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Living small, living simple: hype vs reality

So I linked to (yet another) article about small houses. Which led Joel to link back to me and also to a very funny blog about people who actually live in the things. Which reminded me of tidy-up celebrity Marie Kondo (because you have to be mega-tidy to survive small-house living).

Which reminds me that, now that I’m living in normal-sized houses again, it’s time for another perspective in tiny-house living.

First, my credentials: Between 2000 and 2010, I lived first in a tiny yurt (200-some round feet), then in a tiny cabin (409-square-foot exterior footprint, about 350 of useable living space), and finally in a borrowed fifth-wheel trailer (190-ish square feet).

My 2005 Backwoods Home article “The Art of Living in Small Spaces” is probably the most clicked-on non-political piece I’ve ever written.

My Cabin Sweet Cabin was adapted from a plan from the Cherokee Cabin Company, which was into DIY cabin building long before Jay Shafer founded Tumbleweed Tiny Houses and half a dozen tiny-house gurus followed him into the land of Greens-with-money.

I still have in my files a different Cherokee plan that I dream of building someday. I’ve been fascinated by small living spaces since, well, forever. I remain fascinated.

And I’ll probably never live in such a small space again.

Because tools. Because preps. Because life.

—–

Tiny and tidy. Not the same. But they go together. You can go tidy without going tiny, of course. But if you go tiny, you must go tidy or at the end of your first week you’re already a Collyer brother.

Every tiny yuppie abode you see in a magazine is not only neat as the proverbial pin but contains very few possessions, very cleverly organized.

I said in my article way back when that the key to living in small spaces was great storage & that’s still the truth. It’s one reason why the current crop of small yuppie dwellings are so absurdly expensive. Cabinets, drawers, and clever bits of furniture (or stairways or whatever) built to hide other objects are pricey.

I had inadequate storage in Cabin Sweet Cabin and it showed. Come home from the post office, toss a handful of mail on the kitchen counter — and the whole place is suddenly a pig sty. And my place was huge compared to a lot of the dwellings being built and photographed so proudly now now. I’d love to see photos of those lovely little magazine houses when they haven’t just been given the Architectural Digest photo treatment.

The other reason so many tiny houses are so insanely pricey is that they’ve become cool. They’re status symbols for the anti-status symbol crowd. But that’s another question.

——

So there’s this huge need for tidiness, in and outside of the tiny-house movement. Along comes Marie Kondo from Japan, making millions bless her heart by instructing people not only to clean up and organize, but to get rid of every household object they own that doesn’t “spark joy” in them. When you touch something you own, if you don’t “feel your body go upward,” you thank it for its service (seriously) and junk it. One of Kondo’s sayings is, “Keep only those things that speak to your heart.”

Now again, I admire Japanese simplicity in architecture and household design. One reason I like Akira Kurosawa historical films so much is that I love to see all those nobles sitting around in all those artistically empty spaces. Nothing but floor mats, maybe a low table, and a single artistic flower arrangement.

I would love to have a bedroom that looked like this “Kondoed” one:

KondoedBedroom_071415

But c’mon, people. We’re dealing with reality here. Where are the Kleenex boxes, the alarm clocks, the bottles of ibuprofen, the glasses of water, the heaps of books, the midnight snack foods? Where are the bedside pistol or shotgun, the dog’s blankie and toys, the fuzzy slippers, and the laid-out clothes for tomorrow?

Yeah. In the picture, they’re in the drawers or in the absolutely gigantic closet that’s hidden behind the elegant and pricy shoji screen. Or they’ve been moved to some other room that’s heaped floor-to-ceiling with junk. In reality? Who has time to go hiding all their “necessaries”?

—–

And Ms Kondo? More power to you. Surely many people will be inspired by your aesthetic advice. But even though my chop saw doesn’t “spark joy” in me when I touch it, I’m keepin’ it. (And I keep it in my house because I haven’t got a garage or workshop.) It may shock you to learn that those garage-sale space heaters in the spare room don’t “speak to my heart.” But they’re useful. Does my “body go upward” when I scan those industrial metal shelves of canned refries and homemade chutney? Not even a millimeter. I get not a single thrill from my drawer full of screwdrivers, tapes, and various bits of wire, nails, and pliers. But you’ll have to pardon me for not “thanking them for their service” then hauling them to the thrift store so that next time something needs to be screwed in, pried out, or taped up I can just sit instead and admire my new simplicity.

And you tiny-house latecomers, you’ll find out soon enough that all that household space you think you don’t need can be quite useful for holding stuff you do. Enjoy your adventure. Your experiment is a noble one. Now be prepared to be humbled by practicalities.

