps of sleeping quarters.

    • May 26, 2012, 3:47 pm

      I’ll see if I can dig up a photo of the bedroom, I think there might have been one that sort of shows it. Thanks Carrie! 😀

    • May 26, 2012, 3:51 pm

      Found it! Hit the ‘refresh’ button on your browser and you should be able to see it. If that doesn’t work clear your ‘cache’ then come back. 🙂

  • Mark
    May 26, 2012, 5:28 pm

    I can see a stove vent hood was this photo added later? I’m wondering what roof waterproffing system you used. I once saw Bob Vila doing a flat roofed remodel in Tucson, and they used a superinsulating spray on roof system.
    Very tidy abode–I give it 2 thumbs up!

  • SteveR
    May 26, 2012, 5:44 pm

    “The technology I am using was first developed in Italy 60 years ago and has stood the test of time.”

    Give it another 300 years and then I might believe that statement. Does anyone know what happens to styrofoam long term?

    The result does seem to have a nice feel, but I am not a big fan of a totally open plan like that.
    However, construction method, design and layout are all different things. It may be an organic design but it is not an organic construction method.

  • Lisa
    May 27, 2012, 12:21 am

    Is this process of buileding similar to ICF?

    Thank you,

  • Michael Mckenna
    May 27, 2012, 8:31 am

    ICF is to use the styrofoam as a method to form concrete[concrete in the centre of the wall]
    The system I use is the opposite the styrofoam is in the centre of the wall it is steel wire reinforced and covered with 2″ concrete plaster on both sides,so the styrofoam has no exposure to the elements.

  • Robbie
    June 22, 2012, 5:03 pm

    Very nice indeed, I’d be interested in what you came up with for the snow loads, and how do you think it would stand up to a Montana winter? Again very nice

  • Jonell
    January 24, 2014, 12:00 pm

    I love the look of this house. And I too wonder about snow loads and if this house would hold up in the Pacific Northwest area. Also would love to see a floorplan when houses are shown as I can visualize a house better when I see a floor plan. Thanks so much for sharing all of these wonderful houses.

    • Alex Pino
      January 25, 2014, 9:49 am

      Thanks Jonell I’ll definitely work on sharing more floor plans!

  • Jennie K
    January 24, 2014, 1:42 pm

    Nice light coming in from those large windows. Pretty exterior. Not fond of the repeating square patterns, that would bother me 🙂

  • January 24, 2014, 5:34 pm

    This is just lovely! You did a great job. I have a question about the French doors – are critters (mice, snakes, scorpions) able get in with the space I see beneath the door on the left?

    • Alex Pino
      January 25, 2014, 9:49 am

      Oooh, I hope not ! 😀

  • Michael
    January 24, 2014, 6:17 pm

    Michael, great house, love it. What does the kit include, how much space is needed for shipping and what needs to done on site with estimated material costs?

  • Michael
    January 24, 2014, 6:18 pm

    just forgot to be notified.

  • Thea
    January 31, 2020, 12:38 am

    Love this house. I have been looking for a smaller home(600-950 ft.) for retirement. Would like to see a community of houses like this for older people who are trying to downsize.

  • Thea
    January 31, 2020, 9:27 am

    Thank you for the Reno article. $285,000???? That is about the price of my current 4 BR, 2.5 bath house. The median income in the US is around $65,000. There is so much potential in the idea of smaller, more efficient homes replacing the MacMansion and giving more people the opportunity to own their home.

  • Tera Lynn Mestuzzi
    September 26, 2020, 5:42 pm

    Is Michael still available to contact! I would love to buy the floorplans and see if he has any advice for a first time home builder!

  • Rebecca
    July 13, 2021, 12:50 pm

    After working very hard for so many years, in my 50s now, am looking to downsize and manage work part time for a while to rest and spend more time painting, on a peaceful piece of land. I live in about 620sq feet right now and it has been difficult to find small open floorplans that would work in the desert where I am poking around for land. I am trying to live even more simply, money will be tight but I am careful, this looks like something I could afford to build. This zen place is just perfect.

    If the plans for this ever become available I would love to know. If anyone knows of any similar plans that could be made this way, or with adobe, do post.

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