We got a call in August from Tianna Mañón, an Urban Turf writer who'd seen this blog. She asked if we'd share our story of downsizing from a traditional home to this little-bitty one we're (still) building. A couple of people have told me they couldn't find the article. So, here's the link and the article...
One of the questions I'm often asked about our tiny house journey is: "How hard has it been to get rid of all your things?"
My immediate answer: Look around our house, and you'll see an awful lot of things. Our old sofa. Bill's parents' old magazine rack. The rug we bought in Turkey. My grandmother's set of Blue Onion china. My great-aunt's baby mug and my grandfather's old coronet. The vintage boxes we bought at auction. The books I love the most. The rooster and heron prints by my sister. I could go on and on and on.
How can we have this many things in a tiny house? Shelves play a big part. The shelf that runs along the top of our kitchen windows holds a lot of the china we don't need every day. The shelf along the top of one bedroom window holds old books, family pictures and a plate and bowl we bought in Tuscany. Shelves over the TV hold that coronet, more books, my grandmother's silver and Waterford pieces we bought in Ireland.
Building in as much storage as possible into our design gives us room for things. One of our ottoman/coffee table/seats serves as our linen closet; the other houses our printer, plus office and art supplies. Under our bed, four giant drawers have room for many of our clothes, with enough extra space for backpacks and a small vacuum cleaner. Our pantry makes good use of space with full-slide-out drawers that hold food, everyday dishes and cleaning supplies. Even the space behind the oven gives us more storage for cutting boards, a pizza peel and stone, sink inserts, cooling racks and pans.
That said, we have "gotten rid of" a lot of things we used to own when we had a big home. Most of it wasn't too hard to part with. Generic furniture, unworn clothes, boxes of Christmas decor I no longer put out for the holidays, CDs, crates of pictures. The CDs and pictures we digitized. The things we didn't use or care much about, we "shared," as my husband calls it. Some of it we gave to family or friends, some we donated, some we sold.
What helped me sell some of our items of value was knowing that the money earned was going to help us change our lives. Yes, we liked the grandfather clock we'd bought. But we didn't need to keep it, and the $750 someone paid us for it added to the $700 we got for our farm table and the $400 for the bedroom furniture joined the profits from selling our house. It all became part of being able to leave our jobs and build this house. And this has been an experience worth infinitely more than all the things we've parted with.
Sorting through what we keep and what we "share" has made me value even more what I choose to keep. It's helped me recognize what's important to me and allowed me to focus on that. I've kept things from our travels, artwork that speaks to me, silver handed down to me. And I'm much more intentional about what I bring into my home now that space is limited. A new acqusition has to be extremely useful and/or remarkably beautiful to me--ideally both.
In this process, "things" have become less important to me. Sharing what I have has become easier and even pleasurable. I am more focused on how I live now, rather than what I possess. That's quite a gift.
Please click on the pictures below for more details.
Some days feel as though we're not making any progress. Other days bring small victories (like finishing the medicine cabinet today!).
We've seen four seasons here. We've seen bears here. We've worked long days—and worked not at all some days. We've weathered storms, pulled splinters, nursed sore backs. We've shared bottles of wine and talked long into the night.
A year. From trailer to home. It's been a good year.
I stood yesterday in the middle of my tiny vegetable garden and turned slowly to take it all in. Pea pods emerging from spent blossoms. Green tomatoes shining in the sun. Perfectly shaped, miniature green bell peppers clinging to their stems. Feather-like carrot tops bending in the breeze. I completely forgot about the nasty virus I carried back from our visit to Seattle. I was entranced.
This is not the first vegetable garden I have tended, but it is the most intentional. There was a time I would buy pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers without a thought about unintended consequences. Without a concern for the long-term effects and the wider-world implications of my mindless, grow-the-most-as-fast-as-possible approach to gardening.
Now I think about the health of pollinators. The composition of soil. The long-term benefits of composting. Companion plants. Plant diversity. Water conservation. The consequences of over-fertilization and run-off. Early this spring, before we had even built the first raised bed, I felt overwhelmed by the concept of creating a more sustainable garden .
But with each action--building the beds, spreading the compost, erecting a fence, sowing seeds, getting dirt under my fingernails as I planted--my anxiety dissipated, step-by-step. A lot can still go wrong. Aphids are likely to attack my tomato plants. Days of rain may encourage fungal growth. The hard reality is that things will go wrong in the garden. But that doesn't diminish the wonder of watching seed, soil, sun and water work together to send green pea tendrils twining around their trellis, or squash blossoms from popping open in a golden burst, or radishes from doubling in size almost overnight.
I feel more connected with the earth when I sink my finger into soil to probe for moisture. I feel more humble, more grateful, when I understand intimately how the food I consume is produced. I feel more hopeful about the future when I see what can be created from a handful of seeds.
What grows in my garden? Me.