What both the tiny-house movement and its conjoined twin, the tidy-house movement ignore is usefulness. And the fact that some of us are neither overwhelmed by nor ashamed of the fact that we actually have stuff.

Oh yes, stuff famously has a way of getting out of control. Happens to us all. Happens to me. And indeed when you go from large to small living spaces, a vast and needed de-cluttering project awaits you. There are plenty of books to help, including Kondo’s, and including the less airy and supremely sensible Get Organized, Stay Organized by Christine Shuck, a sometime-reader of this blog.

But when you go spending $50,000 on something the size of a small travel-trailer and thinking you’re doing Great Work for the environment … when you judge the worth of your possessions by whether or not they make your heart sing … you’re living in some dreamland of intellectual and financial privilege. You are not only having first-world problems; you may be a first-world problem.

It’s unfortunate that the whole tiny-house and simple-living movements have become infested with this high-falutin’ smugness and impracticality. There’s much that’s good in living small and living without a need to constantly consume, consume, consume, accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. But Backwoods Home represents the very unglamorous reality, while the people who boast of their tiny and tidy yuppie abodes have some serious life lessons ahead of them.

—–

NOTE: I haven’t read Kondo’s book, though I’ll probably go put a hold on it at the library now. So I’m not being anti-Kondo. I presume she’s sensible enough to make some provision for the possession of plumber’s snakes and freezers full of vegetables. I’m being anti-yuppie-hype. Some people just need to get down off their perches and recognize that the real world exists — and they’re not living in it.

17 Comments

  1. Pat
    Pat July 15, 2015 4:49 am

    Wow… I think I just saw a (nice) mini-rant go by! 🙂

    Over the years I have drawn and re-drawn many houses, and they get smaller as I’ve gotten older. But none has ever gone below 840 s.f. I’ve never been truly claustrophobic, but a tiny house would give me claustrophobic nightmares after two days. I need to s-e-e and f-e-e-l space even if the actual space is not there. That’s why my ideal houses all have open living areas.

    And then there are those who have space…
    http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2015/07/14/celebs-with-mega-mansions-outraged-at-giga-mansions-rising-around-them/

  2. RustyGunner
    RustyGunner July 15, 2015 6:20 am

    I’m a denner, like a dog. I love close spaces and lower ceilings. My site plan for the mountain lot calls for a smallish cottage, something around 1000 sq ft. Of course, there’s a 50X100 steel building out back for da stuffz.

  3. Joel
    Joel July 15, 2015 6:31 am

    That’s what this discussion was missing! Reality!

    I like my tiny house. 200 square feet before you add bathroom walls and kitchen cabinets and the woodstove and all its associated stuff. And I share it with two big dogs. And it’s never particularly tidy. And you’ll never see its picture in Architectural Digest, or whatever. But I don’t take up much space and I like the layout and it’s for me by me. At this stage in my life it’s perfect.

    It’s also surrounded by storage sheds and big unattractive piles of stuff. Because reality.

  4. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau July 15, 2015 8:23 am

    You’d laugh if you saw my bedroom. Even my desk is a mess that I may organize once every year or so.

    As I mentioned to Joel, I do like the small (if not tiny) house with a big shop paradigm, but even that is not realistic. Our last big shop things got dusty/dirty, in the winter the humidity was so high stuff (like my motorcycle) would corrode, it was always cold so uninviting in the winter, and the squirrels took up residence and made a disgusting mess of everything. The upside of the squirrels was that I got a lot of shooting practice in, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

    1000 sq ft is a good number for a house, but mouse/proofing and squirrel-proofing a barn is the holy grail as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Bear
    Bear July 15, 2015 8:24 am

    OK,obviously this isn’t all of them, but:

    I’ve noticed that the yuppies-types getting written up in most of the tiny house articles don’t really seem to do much. They talk about the view out their little windows, simplicity, meditating, walking in the woods. But nothing about pulling out the toolbox to repair that leak in the roof, or breaking out the circular saw to slap together another rabbit hutch. Not even mowing down the mosquito habitat immediately around their tiny home. No little forge/foundries and anvils for making and repairing stuff. No storage for paper and ink making or other crafts.

    They show off their custom-assembled super-compact home theaters, sometimes their computers. Some claim to be [unpublished] writers creating the Great American Novel(tm), or doing other computer work for money… but I never see shelves of reference books, or cork boards with draft sketches or outlines.

