The caterpillars are building their own tiny houses. In about 10 days, we should see them emerge as butterflies. I think we'll have one more generation born before they head south for Mexico. But...we need more milkweed! They've eaten almost all the leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
by Eric Carle
In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.
One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and - pop! - out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.
He started to look for some food . I’m so HUNGRY!
And so the story goes...
I'm happy to report there are dozens of very hungry caterpillars who have popped out of their eggs to feast on our milkweed plants, which are literally crawling with them.
Plant it and they will come. I knew we were likely to attract monarchs with all the milkweed we've planted, but seeing is believing. I've taken to standing out beside the pollinator garden to watch them eat. (Yes, I need a life.) This is just one of the rewards of planting native specimens.
My big decision now is deciding if I leave them to fend on their own—or bring some of the caterpillars inside to boost their chances of avoiding death by ant, wasp or spider. Right now, with so many of them looking fat and happy, I'm leaning towards letting nature take its course.
Why fret over an insect? Sure, monarchs and other butterflies are pretty—but they're also functional. While feeding on nectar, they pollinate flowers. The Department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife began issuing warnings years ago, when it concluded that the number of monarchs had dropped from 1 billion to 33 million. The primary cause? Habitat loss.
The moral of this story?
Plant some milkweed. The butterflies will thank you.
The subject came up recently: chores. Those things you need to do to keep a household running.
We used to procrastinate housecleaning in our big, suburban houses until we couldn't stand the state of affairs. Procrastinating only meant the mess would be harder to clean down the road. It also meant magnifying our so-called "suffering": We were worrying about it before we did the work; we were annoyed by the magnitude of the mess by the time we got around to doing something; and, instead of feeling satisfied with any chores completed, we found ourselves dreading the next time we'd have to do them.
When we sold our last "big" house, many of the chores disappeared or at least shrunk. We tried out a succession of smaller living spaces and found the time required to get through everything was abbreviated simply because there weren't as many rooms. Now, in our smallest living space to date, the time has shrunk proportionally again. In 15 minutes, one of us can do a moderate clean (vacuuming, wiping down windowsills and baseboards, wiping out the sinks, picking up and putting away stray items...).
It's not a big time or energy commitment, and, as a result, we clean more often. We have a lightweight, cordless vacuum that I can honestly say I enjoy pushing around the place just about every day. (We track in a lot of dirt here.) We wander around happily picking up sticks, because we know that chore promises a warm blaze in the house, a meal cooked on the grill or a campfire under the stars. We take turns watering the herbs on the deck, because we both enjoy tending to them.
Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
The Zen wisdom comes to mind. Because I no longer watch the clock like I used to and because I no longer spend my days wishing I were somewhere else, I am more present in my own life. I get satisfaction from some of the same chores I used to procrastinate. Plus, I have new chores in this new way of living—but I don't resent them, either. Rather than putting it off, I like the trip down to dump food scraps in the compost pile; I get a minute to look around the garden and see if any butterflies have found the milkweed. When I walk up a path through the woods to empty the composting toilet bucket, I look for animal tracks, I pull an invasive plant or two, I listen to birds.
Sure, it helps (a lot) that there's less housecleaning to do in a tiny house and that we have more time to do it. But there are less chores and more time because we've chosen to live this way. Clarifying how we want to live helps everyday chores take on meaning. They are part of this new life we're living intentionally.
We're just back from a month wandering around Greece. We walked across the Acropolis in Athens, we explored the ruins of bygone palaces, we consulted the oracle in Delphi, we swam in the Mediterranean and fell in love with Crete.
Someone asked me if we saw any tiny houses when we were there. Yes, we did. "What do they call them?" my friend asked. "They call them houses," I answered.
And that's the truth. Houses come in many sizes in Greece, as they do here. But, in general, the scale is more modest in both mainland Greece and Crete. When we checked into one AirBnB apartment, the host apologized for the size of the space and told us that he understood Americans preferred larger spaces. When we said his apartment was bigger than our house, he was dumbstruck.
Perhaps because the homes we saw in Greece were more compact, they made better use of space than most of the homes and apartments we've lived in here the States. How? Here are a few thoughts:
No wasted space. We saw few, if any, hallways and few oversized rooms. Spaces appropriately fit their function—a place to sit, a place to eat, a place to sleep. Bathrooms, for example. We had to get used to the just-big-enough-to-do-what-you-need-to-do-here proportions. Tiny sinks were the norm and vanities were few and far between. Many bathrooms were "wet," eliminating the need for separate shower space.
