This Is What Happens When Top Architects Design Doll Houses

A U.K. group commissioned 20 world-renowned designers and architects to imagine spaces for disabled kids–on a small scale.


A 750mm square plinth is a pretty feeble plot of land for a house-building project. It’s a good thing the clients were pint-sized because that’s all the room architects were given by U.K.-based regeneration property developers, Cathedral Group, who recently commissioned 20 architects and designers to create whimsical dolls’ houses to raise money for KIDS, a U.K. charity for disabled children. Other than miniscule proportions the only design requirement was the integration of a unique feature to make life easier for a disabled child.


Cathedral’s project was inspired by the dolls’ house Edwin Lutyens designed for The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1922: in his nod to innovation he used a traditional dolls’ house to illustrate his vision for the future of architecture and interior design. Luckily for KIDS, Cathedral’s architects have been equally innovative–an Elvis-inspired treehouse, crab claws folded inside a paper theater, and a slightly treacherous Danish playground are just a few of the unique building designs. The tiny houses are slated for auction on November 11, 2013 at Bonhams, London and Cathedral have pledged to raise £100,000 for the children’s charity.

Many of the houses are collaborations between British agencies and artists–Zaha Hadid, ShedKM, Guy Hollaway, Amanda Levete, FAT, in collaboration with Grayson Perry and Chris Ofili to name drop a couple–but some Americans came out to play in the form of RAAD’s architects, better known in the U.S. for their adventurous LowLine design, the sub-street-level version of NYC’s elevated park system, The High Line. We caught up with a few of the architects involved in the dolls’ house project to talk about their design inspiration and how they’ve integrated disability-provision into their tiny houses.

The Grimm House: RAAD, in collaboration with artist Lara Apponyi

RAAD’s James Ramsey came late to the tea party: his agency was invited to participate one week before models were due. Creating a tactile version of an illustrated fairytale was the core of Ramsey’s design. “The experience of reading an unnerving Grimm’s tale late at night by yourself is so central to so many childhoods,” Ramsey says. “We thought it would be amazing to share that strange sensation with children without sight. The MDF and plaster structure is covered in a film of embossed paper where Ramsey’s punched a braille rendition of Hansel and Gretal onto the surface and if you dig around you’ll find some creepy bones hiding inside the structure. The Grimm House is a blank canvas by design, he says. “We asked, ‘how can we create an object that is not meant to be seen? How can we communicate the sensations of an illustrated fairy tale book, simply by engaging the finger tips.’”

Haptic House: Dexter Moren Associates


The Haptic Houses’s series of boxed rooms, treated with different interiors, colors and sensors and stacked on a mirrored base, creates an illusion of height, Dexter Moren Associates’ Christopher Leonard says. “Unlike conventional doll house designs the 360 degree access means there are no defined rules of how it should be played with,” he says. “We focused on sensory play encouraging children to look, listen, touch and feel, bringing the house to life by stimulating the primary senses.“ The sleek design comes complete with ring-able doorbell and motion-activated light panels.

Coral House: Studio Myerscough, Morag Myerscough and Luke Morgan

The coral reef Morag Myerscough and Luke Morgan’s dolls’ house stands upon took 42 hours to 3-D print; to add to the magic all the rooms in the house hold tiny replicas of furniture and items the two designers own in real life. “One day I just sat down, got my pens out, and made the sketch of our house and Luke wrote the poem (about a coral reef). Then we started making it,” says Morag Myerscough who commissioned artists Chantal Joffe and Ishbel Myerscough, poet Lemn Sissay, and even her mother, textile artist Betty Fraser Myerscough, to create objects for the house. “We like telling tales,” she says. “Every piece has its own story but was ready to have a new story made about it.” Myerscough spent three days non-stop hand-painting the outside of the house–the floors rotate around a central plastic tube creating a dynamic structure. “The height of the house was important so children can reach all of it at all levels,” she says. “Kids can make their favorite things to put in the space and make their own stories.”

A miniature domestic world: Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

If you hang out in Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands tiny house for too long you might meet a neighing horse in the garden or get attacked by the bathroom’s bubble machine. The agency posed its own design question for the project: “What if a wide spectrum of young children–children with learning disabilities and those with sensory impairments–were able to play with a miniature domestic world which they created themselves?” They answered with a modular design that allows kids to pick, stack and negotiate where their three-sided rooms should be placed within the structure. Sensors within the rooms react to movement, touch and sound and were built-in specifically for kids with disabilities.


