Shannon Borg is a wine writer, sommelier
and poet who lives on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. She is excited about taking the Tumbleweed
Tiny House Workshop in Seattle on January 12th and 13th, which will focus on
the very practical skills and tools you need to build a very small house. As a
preliminary exercise before taking part, she thought she'd put down a few (very
non-practical) ideas that have been rattling around in her tiny brain. She's inspired by the people that have done so, and who have changed their lives to
live simply - we’ll see where it takes her!
As children, we were fascinated by the
miniature. We loved baby ducks, baby bunnies, baby dolls, and, of course,
babies. Maybe it is because the small thing was closer to our own size, maybe
we felt less threatened around something smaller than ourselves. When it came
to toys, my favorites were my Easy-Bake Oven and a kid-sized doll house built
by my mother and sister for me for Christmas one year, complete with brick
exterior (ok, wallpaper) and garden (ok, plastic trees). It was a canvas for
the fantasies of my eight-year-old imagination.
“Toys literally prefigure the world of adult
functions, and obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all,” says
French cultural critic Roland Barthes in his fascinating (and small) collection
of essays, Mythologies. Boys
practice being workers and soldiers with little trucks and guns, girls learn
how to be homemakers with little kitchens and dolls. Our toys are society’s way
of “training” us to live the lives we are expected to live. Mini-brainwashing
you might call it. I get that. It makes sense that this part of our lives is
formed by a higher percentage of “nurture” over “nature”. These days, boys play
with dolls and girls with guns, but there’s still a strong magnetic pull for
each gender to their “accepted” toys, and still, their accepted roles.
Whether or not my toys trained me to be the
person I am, I’m not sure, but that dollhouse was the best present I ever had.
It was almost more important than Barbie, its single inhabitant. Barbie lived
alone, you see, because in my mind, this two room apartment was too small for a
couple, and Barbie was in her early thirties, a career girl. This was 1973, and
I grew up Mormon. Everything in my life pointed me towards marriage and babies.
Then why did this toy not do its job? Maybe, as with many women of my
generation, a myriad choices took me different directions. Or maybe I
re-interpreted the message of the dollhouse to fit my own dreams.
It began life as a large wooden trunk-like box
that had held my brothers’ train sets. Turned on its end and remodeled with a
board added to separate the space, the box had a large lid/door that opened to
reveal two rooms. The top room my mother had decorated as a bedroom, and the
bottom was the little living room and kitchen. The top of the box wasn’t forgotten,
and was laid with little toy trees and a small Astroturf lawn and Lilliputian
park bench, too small for Barbie, really, but adorable. It was a rooftop
garden. The whole thing was clad with human-sized brick contact paper and had a
neo-Classical front door with columns, windows and long black shutters made
from cardstock glued in place. This was a brownstone, or some other turn of the
century apartment building, and it wasn’t a family home. Therefore, Barbie had
to be single. My real-life family home was a 1962-built redwood-sided (Yes,
REAL old-growth redwood from Northern California) ranch-style house in the
post-war suburbs of Spokane Washington, roiling with my four brothers and two
sisters who all shared rooms, clothes, shoes, toys, arguments and laughter.
Barbie lived blissfully alone in her tidy little pied-de-terre.
It was small, it was beautiful. It was hers.
And it was mine. I remember imagining myself in
two rooms, and loving the idea of having everything I owned in one place.
A table, a chair. A few books. One pot, one
bowl, one spoon. A stone. A beautiful shell.
But we outgrow these things, right? We grow up
and enter society, and go to college, and read French philosophers and get jobs
and work hard to buy that 800, 1,200, then 3,000 square foot home with the
perfectly green yard smelling of fertilizer and the three bedrooms smelling of
2.5 children. The problem was, I never really wanted that. Maybe because I was
a “spare” kid. There was the heir - in my family’s case - there were six - and
seven years later, there was me. My parents
told me that when I was a baby, the other kids read an article about how
to make your child a genius, so the kids wanted to experiment. They heeded the
article, never putting me in a playpen, which was the style of the day, but
letting me roll and roam freely. I was a product of a two-parent family, plus
six proxies. Who knows? I think they created a bit of a monster, myself, but
nevertheless, I was of a different generation than they. The very last Baby Boomer,
(born the last day of the last year of the Baby Boom, December 31, 1964) with
the attitude that I could do anything. I could sell the tiny Red Velvet Cakes I
made in my Easy-Bake Oven to my brothers for five cents a piece, I could move
to New York City and live in a 300-square-foot penthouse apartment and have a fabulous career. Which is kind of
what I did. Kind of.
