Small Comforts

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. 

barbie house

“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 finality.

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 Kane’s Xanadu.

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.  

Again, Bachelard:

"Memories 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.

Written by Guest Blogger — January 11, 2013

Filed under: childhood   design   new builders   seattle workshop   small spaces  

The Journey to Our Land

Kevin Stevens is a Class C certified Contractor living and working in Colorado. He is also working on his own tiny house project in Northern New Mexico. He has been following various aspects of the tiny house movement for years.

The quest for our land was a quest to find more seasonal balance in our lives. Nederland has been good to us: it has a slower pace then the “flats”, what we call Boulder and the surrounding front range, but also gives us ready access to the culture of a larger city when we feel the need for it. We still wanted to experience four seasons, so a place that still has a winter was a desire- just not 9 months of it! 

Last year we had snow just up the hill from us in the middle of August. We have also watched the fireworks on the 4th of July from inside the living room as a light snow was falling. It is one of the hardships we endure by living at over 8000 feet. However, the mild summers, 300+ sunny days a year and hearing cougars and coyotes on a summer night do their part to make up for it.

View from our ranch at night 

Both Tori and I have been attracted to the desert, me for quite a few years more. Road trips to Utah and points further west developed a longing for the scent of sagebrush on the wind after a rainstorm. But the intense heat of summer steered us away from places like Moab, and most of Arizona. Creating art is a big part of our lives and artist like other artists, so we thought of desert areas that are supportive to artist. Naturally this led us to northern New Mexico: Georgia O’Keeffe spent many years there. Years ago I had traveled through Taos and admired the landscape, the architecture, the food and culture. Sagebrush is abundant there along with pinon, and Juniper, a lot of the locals simply call it the PJ. I have often bought pinon and Juniper incense to recapture the scent from campfires there. 

Our land searching began online with some local real estate listings. A few months of looking gave us an idea of what was available, we printed some listings, found them on maps and with Google Earth looked to see what the area landscape might be. I also got in touch with a local real estate agent there. In November of 2009 our quest took on some more texture via a road trip, on the way also checked out some areas in Colorado north of the Taos area. Armed with a digital camera and a GPS we explored about half a dozen listings, one that was at the top of our list based on the online pics, turned out to be a disappointment. The lot itself was great, the soil was sandy in some areas, had some good mixed tree cover and important to us had some great rock outcroppings and diversity of terrain. 

The price was in our budget, and the community was interesting  (We spent an afternoon at “Poco Loco” the local market / hangout for a neighborhood post Halloween celebration.) Unfortunately the entry to the lot had some “trashy” neighbors. The road in, which would be our future driveway, had huge piles of junk near it, bottles, cans, misc. construction stuff, old building projects etc. We could just not bear to have to drive past that every day.  We spent that night camping nearby on some forest service land. I called up our agent and arranged to meet her the next day for some more property tours.

After hooking up with Liz, we toured some more vacant land and also some homes located on some area parcels. Late in the afternoon we hooked up with Gil and Deb for a tour of one of the four, twenty-acre parcels they had for sale, they were friends of Liz from years past and had not yet officially listed these lots.

The lot that we had the most interest in was the one furthest from the highway and it had some rock outcroppings along the southern edge. We liked it but were not that impressed. The 80 acres they had for sale was part of their larger ranch there- about 720 acres total.  After we looked at the end parcel Gil wanted to show us the Petaca which lies just east of their square mile. On the way to the overlook we saw an interesting smaller side canyon and I asked if we could check it out. We hiked up through there and were very impressed with it.  We threw the idea out there that we liked that area more. Ater touring the overlook we took the ATV’s across the road and back into some cool nearby forest service land. (I forgot to mention that nearby access to public land was also a selection criteria for us).

They wined and dined us that night in one of their cabins across the road, put us up for the night and let us borrow the ATVs again the next day. This time with the aide of their old but somewhat accurate property map we checked out the area that impressed us the day before. This area was quite a bit larger than we were originally thinking, about 40 acres (the first “trashy” place was only 7 acres- one of the earth ship properties was 12; Gill and Debs other lots 20) The beauty and peacefulness of it took hold of us.  We had found our place!  We believe that certain areas have a type of magnetism for some people: Tori and I call this “The Magic of Place"- we spent the later part of that afternoon working with Liz to write up an offer. 