Cooking and eating. Kitchens, in general, were not separate rooms, and dining happened at one table. Fridges were smaller. We found everything we needed—plates, utensils, pots, etc—but there wasn't excess. There simply wasn't room for it, and it made it easier to find things.
Outdoor living. Every place we stayed, there was an outdoor space attached. A couple times we had roof decks, micro balconies in others and ground floor patios in the rest. When you drink coffee, eat meals and socialize outside, you don't need as much indoor space. (Of course, this is only practical year-round in temperate climates.) Outdoor living in Greece includes public spaces: parks, cafes, beaches, benches....
One tiny living space we didn't see: houses on wheels. I suspect it's easier to build a small living space in Greece than most of the United States. Here, building codes require minimum dwelling sizes. We did see a fair share of camper vans; perhaps, they're the Greek equivalent of THOWs.
And now we're back. Spring arrived the month we were away from the tiny house. The intense green of the new leaves and the wildflower blooms provided a wonderful welcome home. It reminded us that as much as we enjoy our on-the-road adventures, we are magnificently fortunate to have this tiny homestead.
P.S. We've written elsewhere about how tiny living has made travel more possible for us. We couldn't have spent a month in Greece, wandered eight weeks in Panama, walked the entire Hadrian's Wall trail or driven cross country twice when we were working full-time to support our big, expensive house.
Besides talking about tiny house finances, we spoke about off-grid living to folks at the 2018 Tiny House Conference.
We kicked off the talk by discussing what "off grid" means—basically living independent of municipal utilities. We refer to our own setup as "semi off-grid." I'll go into our details next, but first I want to address "why go off-grid," as we did in our conference talk. Here goes...
WHY GO OFF-GRID?
1. Reducing carbon footprint. Solar and wind power don't require the drilling, refining, transporting or burning of non-renewable, polluting fossil fuels. (This was our No. 1 reason for choosing off-grid options.)
2. Financial viability. Bringing municipal power or water to a site can cost more than installing off-grid systems—some of which are eligible for tax breaks and all of which come with the added bonus of reducing recurring costs.
3. On the road again. THOW dwellers who relocate on a regular basis often have off-grid generators and on-board water tanks so they don't need to count on being able to plug in at every site.
4. Becoming self-reliant. Some people sleep better at night knowing they'd don't depend on a power grid or water treatment plant.
5. Producer, not consumer. Learning how to grow, harvest and preserve your own food can be empowering. Whether it's food or energy, when you produce your own, you'll have more respect for everything you use.
WHAT ARE OUR OFF-GRID SYSTEMS?
1. Solar/battery power. The sun shines free of charge. Our solar generator powers at least 80% of our electrical needs in the summer.
2. Alcohol-burning stove. Clean-burning, renewable alcohol provides all the heat we need for making meals indoors. We do additional cooking on our wood-burning grill outside.
3. Spring water. Our site is a bit remote. We're lucky enough to be able to tap into a spring-fed cistern for all our water.
4. Passive heating and cooling. The best example of this is our six clerestory windows, designed to let heat escape the house in summer and let heat into the house in the winter.
5. Composting toilet. Instead of using municipal drinking-quality water to deal with our black waste, we compost the solid waste, eventually turning it into a soil enhancement for our ornamental gardens.
6. Wood stove. Our wood-burning stove keeps things toasty on the coldest of days. Because it's a "gasifier," it doesn't release much particulate matter into the air.
7. Vegetable garden. We're growing some of our own food, which means the vegetables we eat haven't been sprayed with pesticides or preservatives and haven't been transported miles to get to our table.
8. Waste. In addition to composting black waste, we compost all food and most yard waste. (Twigs, branches and logs get stacked for campfires, grilling and heating.)
WHAT'S NOT OFF-GRID HERE?
1. Electricity in the middle of a snow storm. When it's cold and dark for too long, we don't draw enough power from the sun; then, we switch to drawing 100% power from the grid.
2. Hot water tank. Hot water heating is one of the biggest "energy hogs" out there. We would have needed to double our array and battery storage to power all the house all the time with solar.
3. Water pump. Pumps spike wattage when they turn on, stressing electrical battery storage systems like ours.
4. Microwave. Also a voltage spiker.
5. Refrigerator. In hindsight, we realize the refrigerator we chose could easily be drawing power from our solar setup.
6. Back-up heat in the winter. We can't feed the fire when we're not here; we rely on the grid to power two, energy-efficient electric heaters that keep things at a base temperature.
