Cynthia Scanlan-Tipple is not architect-nor is she a carpenter or a mason-and she'll be the first to tell you so. She is just an artist with a vision; and she realized that vision with one of the most striking entries that the MIcrodwelling exhibit has seen in its three year history. A great example of "experimental architecture," Cynthia's rainbow blocks are hard to miss driving down Camelback Road.
Some have described it as a Rubik’s Cube, a Borg cube, or a life-sized LEGO house. Cynthia calls it her very own, and together with her team of family and friends who pitched in to help, she built her microdwelling literally from the ground up. When she started, she had zero experience building anything of this size, and now she’s already planning the next project that will utilize her patent-pending multicolored blocks.
The Permutative Light Cube on exhibit at Microdwelling 2015
While the process she uses to create her beautifully translucent building blocks is currently a trade secret, the feeling of accomplishment, empowerment, and freedom that came from creating her very own dwelling is not. Microdwelling USA’s mission is to spread knowledge, as well as create a support system and community, for people who want to try building their own dwelling for the first time. If you like building or making things in any way, Cynthia urges you to try building a microdwelling, because you can make a space truly and completely your own.
“What I’m trying to get across to people is it’s not ‘what you see is what you get,’” Cynthia says, stressing the customizable nature of a microdwelling. “People are always asking, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ and I say, ‘Anywhere you want it to be!’”
Microdwellers learn by doing, and are usually hooked after their first build.
If you have ever wondered what it’s like to build a microdwelling or tiny house from concept to construction, then you’re about to find out. And if you’re looking for some colorful building materials for an accent wall or column (or a whole house), well, you’re also in the right place. I sat down with Cynthia in her cozy little custom house of colors to learn about where the idea for her Permutative Light Cube came from and how she built it.
I know the idea for this microdwelling happened very organically, where you were just experimenting with making the blocks and then thought, “I should build something with these.”
Correct. The blocks are a combination of two existing products to make a unique one.
Structure under construction on the exhibit site
What got you started in actually building a structure with them?
I get asked this question a lot, and I’ve thought about how to answer it, and all I can say is: I want to build things. I want to make things, and build things, and make things that make people think; that make them consider what they could do. How would they personalize [a structure like this]? To get people thinking about what their personal sanctuary might be.
I think you’re bringing up a big theme behind the Microdwelling show, and what Patrick [McCue] wants the message of the show to be. To get people thinking about what they can build and accomplish if they just put their minds to it and start making things.
Absolutely. I’m not a builder, I have a psychology degree, I have no training in architecture and I figured it out.
You’re a very creative person. What else do you do?
Before this I worked as a disabled service adviser for a number of years. I have epilepsy, so it was something I was fairly good at; I can relate to people.
But after awhile it began to wear on me. You hear sad things all the time. Maybe it gets to you, I don’t know. But at one point my husband is like, “this job is killing you, I don’t know if it’s worth it,” but strangely enough, at the same time, I realized I had an extreme interest in architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright and this is just what came out of that. That’s the best way I can explain it. It’s like a need to do it. It’s not like there’s any backing up this train.
It wasn’t calculated; it just sort of came out naturally.
Yeah, it was not in any way contrived, other than that I was like, “wow, I could build an addition onto this house I might move into in Peoria,” and maybe that’s where it kind of started, but it’s an interesting question to me. I like to sew. I just like to make stuff with my hands.
I think a lot of people can relate to that.
What’s the plan for the structure after the show?
If somebody wants to buy the whole thing – great. If someone wants to buy individual blocks, that’s great. It’s going to have to be one or the other. But if that’s not the case, then I’ll put it in my storage unit and use it for my own purposes.
I’m sure the question you get the most is “How did you make the blocks?”
Yeah, I thought about doing an F.A.Q. on the side of the cube.
It’s the colors. I just did what would make me happy, and I’m glad other people are finding value in it.
Single block close-up
After you got the idea to build this structure out of the blocks, what was the first step in the construction? And maybe you could talk a little bit about the process you went through staking out the area and making sure all your blocks were level.
Well, the funny thing is that the building started with us getting all of our materials here, with all of the stuff we thought we’d need to build it, and Patrick comes on site and we’re like “we don’t really know what to do.”
So, he goes away for a little while and comes back and brings me some line and a level, and goes, “these are going to be your best friends.” And we just figured it out. I don’t know any other way to say it, other than trial and error.
When we were doing the foundation, which are concrete blocks, but you have to dig down and make sure the blocks are level so it’s all sitting straight, because if it wasn’t then the blocks on top will be skewed and the eye sees it immediately. It would look wonky.