We have loved building this tiny house. Let me start with that before saying this: Some evenings we are so bone-tired it's all we can do to climb the stairs to our third-floor abode and plop on the sofa.
It's not just the work on the house. We've been cutting down invasives, chainsawing fallen trees, leveling ground, digging postholes, building raised beds, hauling stones, building a retaining wall....On those days it feels as though we aren't making enough progress. Why isn't the house built? Why isn't the garden planted?
Right around that time is when the universe invariably sends us some new enthusiasm. We get a call or an email or a FaceBook message: Can I come to see the tiny house? Yes! Yes, please!
Visitors are our elixir. This weekend it was cousin Tom, sister Jill and friends Giselle and Katie (not to mention Giselle and Katie's dogs). In taking them on (tiny) tours of the house and garden plot, the path to the stream and the screen house, I suddenly see all that we've done--instead of focusing on all we haven't done. We sit in the screen house to talk; it didn't exist a year ago. We walk through the tiny house; last August it was just a black equipment trailer. Now, it has ceiling and walls, electricity and lights--and even the first of three ceiling fans in operation.
Building a tiny house from scratch isn't easy. But it's wonderfully challenging, creative, stimulating and satisfying work. Sometimes you just need a few friends to remind you of that.
These last few months, I've been obsessing over the issue of consumption. Reading about the energy requirements of refrigerators and lightbulbs and hot water heaters. Watching videos about installing solar panels and setting up battery banks. Vowing to cut back on the energy we consume—needlessly and thoughtlessly—every day.
And then there's my consumer consumption. Did I need to buy a new pair of boots last month? No. But I bought them anyway. I saw them; I liked them; I bought them. Ditto for a couple new shirts. Had I looked thoughtfully through my closet before my impulse buys I wouldn't have brought them home. Now, I'm giving more thought to what I wear and what I already have hanging in my closet. I plan to be more intentional about the clothes—and boots—I purchase. I don't want to spend our financial resources on clothing I don't need and I don't want to contribute to the over-consumption of natural resources required to make them.
Looking at the clothes I wear and don't wear has also called my attention to another "consumption" with even greater, more immediate consequences. I have a pair of black jeans I used to love that now sit idly on a shelf. I would love them still—and wear them—if only they weren't so tight that walking is painful. I've been eating and drinking my way through this winter. Literally over-consuming to the point I'm facing a choice: either change my ways or head back to the store for a new wardrobe. It's gotten me thinking about ethical eating in a new light.
I already don't eat meat, and I've made baby steps toward eating more organic and locally sourced food. We have plans to get a vegetable garden going this spring. But I haven't given much thought up to this point about the ethics of over-eating. When I consume more calories than my body requires, I'm not only wasting money (more groceries; bigger-sized clothes; additional trips to the store), I'm wasting away my health. I strain my already-arthritic joints and damaged disks. I nudge myself in the direction of Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, hypertension, high cholesterol...
So, I'm trying to be more intentional about what I put in mouth. I've gone back to an app I used when I decided to lose weight a couple years ago: MyFitnessPal. I'm walking every day and tracking my miles using another app: MapMyFitness. The apps "talk" to eat other, so the miles I walk get converted into calories I can responsibly consume. Knowing how many calories I need each day and trying to stay within that count isn't terribly fun, but it's good to know how much is enough.
As I pay more attention to the food we're buying and eating, I've also become more aware of the food we waste. Not knowing what's in the fridge and on the pantry shelf makes it likely I'll buy things we already have on hand. Yesterday, I threw a package of 4 cucumbers on the compost pile because I'd forgotten we'd bought them. I'm not alone when it comes to wasting food: I just read it's estimated that 40 percent of the food available in the United States gets thrown away each year.
I want to stop consuming more than I need--and stop buying more than I consume.
Some things are straightforward when it comes to building a tiny house. Framing, for example. Countless diagrams illustrate the fundamentals of 24"-on-center framing. Electrical wiring is another. Electrical codes exist for a reason; we follow them. Windows, once chosen, come with a thorough installation guide. But so many (so, so, so many) other things must be selected from a near infinite array of choices.
We spend most mornings online, researching tiny house options. What will we side the house with? Reclaimed wood we hope to find—or pine siding on sale this week at Home Depot? What will we use for insulation? Will we go with an alcohol stove or energy efficient induction cooktop? How will we handle our gray water? Do we try to install solar now or wait till the spring? How will we heat the house? Wood? Propane? Electrical space heater?
Many, many, many things still need to be decided if we're going to finish this wee house. Making those decisions, we've come to realize, hinges on three, oft-competing principles:
1. Economy: We have limited funds to build the house. More money for one component, means less for others. So what's worth spending the big bucks on? Where can we economize?
2. Ecology: What will require fewer resources? What makes use of already-existing resources? What will burn the cleanest? What requires less transportation? Less packaging? Less carbon footprint?