Well, as they say in the movies the rest is history! We now own just under 42 acres of diverse: PJ with an abundance of Sagebrush ; ) 

Stay tuned for more on Kevin and Tori's project! 

Written by Guest Blogger — January 09, 2013

Filed under: desert   finding land   taos  

Meals on Wheels: "Camping Spaghetti Sauce"

Therese Ambrosi Smith is a writer- check out her work here. She spent four months constructing a modified Tumbleweed for use as a mobile writer’s studio. She loves cooking and eating as much as she loves writing and building things. One example of a recipe she's cooked in her tiny kitchen - that her guests have loved - is wild rice and mushroom soup. Her regular contribution to this blog, “Meals on Wheels," addresses the challenges and rewards of working in a tiny kitchen. 

I love to invite people to dinner -- I like cooking and eating -- but I also enjoy sharing our tiny house.  Folks with thousands of square feet marvel at the comfort possible in our  286 sq ft home, carved from a single car garage. With leaves in the table, we handily host gourmet meals for eight.

Recently we downsized our office, building a new space based on a Tumbleweed design.  We work efficiently in the 84 sq ft trailer. As an author, I’m trilled to have my workspace double as a mobile retreat and guest cottage.  An inflatable bed and RV toilet are employed when we need to house visitors.

We made the decision to rent the “main” house for income when I decided to live more creatively.  The journey began with shedding a mind-numbing job and the trappings it provided. Designing a functional living space was task one.

Everyone who decides to downsize -  and designs his own house - goes through the very healthy exercise of defining what’s important. We determined that our most used room was the kitchen - and we used it for non-eating activity too -- from conversation to crafts.  The table was central to our plan. 

Tiny Kitchen

We spent as much time planning the space as building it.  Everything we thought we’d need was measured and plotted on graph paper before the first board was cut.  The garage conversion took four months of weekend work and now, after four and a half years --  and a novel and a half  -- I think it was the smartest thing we’ve ever done.

Living small became fodder for fiction.  My first novel “Wax” was about young women coming of age in the shipyards during WWII.  If you’re familiar with the history, housing was in very short supply in war industry towns.  Parking Lot C, in the Kaiser shipyards, became a village of Airstream trailers for the duration.

When “Wax” was nearly ready to print, I was asked to provide two pages of filler. The printer’s final page “signature” is produced in multiples of eight, so my 334 page book was a little short. What would be worth printing?  (Clue: the women are eating spaghetti in two important scenes.)  Sylvia’s Famous Spaghetti Sauce Recipe (As adapted for the two-burner propane stove in Airstream No. 28).

Back home in Kansas City, Sylvia would spend all day on a rich meat sauce starting with garlic and olive oil and cubes of pork and beef shoulder, seared at 475 degrees for half an hour. She’d transfer the meat to a big stock pot with two quarts of broth, veal bones and vegetables. A long, slow simmer in the broth would tenderize the tough but flavorful cuts of meat, and to the whole she would add tomatoes and the remaining seasonings. The sauce would then simmer for another six hours until the meat fell apart. Everyone she treated to a serving of her Famous Spaghetti Sauce said it was the best ever.

She refined her technique — using ground beef — so she could make “Camping Spaghetti Sauce”. In her tiny Airstream trailer, with few cooking utensils, Sylvia did her best to recreate a favorite meal for her friends.

Ingredients:

3 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 Tbsp minced garlic

2 Tbsp minced onion

¼ cup minced carrots

¼ cup minced celery

¾ lb ground meat – can be pork and beef mixed

3 cloves

1 C whole milk

2 C dry white wine

1 28 oz can whole tomatoes packed in juice

1 Tbsp oregano – fresh, minced

one more tablespoon minced garlic

salt to taste

Melt the butter in a sauce pan over a very low flame and add two tablespoons garlic. Simmer the garlic very slowly until tender. The more slowly it cooks, the sweeter it will be.

Add the carrots, onion and celery and sauté until the onions are soft. Do not brown. Add the cloves.