7. Internet. We share service from a wireless provider with our neighbor.
8. Laundry. While we hand wash and hang dry on occasion, we share a washer and dryer with our same neighbor for the bulk of our laundering.
9. Etc. We buy gas to drive our car, we purchase most of our food from grocery stores, we keep our money in a bank, etc.
We intend to cut more of our reliance on grid electricity, which isn't "green"-sourced where we live, and we're considering putting together our own solar/battery setup to bring power to our screen house.
Are you off-grid, semi off-grid or thinking about it? We'd love to hear what you're doing.
Ironically enough, one of the Top-Ten-Reasons-I-Love-Living-in-a-Tiny-House is this: Hitting the road. Or the skies. Or the seas.
Simply put, I like to leave the tiny house behind me and wander. Not because it's claustrophobic, as I've been asked. Not because living here is hard, as I've also been asked. Instead, it's because I happily "suffer" from a life-long, incurable case of wanderlust, and it's easier now than ever before to treat my ailment with a week or a month or more exploring new horizons.
Living in this 250-square-foot house has reduced our monthly housing expenses to the point we no longer need to work in full-time jobs. When we spent thousands a month for our house, we were earning a lot of money, but it was largely spoken for—and so was our time. (Two weeks of vacation doesn't get you very far.) Selling that house allowed us to quit our jobs, giving us the time and money to build this house. Now, with our monthly expenses down to a few hundred a month, we can work part time to support this way of life—leaving us as much vacation time as we want and can afford.
We're not extravagant travelers, so that helps. We favor AirBnBs over big hotels; we've stayed in our share of hostels and we've camped across the country. This sort of travel isn't for everyone, but it works wonderfully for us. We like making our own coffee in the morning, eating picnic lunches and finding the best happy hour deals. We also save money on trips by using award miles for our flights. We charge everything we buy (even our car!), using cards with the most flexible award programs and paying off the balance each month to avoid any interest. All our flights for our upcoming trip to Greece were booked this way.
Weary of the winter freeze, we recently took a last-minute trip to south Florida. Our flights were booked with award miles. We stayed in a nice motel listed on AirBnB that offered a 25% discount for stays of a week or more. We hunted for the best deal on a car. For very little money, we happily explored lush parks by day and tested the taps at breweries each evening. (Favorite park: Fern Forest. Favorite brewery: Funky Buddha.)
After Greece this spring, we've got a few ideas brewing for future trips. Nicaragua? Portugal? Prague? Where should we wander next?
From the first I can remember, I've loved sitting around a fire. Whether tossing another log in a fireplace or toasting a marshmallow over a camp fire, I can stare into flames for an inordinate amount of time. But is all this wood burning part of a sustainable lifestyle?
"The fact is, done poorly wood burning can have a negative environmental impact. But done well, it can be part of an environmentally sound mix," concludes Alternative Energy Primer.
Wood fires "done poorly" waste energy resources, pump particulate matter into the air and sometimes contribute to unsustainable clear-cutting of forest land. Done well, wood fires can be energy efficient, minimize pariculate matter released into the air and make use of fallen trees that might otherwise be dumped in a landfill.
We aim to burn wisely—outside and in. One way we do this: our Kimberly gasifier wood stove by Unforgettable Fire, which produces just 3.2 grams/hour in emissions (exceeding EPA guidelines). Essentially, stoves like this double burn your fuel—first the wood burns and then the smoke—to give you a cleaner, more efficient burn. The stove is expensive (about $4K) and burns best with kiln-dried wood that we buy. So, we're not picking up sticks in the forest and burning them to heat our house for free. On the plus side: its slim profile works great in a tiny house setting. These days, there are more and more choices when it comes to clean-burning, high efficiency wood burning stoves. Pleasant Hearth, Hi-Flame and Vogelzang are just a few of the companies we've heard good things about.
Outside, we love to cook on our Biolite BaseCamp. We collect downed sticks and branches, and turn them into the flames that cook our burgers, pizza and more. An internal fan on the unit forces air back into the burn chamber, improving combustion and creating a cleaner, more efficient burn. And, as if that's not enough to love, the unit captures waste heat and converts it into usable electricity via an attached thermoelectric generator. It can power a lamp or charge our phones.
Where we haven't been too clean about our wood burning: camp fires and our fire pit. We love a good fire on a cool night. But our fires release particulate matter into the night sky, not to mention nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, benzene and other VOCs. According to the EPA, these negatives are mitigated somewhat by burning smaller, hotter fires. So, we try to use dry wood and put out a fire when we're finished, rather than letting it smolder.