    They don’t do. No wonder their lives fit in 250 ft^2.* Most of them seem to be planning to be passively entertained by nature and their belly-buttons. But most of them also seem to be urban types who don’t appear to realize how much of their lives actually revolved around the city infrastructure they think they’re escaping. It would be mildly interestingly to see where some of them are in another year.

    ===
    * Some folks know about it, but for years my life did fit into considerably less than 250ft^2. But that was only until I got parked and broke out the tents. True, I also claimed to be a writer then… and have the books on the shelf to prove it.

  6. Kyle
    Kyle July 15, 2015 11:15 am

    Claire, this is truly one of your better articles! I was chuckling and giggling the entire time, and having been smug in the past (maybe with you?), I have come to realize that I was being a douchebag, plain and simple. Individuals want different things, and some people really do use their living spaces for storing things they actually do end up using. I abhor the entryist eco-creeps as you do, and I can’t help but say that your wonderful doses of humble pie haven given me much to chew on, and I think I have become a better man doing so. Thanks again.

  7. Matt, another
    Matt, another July 15, 2015 12:54 pm

    I had the great pleasure of living in Japan for 40 glorious months back in the 80’s. I got to make friends and spend time with various original, Japanese persons. One lived in a small apartment with wife and two daughters. It was military quarters for them. It was small and clean but not tidy, they lived in their space. I also had a couple of friends with bigger spaces. Not so small and not tidy, they had books and knicknacks, and mail around, just like normal people.

    I have lived in very small spaces in the past and will do so again. As an introvert with hermit tendencies it will happen. The key is to build it yourself and build the storage as you go, jettison stuff you truly don’t need and share the space with someone you like to be close to. A decent storage shed/workshsop helps too. I don’t store tools inside for my normal sized house, don’t see myself doing that because I downsize to a mini house.

  8. Karen
    Karen July 15, 2015 12:54 pm

    As others have mentioned, it’s that additional storage that makes the difference but doesn’t get photographed. The house we’re moving out of is 1300 sqft, but we really only lived in the main level 900 sqft of it. Now we’re moving into 1100 sqft, which sounds like it should actually give us more living space. However, telling you we lived in 900 sqft omits the details that we had a bunch of accessible space in the attic, space upstairs, 2 10×12 outbuildings and a 30′ x 30′ attached garage workshop. All of which was full of STUFF.

    I could live in one of those tiny houses as long as it was parked in a complex of storage units that, ideally, I would own. 😉

  9. Mark
    Mark July 15, 2015 3:42 pm

    I can certainly appreciate what you have to say, Claire. I have spent the last 13 months living in a (barely) customized Sprinter, with a total of 66 square feet, 10 of which is taken up by a closet/storage space. It’s been a grand experiment which I may or may not continue, depending on my employment decision for next year, and a good one.

    I burned not one BTU for heat this year, something only possible here in MO rather than at my real home in NH, and because my body is a blast furnace and I have a really good winter bag. Keeping cool in the summer when the overnight low is in the mid 80s and so is the relative humidity is another thing.

    I was able to simplify, keeping only seasonal clothes with me and living out of a small ice chest for much of my food stuff. This was a great learning experience for sure, but I do miss cooking in a real kitchen.

    That said, it only has worked for me as well as it has because I do have a real house where I keep most of my stuff, including my off season clothes. If I did something different for a living perhaps that wouldn’t matter as much.

    I think the best thing for me has been that I have lived outside far more than I have been able to at any other time in my life except that year I lived in a 10×12 cabin in VT.

    Pat’s comment is valid, too, in that space–or the feeling of it is critical. Unlike most van conversions, I don’t have much built in so while the space is small, almost all of it is open. This has helped tremendously when I have been forced inside.

  10. jed
    jed July 15, 2015 5:56 pm

    I did a web search for “sprinter van” and came with Dodge, Mercedes, and Freightliner. At least there’s room to lay down fully extended. I suppose I should drop House Trucks in here, even though I’ve mentioned it before. I know I’ve seen some other sites for DIY RV building, using buses, vans, etc. Those same techniques, as those used for boats, are what I’d be researching if I ever found I needed to try living in a smaller space.

    I’ve been in 500 sq. ft. apartments for 9 or 10 years, now. It would be a real challenge to go smaller. There was a time in my life when I was contemplating it. But I think I’d go bug-fuck crazy, unless I were doing it on a large parcel of land, where I had a workshop to spend most of my time in.

  11. Alien
    Alien July 16, 2015 2:06 am

    This goes back many years; an architect friend who had also studied naval architecture was requested to design a vacation cottage for some clients with the premise that it be both as small and as efficient as possible.