Add the ground meat and stir to heat evenly for about three minutes, until the meat is gray but not browned.

Add the milk and allow it to simmer until evaporated, about twelve minutes; follow with the wine. When the wine has evaporated, add the tomatoes with liquid and the oregano. Allow the sauce to simmer on the lowest possible flame, for three more hours. Thirty minutes before it’s finished, add the final tablespoon of minced garlic. Add salt if desired.

4 Servings  Enjoy!

“The time went by so quickly; we never had a chance to make plans,” Doris said. “When the ships on the line are launched we’ll be sent home too.”

“Now come on girls,” Sylvia said. “This is our last night together in The Land of C. Let’s have a little more optimism. We’ll be at peace soon.” She adjusted the seasonings and gave the sauce a final stir. Her red hair color was starting to fade. “All those love-starved men will be returning to wine and dine you marriage-age treasures. Life will be good,” Sylvia said. She looked at Tilly.

Tilly winced.

Sylvia drained the spaghetti into a bowl and loaded three plates. Then she ladled the rich meat sauce on top.

Tilly took the first bite. She twirled her fork and wrapped the length of the spaghetti around the tines. “Thank you so much, Sylvia. I’ll never forget this meal.”

From “Wax”, by Therese Ambrosi Smith

 

 


 

Written by Guest Blogger — January 08, 2013

Filed under: Build it yourself   cooking   Downsizing   friends   kitchen design   kitchens   stories   tiny kitchen  

My Tiny Semester: Meet Nara

Hi! I'm Nara, Tumbleweed's staff writer.

You might have seen my name on the bottom of recent blog posts, or perhaps you noticed my face looming over a questionable gingerbread house. Now it's time for a formal introduction!

In addition to managing the blog and talking with you lovely people about your tiny house dreams, I'm in the process of finishing college in the glorious liberal woods of Western Massachusetts. For my what you might call my senior project, I have been attempting to dissect a small but crucial slice of the American Dream: The American House. 

Playing TinyPlaying tiny- I had to fend off some small children for this shot 

Beginning later this month, I'll be living in a Fencl on my campus for 120 days. I want to share the benefits and realities of living small, so I'll be writing about my "Tiny Semester" on this blog. I'll also be holding several open houses and informal workshops in the Western Massachusetts area- contact me if you're interested! 

I'm so excited to be a part of Tumbleweed, and to pursue these tiny dreams of my own. One of the things that drew me to Tumbleweed was flexibility. Instead of prescribing one set way to create a structure, Tumbleweed allows for houses and builders of all shapes, colors and sizes. Everyone is encouraged to create their own unique take on a tiny house. 

To me, creating my own tiny house set-up is the ideal way to wrap up my year of studies. I want to create an interactive, influential space on my campus that represents alternative possibilities for housing. This also presents the opportunity to live off-grid, which is an important step for me. With help from my college and fellow students, I've been working hard to develop sustainable, low-impact ways of residing in my tiny house. Hello composting toilet, goodbye refrigerator! 

And as I near my final semester of school, I want to try something different: I want to really, truly have to live with myself. To forgo plastic bins and cardboard boxes of hidden pasts, to be conscious of the line between useful and excessive. I want to address myself piece by piece, taking it apart, discarding the excess, and reassembling in an appropriate, Tumbleweed-sized venue.

I will graduate college all too soon, and I don't want to walk straight into a mortgage. I don't want to be told to buy a house on unrealistic credit and that it's my fault if I can't pay it. I want to joining hands with the young people all over the world that are saying "NO!" to an outdated American dream. 

Watch out for upcoming blog posts. Heads up: I'm packing up my life this week, so it's about to get interesting! 

Written by Nara Williams — January 07, 2013

Filed under: college   Downsizing   friends   ongoing posts   stories   student builds  

The Baba Yaga House

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.

Perhaps 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.

My 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.

Isabel

Shortly 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.

As 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.

“Little hut, little hut, stand with your back to the woods, and your front to me!”

And 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.


Written by Guest Blogger — January 03, 2013

Filed under: Build it yourself   builders   new builders   stories   student builds   young builder  

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