Better yet, Biolite is coming to our rescue! Their new FirePit will bring the same smart-burning, energy-efficient flames to the camp fire as their grills deliver currently. We signed up for Biolite's latest Kickstarter campaign; come August 2018 we'll be able to sit guilt-free around our fire.
I'll let the Biolite people explain the concept:
"Across the body of the FirePit we’ve got 51 airjets that inject the fire with oxygen along key locations thanks to the fan located inside the USB-rechargeable orange power pack. This creates a more uniform temperature and mixing of gases inside the fire which dramatically improves combustion. This means two important things: 1) You get the crackling, the smell, and the feel of a robust wood fire but WITHOUT the smoke and 2) You can actually achieve a warm, roaring fire with LESS wood because you’re burning your original fuel more efficiently."
Even more fun: the FirePit teams flames with high-tech. We'll be able to control the burn of the fire with our smart phones. We'll also be able to charge those phones from the FirePit's battery back and run lights from it. I'll be able to have a fret-free fire.
Burn, baby, burn.
"I could never live in a tiny house, because..."
I may have heard that sentence a hundred times by now. Nine times out of ten, the sentence ends the same way: people tell me they have too much stuff and no idea how to get rid of it. But recently, I heard a new reason:
"I could never live in a tiny house, because I love art."
"Then don't worry," I assured the woman I was speaking with. "You can have art in a tiny house. We have plenty of art in our home."
"I've seen a lot of tiny houses," she told me. "There's no room for art in them, and I have a lot of art."
If she has a gallery-sized art collection, she's no doubt right that all the pieces she currently displays in a 1,200-square-foot-house wouldn't fit in a 120-square foot home. But my 250-square-foot home, I told her, showcases a lot of art. Like her, I wouldn't want to live in a space without art—and there's good science behind that feeling.
Here's just one study: Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London, scanned the brains of test subjects as they looked at works of art. He found that viewing art triggered a release of the chemical dopamine into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain, resulting in feelings of pleasure. A Psychology Today article on Zeki's experiment concluded: "This type of research suggests that art could be used, in multiple contexts, to increase the welfare, mental health, and life satisfaction of the general public, young and old."
My own experience concurs. My "mental health" and "life satisfaction" are indeed enhanced by living in a space graced by pieces of art that please me.
That's not to say the woman who told me she's been in tiny houses without any art was wrong about that. I've been in, and seen online, a fair share of tiny houses without a single photo, print or sculpture in sight. I would encourage everyone considering scaling down the size of their abode to plan where you can display art at the same time you plan for kitchen storage and hanging space.
So, where is there room for art in our tiny house? Everywhere.
Please click on the photos below for more details.
I am not a minimalist. Take one look in my house, and you'll know that. Or check out all the materials I've scavenged for "future projects" and stacked in the garage. Or peruse the shelves in the room we rent as our legal address. I've written before about my thing for things and earlier efforts to reduce my baggage. What's gotten me back to editing my possessions is a book sent to me: Goodbye Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.
By his own admission, Sasaki was "miserable" and "cranky," "full of excuses" and "constantly comparing" himself with others. He got rid of most of what he owned and immediately "started to become a new person." A "happy" person.
Can getting rid of things make you happy? It can. I know that from personal experience, and I've been reminded of that by Sasaki. The other day, I picked up the book and got to tip #7 of his 55 Tips to Help You Say Goodbye to Things: Discard something right now. "Why not close this book this very moment and discard something?" he asks. I did just that.
Looking in our armoire where I've stashed too many things that I say I'm going to do something with "later," I found not one thing but 10 things that I knew I'd feel better removing from the house. A few were trash (receipts I didn't need, empty packs of flower seeds), a few are off to Goodwill (t-shirts I was given when volunteering).
It felt so good that the following day I repeated the process. I read a little more of the book, where Sasaki circles around the concept of minimalism in a friendly, conversational way, and then I found 10 more things to clear out. That day, I plucked them all from the medicine cabinet: expired medication, makeup I'd bought but never used, tooth whitening strips (I used them!), and a near-empty bottle of lotion (that I also used up!). My medicine cabinet and my peace of mind were better for the exercise.
This morning I chose my ten out-the-door items from kitchen drawers. Tomorrow, I'll take a look in the pantry. Deciding to find 10 things every day is both manageable and productive. It makes a difference, but it doesn't take too long or stress me out. So, here's a shout-out to Fumio Sasaki for reminding me that life is good when I'm intentional about how much I accumulate.