    He did it, the clients loved it, and everyone who visited them hated it. The concept of “a place for everything and everything in its place” can be carried to extremes. Example: Remove small 2-slice toaster from its designated storage “slot”; make 2 slices of toast; put on oven mitt to replace now hot toaster in its storage slot because there’s not enough counter space to set a plate AND the butter and jam AND the toaster. Furniture was custom manufactured to fit the allocated space for it.

    Whatever one used – toothpaste, skillet, toaster, book – had to be put away immediately after use because while there was adequate designated storage space for everything there was a dearth of “living” space. I suppose if someone had spent decades living in the confines of a submarine it might have seemed perfectly normal.

    I asked my architect friend if the clients’ friends had thought of torturing them by giving them extremely desirable and useful gifts one inch too big to fit in the designated storage “slots.”

  12. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau July 16, 2015 8:31 am

    [Whatever one used – toothpaste, skillet, toaster, book – had to be put away immediately…]

    Looking at my trashed-out bedroom, I don’t see that as necessarily being a bad thing. I call my lifestyle “living with piles of stuff”.

    I had one of those long, tall Sprinter vans, somewhat customized for camping in. It had a lot to recommend it, not the least was averaging 27mpg after it was broken in. In fact I now regret I got rid of it. It was a pain in a parking lot though. I might sell the pickup and get a shorter version of the Sprinter. It’s nice for hauling stuff in the winter when it’s always raining, while the pickup always seems to be composting leaves in the back.

    I have wondered about the idea of having a shop with a living space above. If I were single that might be what I’d be doing.

  13. Jim B.
    Jim B. July 16, 2015 8:42 am

    I’ve always thought I could live in a tiny home. As long as it had a basement for a pantry and small workshop, and a couple of shed for storage and yet another kind of workshop. All on a piece of land to have all that plus a truck and a Tolman Alaskan Skiff on a trailer that I build myself. The thing is, we need space. I’ve always thought this kind of living is really for people who are always out and about.

    Yet whenever I hear of complaining or bragging about being able to live in a small Tumbleweed style home, I’d tell people: “Try living on a motorcycle for Ten years as this guy had done”.

    http://www.amazon.com/10-Years-Wheels-Countries-Miles/dp/0944958389/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1437060749&sr=1-1&keywords=10+years+on+two+wheels

  14. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal July 16, 2015 3:53 pm

    I like RVs because of how well they (sometimes) use the available space. I could live in one- if I got rid of my cats, daughter, guns, books and just about everything else that makes life livable.

    But, if I could have a room built like Captain Reynolds’ quarters on Serenity…

  15. winston
    winston July 16, 2015 6:03 pm

    I’m familiar with tiny living, not really by choice but I’ve gotten real good at it. Where i live is pretty tiny, and for me its not the lack of space that wigs me out but the lack of amenities. Would some more square footage be nice? Yeah. However, Some form of a kitchen that’s not a crockpot on my desk would be nicer. And yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and agree with the sentiments of getting rid of crap you don’t need…a clean house is a peaceful feeling house and I know my place feels like a dump with just a cluttered desk and some gym clothes on the floor. But all this about having a plain white room with only your cherished items is nonsense. Now, that said, just yesterday I cleaned out my little closet and filled a trash bag with un-needed clothes and junk. Theres a place for that mindset but frankly you can tell that sentiment comes from folks who don’t do their own home improvements, don’t do much cooking, etc. It doesnt matter how frugal you are, if you do things yourself like I imagine most of us here do, you are gonna have a lot of stuff accumulate.

    For me, If I ever get a tiny house, it won’t be super tiny most likely. This is what I wouldn’t mind doing:
    http://www.glickstructures.com/sites/default/files/styles/colorbox_popup/public/structure-images/two-stories-1.jpg?itok=GgIrsZmR

    The idea of it anyway. A full garage/workshop on the bottom and home up top. Nice compromise if you ask me.

  16. ghostsniper
    ghostsniper July 17, 2015 8:08 pm

    Most tiny homes are owned by people that spend very little time in them because there is very little that you can do in them.

    Seriously, what are you going to do in a box that is 8’tall x 8′ wide x 16′ long?

    You’re going to sit and rot, for about 2 hours, then you’re going to go hang out at a friends place that has more space and more stuff to do.

    The whole tiny home thing is a complete farce and not to be taken seriously.

    At best it is a hobby for people with more money than they know what to do with, so they stuff it into a cute but expensive box.

  17. Betsey
    Betsey July 18, 2015 1:50 pm

    At 65, there is no way I could climb into a loft for sleeping. No way!
    That being said, I would like to downsize, but wherever would I put all my prep food and stuff?

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