Cruise-ship cabins inspire design for small houses

The Vancouver Sun, September 19, 2011

‘Mi-Pads’ incorporate elements such as built-in bunk beds and wooden lockers

When pondering how to construct smaller homes that young adults and renters could afford, homebuilder Tom Hignite turned his attention from the land to the sea. Cruise ships, to be exact.

He studied how the essentials of living were shoehorned into a small space in cruise-ship cabins, then figured out ways to incorporate some elements – such as built-in bunk beds and wooden lockers instead of closets – into a house containing a little more than 1,000 square feet. The result is what Hignite, owner of Miracle Homes, calls the “Mi-Pad” – a home with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and a fireplace for as little as $89,000.

“They’re contemporary in look,” Hignite said. “They are little bit more in size than a garage. But they’re extraordinarily compact, using cruiseship technology and cruise-ship design architecture to create cabins instead of bedrooms.

Some of the bedrooms are six feet by nine feet and they sleep two.”

While a far cry from the roomy McMansions that sprang up during the U.S. housing bub-ble of the last decade, Hignite’s houses pack lots of amenities in a small space. One model includes a 10-foot-by-12-foot attic play loft for children.

Master bedrooms are shaped to handle queen-size beds. High ceilings help to blunt the smallness of the homes, which, facing the road, are only 26.5 feet wide. Patios are out the back door.

Although construction of houses the size of the Mi-Pad was common during the 1950s in Milwaukee and many suburbs, houses got bigger in the years that followed.

Now, such huge homes have become harder to sell in a weak U.S. housing market and atmosphere of high unemployment and wide-scale foreclosures.

The final cost of a Mi-Pad varies depending on what’s included and where the lot is located.

One model can be developed to have five bedrooms, Hignite said.

“These are targeted at renters. There’s a one-car attached garage,” Hignite said.

“They are meant for people who have a no-car garage right now,” he quipped.

“There’s a large marketplace in rentals that could segue into this for the same cost as rent.”

Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, said Hignite may be on to something.

“It sounds like he might fill a niche,” Ruzicka said.

Ruzicka said construction of such small homes presents a “back to the future” scenario because small homes were built en masse in the post-Second World War era.

They could be an alternative by offering an all-new product instead of a foreclosed property that may need repairs, he said.

Houses selling for less than $100,000 often are foreclosed properties that need a lot of work.

“We kind of looked at repo prices and decided to create a product line that would compete with that sort of repo price area of $90,000 to $150,000 – and get you a new home,” Hignite said.

Because of the Mi-Pad’s small size, he said, “they work well on urban lots” as well.

“There are little pockets around that allow it,” he said.

Hignite has been known among southeastern Wisconsin homebuilders for sometimes quirky innovations.

Previous high-end models have included a movie theatre and themed children’s bedrooms, for example.

Hignite made headlines six years ago when he hired almost a dozen laid-off animation artists from Walt Disney Co. to create Miracle Studios, which intended to make TV commercials and a feature film starring his company’s mascot, Miracle Mouse.

The studio at his Richfield, Wis., headquarters has shrunk to “one or two” artists, Hignite said, but there still are plans to produce the movie.

“Of course our main business is still homebuilding, and everybody has a passion beyond their main passion or job,” Hignite said.

The Mi-Pad houses on Gates Street in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin – which include extra features and finished spaces beyond the base-price models – are the only two in existence so far, Hignite said.

He wants to see if they catch on before building any more on speculation.

“It’s a launch, and we’re looking to see whether the public will accept it, because there haven’t been 1,000square-foot houses built in many years,” he said.