Well, I went to too much school, lived in San
Francisco and London and Houston. I got
married twice, but it never really took, and I had a potential career in the
world of the InterWebs, making a more-than-decent living. But here I am at 49,
living on a small island with a great boyfriend (who also doesn’t want to get
married) and a tiny career as a writer, happy as a clam in a tiny clamshell,
and happiest when I can pare down to fewer possessions and set up my nest in
the small nook of a tree.
I wonder how many of us are like that? How many
of us grew up practicing our lives on small toys, which seemed comforting and
safe, and then let our lives and houses get out of control, too big for our
bodies and our psyches and our nerves?And then, as we listen to ourselves - to
the original child in us - we start to reel it in, to desire fewer possessions
but more freedom?
Another French philosopher Gaston Bachelard,
wrote in his fabulous book The Poetics of Space,
of our fascination with the miniscule domiciles of nature - shells, nests, and
hollowed-out trees, and the small spaces of our childhood imagination -
corners, closets, hiding places: “The house grows in proportion to the body
that inhabits it.” He isn’t talking only
about physical size, but emotional size. A tiny house grows with the love and
joy the person living there brings to it. In contrast, vastness can
evokeloneliness - for me, and for many, I think. But he sees the two sides as
necessary for completeness:
Sometimes the house of the future is
better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the
image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home... Maybe it
is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in
later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to
achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation
to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and
not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of
I have never seen an idea so manifest in reality
than the story I saw in a recent documentary film, The
Queen of Versailles. In 2007, billionaire Time-Share King
David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline, at the height of their wealth, designed
and began to build the largest home in America, a 90,000 square foot replica of
the Versailles Palace, complete with swimming pool, bowling alley, health spa,
30 bathrooms and 10 kitchens. Et cetera, et cetera. It was a modern-day Hearst
San Simeon. No, beyond that. A dream house beyond dreams. A modern day Citizen
In the meantime, the bottom falls out of the
market, and the bottom falls out of the Siegels’ life. Still, with impending
foreclosure, Siegel vows to finish the place, which is now a vast languishing
carapace of a castle, more ruin than royal. As Bachelard says, if this “home”
is ever finished, it will be the place of “serious, sad thoughts,” of
nightmares, no longer dreams.
More and more people, especially after the
economic downturn, have begun to reevaluate their living situations, their
half-empty 3,000 square foot homes miles from the closest grocery outlet. We
hear of people attempting - whether by choice or necessity - to bring their
lives in line with the changing realities of our “Twilight of the Giants”
culture. Others are throwing off the bigger-is-better idea, simplifying their lives for environmental
reasons, hoping to consume less and thereby create a more sustainable planet.
But I think a part of it we might not recognize is the fact that a smaller
house, fewer possessions and a simpler life is what we want,
not only what we need. I think I’m a part of a whole culture of people that are
romanced by our memories of a simpler life, even if it was never ours.
of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by
recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real
historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an
expression of a poetry that was lost."
The small toys and
spaces of our childhood did their work, sent us out into the world to become
its citizens, but the memory of them never left, and remain something we value.
We’ve gained a heck of a lot in the past 100
years - monetarily, technologically and culturally. But I think as a culture we
are realizing that we’ve also lost much of the poetry of the past in the clouds
of complexities of our world, and that finding a smaller place to dream, a
simpler way to live, may be one thing that helps to save us from ourselves.