We just figured it out. The people I have on my team are extremely ingenious and wanted to do it. They believed in it and that’s what really made it happen
How big is your team and how was it formed?
Just friends and family. My husband, my parents, our cousins Katie and John. We also had Jeremiah Boswell, John Coronato, and Michael Beller. I have awesome people who love me and I’m very lucky that we were all somewhat bright enough to figure this out.
Doug Tipple & Cynthia Scanlan-Tipple
How did you come up with the floor plan and the interior design?
I made a little model out of LEGO.
I wanted to put a kitchen and a bathroom in it, but this first structure is just for demonstrative purposes. A proof of concept.
Doug Tipple and Cynthia Scanlan-Tipple
When we started building the first wall, the sun was setting by the time we finished, and the sun shone through it. And it was shining all the colors from the blocks on the ground and the tree and I was like, “that’s awesome.” So, I didn’t want to put anything along the walls with the translucent blocks of color, so all the furniture got moved to the opposite wall and I made it comfy for myself.
Would you live in a microdwelling full-time?
Absolutely. Well, I don’t know how my husband feels about it. But, yeah, I’ve always liked small spaces and creating little comfort zones for myself, if you will. No matter where I live.
Without giving away any trade secrets, I know you’re already using reclaimed plastic to fill the cinder blocks. Have you experimented with any other types of material to fill the blocks?
I have not yet, and the only reason for that is I didn’t have the time. I’m open to suggestions if people have them, but the process that I used worked. I did what I could with what I had, because that’s what it came down to. Obviously I wanted to do every wall with the translucent blocks, but I couldn’t make enough blocks fast enough in time for the show.
They are actually fairly easy to manufacture very quickly.
What has the reaction been like from the visitors to your microdwelling and has it been the reaction you expected to get?
Yes and no. I didn’t think people would have such a hard time with seeing that this is just what I did with the blocks; they could do their own thing with them. And I try to explain to them, this is a little bit of a departure from the other microdwellings because it’s not exactly what you see is what you get. If you want [this exact structure], yes, I can do it, but I want people to have their own designs and use the blocks to make their own homes. Then they can say, “I did this.”
How far along are you with the business of being able to manufacture the blocks for clients, and how can interested people contact you to learn more?
Just through my email, firstname.lastname@example.org. If they want a whole structure I can discuss with them what that would cost in terms of materials and all that kind of stuff. If they just want to buy individual blocks, that’s fine too. Or if they want to buy a number of them to do an accent piece in their home, or an accent wall, or a column, or whatever they want to build with them.
I want people to understand that with these blocks it’s not just about building them into a structure. I have one that sits by my bed and has a little light behind it, I use it as a little nightlight.
I can also customize each block. For example, I made this one that I really like because I think it turned out really well. An architect came through from Taliesin and he built a solar calendar at the Student Structure Sites, so I made this block for him. It has insets of different colors within the block. It was great because his art inspired my art.
I made some with hearts for Valentine’s Day. There are so many ways we can decorate and fabricate these blocks.
What is the ballpark budget for a dwelling this size, using your blocks?
The materials, all together, around $6,000. And that’s just based on what we did. If you mortared it, I think it would be a lot less expensive. It just depends what materials people want to put into it and how big they want it.
Basically, we’re going to get to a point where we’re going to break it down where a square foot of block is this much. I haven’t got there yet, because this first building was really just built out of love.
I see some micro units going for around $30,000, so this is a lot cheaper. And for labor, if I had mortared it, it probably would have went up in like a day! But because we were just stacking blocks, it took a lot more time just to make sure everything was level and plumb…going column by column all the way around.
How many square feet did this structure end up occupying?
236 square feet. Originally I designed it as 16’ by 20’, as opposed to 16’ by 16’, but it didn’t seem necessary to make it that big. So, we cut it down to the 16’ by 16’.
Front porch and entry door in shadow as the sun sets
How do you think buildings like your microdwelling fit into the future of housing, based on your experience building it?
Well, based on my experience: First, I am not an architect. I’m just someone who wanted to build this. If I can do it, SERIOUSLY anyone can do it and probably do it one hundred times better than me!
Solar panels on the dwelling
I want people to be able to design their own home. That’s what I’m really trying to get across. They don’t have to be like, “OK, I have to buy this one because this is the one that we have in our area.” I want people to think outside of the box and say, “Why can’t I just do this myself?” That’s what I did.
I love all of the other microdwellings here at the Shemer, but this one represents me. I think that a house should represent what you want to come home to, and what you want to see, and what makes you comfortable. I want other people to realize that that’s what a home should be and own their own space. So they can make it their own no matter the size.