- By Richard Chin
What if you could live in a house that was mortgage-free and takes about 10 minutes to clean — a house that leaves you unburdened by possessions and the full-time job required to pay for them?
The trade-off: Your new house is about the size of a biggish — albeit charming — storage shed.
That’s the journey Dee Williams recounts in her new book, The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir.
Williams got rid of her normal-sized house, most of her possessions and her job as a hazardous waste inspector after suffering a heart attack 10 years ago. She built, and now lives with her dog in, an 84-square-foot house on a trailer parked in a friend’s backyard in Olympia, Wash.
Next Avenue spoke with Williams, 51, about discovering a larger life in a smaller house:
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Next Avenue: Your heart problems (heart attack and a congestive heart failure diagnosis) sent you into a sort of existential crisis.
Williams: It wasn’t that I was unhappy in my life before my heart attack. I was clipping along building my career, hoping to meet Mr. Right and fall in love and do all of that stuff. I loved my house. I wasn’t struggling to make the mortgage. It was just that I didn’t have any freedom to be able to quit my job if I wanted to. After my heart attack, what became clear was that I wanted my time. I wanted every minute of my day for whatever I wanted to do. And I wasn’t going to be able to get that with a $250,000 mortgage.
Your solution was to build an 84-square-foot house on a trailer.
This idea floated in front of me in the doctor’s office when I read an article about (tiny house builder and advocate) Jay Shafer. It seemed like a logical solution for housing for me. I wasn’t sure how long my health would last. I wasn’t sure what that would mean for me as a single person. Would I move in with my friends? Would my brother come back from Iowa and take care of me? Where would I would be most comfortable if I got sick?
The other part was when I saw a little pointy-roofed house — it was so cute. I was enamored.
Photo courtesy Derin Williams Shelterwise
You’ve been living there 10 years. It’s got some electricity provided by solar panels, no running water. You shower at the neighbor’s or the gym. Here’s the question they ask the astronauts: How about the toilet?
Yeah, how do you pee? The number one most important question. I have a composting system set up. I read a book called The Humanure Handbook while I was building. It went through all the options for composting, from the super expensive $2,000 incinerator to, essentially, a 5-gallon bucket. And that’s what I use.
It’s a bucket system where after you go to the bathroom you cover it with peat moss or coconut coir or sawdust and you actually compost outside of the house. So you’ve got a chore around once a week needing to remove the solids. It’s very dry, and it’s actually kind of cool because I’ve learned a lot more about composting than I ever thought I would. Talking about toilets is a huge part of the workshop I get to help teach now.
Tell me about how difficult it was to get rid of all your stuff.
I was a little bit lucky because I had this health thing looming. The diagnosis was that I had one to five years on my ticker and then I would have to have a transplant or I would die. On the one hand, I didn’t want anyone else to have to sort through my stuff. I had gone through that with my grandmother when she passed and it was a huge labor.
The other part was being determined. It was hard work and I hated it. Going through my stuff, I don’t think I played it up in my book nearly as much as I could about how exhausting it was.
My advice to people is: Be gentle and kind to yourself. And also be rigorous. Because it gets easier. It’s like a muscle memory. The more you let go of, the easier it gets.
Photo by Laurie Lawrence
At one point, you list the number of possessions you have after moving into the tiny house. It totaled up to 305. Is that the number you have right now?
It bumps up, it bumps down, depending on, oh, I just went to this conference this past weekend called the World Domination Summit and they gave all of us these awesome inflated thermoses. It bumps up for that. But I’ll get rid of something in order to bump it back down.
How many shoes do you have?
I’ve got a pair of flip flops, a pair of rubber boots and a pair of tennis shoes that I just got at Goodwill because I’ve got to get in shape. So, three.
How many skirts or pants?
I’ve got one dress, and two pair of jeans and one pair of going-out-on-the-town pants.
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Biggest upside to a tiny house?
There are so many things that are awesome, like getting out from under my debt. Living debt-free gives me more flexibility and less stress.
The other is I get to connect with my community differently by need. I’ve got a need for the food co-op to stay — not just doing well, but flourishing because that’s my pantry. I need the library to stay in good stead so I can have my extended bookshelf there. I need the laundromat to stay operating, even though the machines are an absolute piece of crap, because that’s my place to do laundry.
I have this different understanding of how important these things are. It connects me to them, and it connects me to the people and the places in my town. In the same line, I’m wired to the natural environment because I rely on the sun to power my lights and gadgets through a solar electric system.
Photo by Dee Williams
Biggest downsides after 10 years of living in a tiny house?
I probably complain or kvetch most about not having running water. I would love to be able to take a hot shower in the middle of winter. It’s so rainy and drab here all day, every day, for months, the cold kind of seeps into your bones after a while.
To be able to warm up on a cold winter night before you hop into bed would be awesome. But running water was a challenge for me because I wasn’t sure where I was going to land. If you bring water into your house, you have to have a drain, you have to have a sewer connection. So I decided to bypass the water, and 85 percent of the time I’ve gotten used to it, and it doesn’t bother me at all. And 15 percent of the time, I complain a little bit, and maybe give myself a little bit of a kick in the pants and say, 'What was I thinking?'
Living there 10 years, now it’s part of your identity and now you have this book and a business leading workshops for tiny house building. Does that mean you’re forever stuck with always living this small?
The thing that my little house has offered me most is a new view of who I am in the world. That view isn’t tied to my little house at this point. I love my little house. And I still find a great sense of solace and sometimes solitude there that I can’t get anywhere else.
But if my life changed, especially if I wanted to live with someone else — I’m still young, that could happen — I would need a bigger space.
Photo courtesy Dee Williams