3. Aesthetics: Maybe this one shouldn't matter as much as the first two, but it does for me. My broad sense of "aesthetics" includes beauty of form as well as beauty of function. How will various elements look—and work—together? How will the space flow? Where will the eye be drawn? How can the kitchen be set up to be both efficient and eye-pleasing?
Balancing this triad of priorities is a challenge. Not surprising, I suppose, since "balancing" is an apt metaphor for the art of living in general. Now back to deciding if the beautiful, super-efficient Kimberly wood stove is worth spending $4,000 on. Yes, $4,000!
Bears and birdseed don't mix. No, that's not right. Bears and birdseed do mix, as we learned this week when we arrived down at Tiny House Land to find the thick metal hook that had been holding our bird feeder bent to the ground. We didn't see a bear do this, it's true. But we've had two recent beer sightings, and it's hard to believe any of our regular visitors—deer, possums, groundhogs, turkeys, skunks, frogs and songbirds—were capable of smashing the bird feeder to the ground, knocking rocks around and leaving such big impressions in the garden soil.
I saw a bear one evening last week when I got up to put a log on our campfire. He or she was sipping from the creek-let on the far side of our screen house. It was still light enough that I could stand there paralyzed and stare at the bear's profile. Bill asked what was wrong. "Bear," I finally got out. Bill stood and turned in time to see the bear run up the mountain. A week earlier Bill and Susan saw a bear a little farther off. These bear sightings—plus the non-sighting where the bird feeder used to be—remind me that other creatures have lived in these woods a lot longer than us.
"Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most Virginians," according to ursine expert Linda Masterson in Living with Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country. I find myself making a lot more noise when I tromp down the path to the house. Bill's the same way; he does a lot more whistling now. We don't want to surprise some shy, unsuspecting bear. Plus, we've permanently removed the bird feeder. Also from Masterson: "It takes a bear many hours of foraging on natural foods to get the 12,000-plus calories it can down in five minutes at a bird feeder."
I'm something of a latecomer to the sustainability party. I didn't start questioning my footprint, evaluating my consumption or looking critically at my possessions until I was in my 40s. It took the shock of my children going off to college for me to stop and look around.
Every other week, I handed out bags of food to families in need just a few miles away from the 3,500-square-foot house I lived in. Ours was a four-bedroom house with rooms for everything (an office, a family room, a living room, a laundry room) and not one, but two spacious basement levels to store all that we'd accumulated over the years. Handing out jugs of milk, cans of soup and loaves of bread to mothers and fathers—the invisible poor who lived in the shadow of wealthy neighborhoods like ours—started me thinking. Why did I have more than I needed when they were struggling to feed their families? Did I sell everything I owned and give them the proceeds? Did I invite them home? No. But I did "let them in" my life.
We started looking for a smaller house, something that would require less commuting miles and something in a walkable neighborhood with public transportation, something without a big, green lawn to maintain. The house we found was a little smaller (2,000 square feet), and the lawn was almost nonexistent—no more watering, fertilizing, cutting. Still, we both worked long hours to support the mortgage and the constant "improvements" we felt compelled to make. The house owned us. It took us four years to realize the house, as much as we loved it, was still more than we needed or wanted.
Next we lived in a condo before moving into a house with our daughter's family. They moved cross country, and we rented a two-bedroom apartment, only to downsize a year later to a one-bedroom apartment. With each move, we sold or gave away a lot of what we'd accumulated over the years. Things stored in boxes in the basement, things stuffed in kitchen cabinets, things filling rooms we rarely walked into. In the same way cutting unnecessary words sharpens prose, "editing" our possessions heightened our appreciation of what we chose to keep.
Though we'd gone from 3,500 to 800 square feet of living space, we found we still didn't use all the space we were heating, cleaning, maintaining and financing. Now we're living in a 400-square-foot studio as we build a house that will be smaller still. I don't remember when we began talking about building a tiny house; in hindsight, it seems a natural progression in the journey we started more than ten years ago. As we spend most of our days building, we have less paid work...but we can live on a lot less money in this right-sized life.
My love of rocks goes back as far as I can remember. I'm no geologist and I plead ignorance when it comes to just about anything scientific. I just like to climb on rocks, look at rocks, stack rocks, smuggle rocks home from trips...
I like the coolness of a smooth river stone in my palm. I like thinking about how very, very long the rocks I'm hiking beside have been here. I find myself stopping to gaze with wonder at a well-built stone wall. I go out of my way to hop from stone to stone and cross a creek.
And now I find myself living in a place sprinkled with rocks and stones and boulders and pebbles. In the breaks between building projects, I rearrange the rocks.
After we cleaned out the poison ivy and brambles outside the Tree House (new name given to the screen house by Kelly), we looked out on a slope of bare dirt stretching down to our tiny creek. Since then, I've created a few paths, planting areas and "scuptures" with the abundance of grey granite all around me.