Isabel Winson-Sagan is a resident of Santa Fe, NM, and has a degree from the University of New Mexico in religious studies and evolutionary anthropology. She will soon be attending the University of Aberdeen in Scotland for further work in religious studies. She just bought the trailer for her Tiny House, and will be starting her build in the next couple of months.
If I were forced to provide a single,
unqualified answer to the question, “Why are you building a tiny house?” I
would have to say: instantaneous love. I was 8 years old when I first saw the inside
of an RV trailer, while on a road trip with my parents. Afterwards I demanded
of my mother, “Why don’t we live in one of these?” On some level I was wounded.
My parents had always known about these perfect, tiny, ship-like houses on
wheels, and had chosen to abide in our irritatingly stationary home instead.
this instant love of mine was influenced by my fascination with hobos during
the Great Depression. I didn’t understand the economic desperation or the myth
of the West that had created these men. I only saw that they were tough, that
they had what it took to ride the trains. They were free. Somehow the ideas of
homelessness, wheeled vehicles, and the ability to carry your home with you
became crossed in my mind. An RV seemed to embody both that feeling of home and
the ability to leave home to my 8-year-old self.
childhood dream of living in an RV eventually subsided, and I moved on to other
pursuits. Skip forward a decade or so, to the day when I stumbled on the
website for the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. And it happened again. I was
instantly, irrevocably in love. And this time it was less impractical. In fact,
it seemed that here was the answer to many of my personal dilemmas: how to live
sustainability in a culture of consumerism that was simultaneously facing a
housing crisis, how to travel the road and feel safe, and how to have my own
home while moving across the country for graduate school. I was in love with the
aesthetic of Tumbleweed, and with the lifestyle it seemed to offer.
after I had made the somewhat wild decision to actually build my own house, I
began to connect the project to my academic interests. My fields are religious
studies and anthropology, and I realized that the tiny house could be studied
as material culture, with my own experience as the basis of anthropological
research. So I’ve started to study sacred architecture as well as building
science, and I hope to one day include my tiny house experience as part of a
graduate thesis proposal.
a woman, a Jew, a woodworker, and the anthropologist conducting a mild field
study on myself, several questions have been raised so far. How significant is
it, in this day and age, for a woman to be working in construction, or even to
be building her own house? What does it mean to be an American Jewish
craftsperson, when almost the entirety of my family’s material culture was lost
in the pogroms and the Holocaust? What does it mean to live in a home purposely
built for wandering, when the anti-Semitic legend of “The Wandering Jew” has
been around since the Middle Ages?
I woke up in the middle of the night a few
months ago, jerked awake with the force of one thought: I am building Baba
Yaga’s house. Baba Yaga (roughly translated to “demon grandmother”) is a
Russian fairytale character, a witch who lives in a house on chicken legs. She
is a symbol of Russia. So why am I building her house? As I build, I’m also
attempting to deconstruct the folk tale of Baba Yaga, in order to shed some
light on my own roots, and my own desire to build a little house in the woods.
It is a house that walks, and is full of either danger or help, for those who
know how to ask for it.
hut, little hut, stand with your back to the woods, and your front to me!”
the hut turns around, and the protagonist enters. This is the beginning of my
tiny house journey. Possibly some of my questions with be answered, or there
may be new questions raised. But in the meantime, I’m building, researching,
and documenting my tiny Baba Yaga house.
You might have noticed more activity on our blog,
lately. We're making it a priority to share more stories of tiny house builders all over the world, and we need your help!
Share your experiences.
Open your tiny door to the world.
The best part about working at Tumbleweed is getting to
celebrate each and every individual step in the planning, building and finishing processes. The stories we get to hear from you are inspiring- we talk about them all the time in our office. From young, family-loving builders like Jonathan Black to aspiring Danish builders like Lone Hansen, everyone has a different vision, a different method, and a different end
We love hearing your stories, and more
importantly, being able to share them with the tiny house community.
If you're building a Tumbleweed now, have plans to
do so in the future, or know someone who has a tiny house, please let us know. We'd
love to have one of our writers get in touch with you via e-mail, phone, or carrier pigeon.
Happy story telling!