Outside/In House: ShedKM in collaboration with artist James Ireland

ShedKM’s Outside/In House rotates mid-air around a spiral staircase and each room has a hinge and slide. Vistas and reflected views can be reset within the design against backdrops of artificial sunsets and bright blue skies. The design’s about celebrating the sensory experience of being in a landscape and looking through and beyond according to ShedKM’s Greg Blee. “Outside/In has been designed as a place of escape for a visually impaired child,” says Blee. “The house can be played with like a large Rubik’s Cube puzzle.”

Elvis’s Tree House: AMODELS

Elvis’s tree house is a deliberately dangerous design, based on a real playground in Southampton, England, AMODELS built a model for, in collaboration with LDA Design. “The Danish concept was to make the park as physically challenging and literally deliberately dangerous as possible, because kids learn for themselves faster that way,” says AMODELS’s managing director Christian Spencer-Davies. “Spark Park includes a rope bridge with no hand rail and a whole hill of polished stainless steel to slide down, all wheel chair accessible.” Spencer-Davies wanted his dolls’ house to be something an adventurous kid would dream up rather than an architect. He decided on a treehouse and used a Playmobil doll to dictate scale. “I took an intern to Argos (a British retail store) to buy some figures but they come in a surprise bag and we ended up with a pirate, an American Red Indian and Elvis,” he says. “Inspiration struck: Elvis was a big kid with so much money he could have anything he wanted,”–hence the cars, motorbikes, planes, swimming pools, televisions, and guns in the final design.

Jigsaw House: MAKE


MAKE’s an employee-owned business so the company broke their jigsaw-style house into over 20 individual rooms, each designed by a member of the company, and each addressing an aspect of disability. “The only thing we didn’t attempt was taste although I suppose you could taste the herbs (in the herb garden),” says John Prevc, MAKE’s lead architect on the Jigsaw House project. MAKE created a pitched-roof shell for the interlocking modules to sit inside made with laminated timber. “The repetition and componentization also became an illustration of 21st century building industry but with the potential for individuality and uniqueness,” says Prevc.

Tower of Fable: FAT Architecture, in collaboration with Grayson Perry

FAT Architecture shrunk their inspiration–London’s Balfron Tower, designed by Emo Goldfinger–to toy-sized proportions: “It’s big, concrete, and, well, brutalist,” says Sam Jacobs from FAT. “But remade as a dolls’ house it brings out qualities that might not be so obvious at full scale. In addition to being giant and abstract it’s also as fantastical as a castle, as texturally dense as the surface of a space ship and as romantic as a country cottage.” The process of sandwiching laser-cut layers to build up the dolls’ house surface was painstaking Jacobs says, but it was important for integrating design features for a disabled child. “It’s a very textured thing. What we’re suggesting is that design can appeal to a range of senses, and one of those might be how something feels as much as what it looks like,” he says. FAT collaborated with British artist Grayson Perry who designed furniture, decorations and obscure little characters who call the tower home.

The Play House: DRDH, in collaboration with Anne Katrine Dolven

Center stage of DRDH’s design are a series of king crab claws made by Norwegian artist Anne Katrine Dolven that echo the interior palette of the concertina-style Play House. DRDH based the design on 18th-to-19th-century paper-style theaters that were popular before television. The black MDF shell sits “mute” until a kid opens it up to reveal the high-contrast interior colors, chosen to stimulate partially sighted kids. “The theatre features working scenery hoists and curtains in the fly tower,” says DRDH’s Richard Marks. “The back-of-house and front-of-house lifts can be raised and lowered, making all floors accessible to its actors and audience.


Other designers include Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s grassy Compass House, complete with lemon-yellow Volkswagon, and a slightly perplexing ashy-wood design by Zaha Hadid offering kids a variety of construction options. The nifty–and bright red–mae-mak house by Mae is a brilliant demonstration of flexible flat-packed housing construction, while Guy Hollaway’s Jack in a Box collapses as a fan blows up an inflatable structure hiding inside the houses’ colorful shell.

Now it’s decision time: scroll through the slide show to decide which dolls’ house you would like to shrink inside. Fast Company’s heading to the Coral Reef first before Elvis picks her up for a long weekend in the Treehouse.