About a month ago, I brainstormed a list of what I love about our house. I promised to come up with another list, one that addresses what we would have done differently (and/or simply remembered to do). Here goes:
1. Venting. Air exchange keeps moisture and carbon monoxide levels down, especially important in a well-insulated tiny house with draft-free windows. We didn't start looking at ventilation systems until we started building; then, we looked at a few units that were too pricey, too big or too something else. We just kept building, and stopped trying to figure out how air was going to move in and out of our house in winter. We have no exhaust fan in the bathroom for shower moisture, no hood to vent when cooking and, most critically, no air exchange unit for the winter when all the windows are shut. Don't do what we did! When our CO detector goes off (and it does periodically), we have to open windows and doors, no matter how cold it is, to vent the house. We're finally getting around to a retrofit, and just had an EVR air exchanger (a Vents TwinFresh Comfo "single-room reversible energy regeneration ventilator") shipped to us. We'll let you know how that goes in another blog.
2. Winter-proofing our water supply. Last winter, we blogged about our "water woes." We never got around to undergrounding the water hose running from our neighbor's house, and we hadn't insulated the faucet where the water comes into our house or the pipe that runs water under the floor to the kitchen. The result? No running water once the freeze set in. One winter of hauling in water was enough to get our attention. Don't do what we did! (I'm repeating myself). First off, we know now that the pipe running to the kitchen could have easily been a heated potable water hose in place of the pipe. End of story. And we'll do that eventually, but for now we better insulated the pipe and put a light bulb in the channel where it runs to add a little heat. As for the rest of our water setup, we installed three 78-gallon barrels inside an insulated, heated box, which get filled from our friends spring fed water supply through a hose, as needed. That water runs to our house through an insulated, underground hose. Where the hose comes out of the ground, we wrapped heat tape to keep it from freezing. The faucet now has an insulated box, too. The result? Running water, even on the 8 degree day last month.
3. Heating. We were so excited about buying our beautiful Kimberly wood stove that we neglected to give much thought to heating. Were we really going to keep the stove burning 24/7 through the winter? Nope. So, we plugged in a space heater and set it at a base temperature, using the wood stove when we were here to bring up the temperature. But one heater didn't do the trick. So we plugged in another at the other end of the house. They suck electricity and they take up floor space--not exactly an elegant solution for heating a tiny house. With a little research, we realized we could save both energy and floor space with a wall-mounted convection heater. So far, we've installed one Envi heater in our bathroom, and we love it. Time to order a second one and get rid of the last space heater. Finding wall space and retrofitting the wiring is a lot harder than it would have been to plan for them from the start.
4. Undercoating/flashing. Because we didn't plan on moving our house, we decided not to pay for underside metal flashing. Instead we brushed Thompson's water seal on plywood to have a waterproof base to the house. On top of that went the floor joists. Though we haven't had moisture issues in the house (knock on wood), I've heard enough sad stories about mold that on a do-over we would do a lot more to create a moisture barrier under the house. (For example, Ryan Mitchell of The Tiny Life, put a lot more thought into moisture issues from the start of his build.) At this point, with the house seated inside a wrap-around deck, our options are limited. Current plan for the spring: 1. Put some gravel down and cover it with tarps/plastic. The idea here is to prevent moisture from coming up out of the ground and to give any ground water a place to run under the tarp. 2. Re-seal the plywood (and the trailer metal) with either Flex Seal, more Thomson's or....(We're still researching this.)
5. Ceiling panels. We decided to use light-weight panels for the ceiling, thinking it would make things fast and easy for the two of us lifting and attaching them. We went too light-weight. We have gentle waves in our ceiling. I really don't notice them any more, but I wouldn't do the same thing. Bill would use light-weight drywall if he were picking out a ceiling now. I've seen so many beautiful ceilings of reclaimed wood, that's the way I'd go on a do-over. It would require more time upfront cutting and attaching each board, but when you add in all the time we've spent trying to get the panels to lay flat and caulking and repainting cracks between them, they weren't the "easy" fix we thought they were.
6. Bracing the stove pipe. Maybe we won't get three feet of snow again, but we did last year. The snow was heavy enough to push the stove pipe, unseal the hole around it and pull it out of its connection to the stove inside the house. In addition to fixing the damage, we now have a stainless steel brace that securely anchors the pipe to the roof of the house.
Those are the big ones. As I think of more odds and ends, I'll add them. The big lesson for us was keeping ahead of the stage we were at. The good news: there are a lot of resources out there to help you do just that, and that will be the topic of an upcoming blog...