Living Large in a Tiny Space–The Quest for Quality of Life

By Catherine Zola

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House. – William Morris

2 cats on a hot TPO roofI have been an OCD DIYer for decades. If I’m not constantly making something, multiple somethings actually, then I feel all out of sorts. When I was about four I wanted a Gypsy wagon and when I was 10

I started building models of the house I wanted to build someday. I wanted to make all the dishes, the curtains, the rugs, the pillows. Inside and out would be one giant art project I could live in.

As an adult I would daydream, look at books of homemade houses, wagons, tree forts and sheds wondering if it were possible to make one of my own. In designing I had no architectural or contractor training to draw on, so for years I wrote it off as an impossibility until I met a woman named Dee Williams in Washington who had built her own Tiny House.

With the fable The Tent Maker’s Daughter as my inspiration I decided to use the sum of my experience and education and apply it to the task: art school, jewelry making, a visual imagination, dance and Feldenkrais (a natural understanding of movement and spatial relations), Psychology, Permaculture (more on that later), common sense and an inventive improvisational nature, and Sketchup – a 3-D design software (more fun than I ever thought I could have with a computer).

My greatest teachers were public libraries, Youtube, and several dozen people who let me pick their brains. Craigslist and Re-Stores were miraculous angels that provided the perfect re-purposed materials and a place to park my house just when I needed them. I also drew on my college years, living in an airstream, which was beautiful but not practical for full time use. I used to sit and redesign it for fun, as a break from homework, mostly so that it would have more storage and better insulation.

It took me three years to save, learn and mull over the idea (obsess actually) until I had enough courage to begin. I read books, watched videos, and imagined hundreds of different variations until I was pretty sure I had something that I thought might work. This was my greatest life experiment to date: to see if I could build not just a home but my life-long dream—a practical, livable, sustainable and cute little house with just a few thousand dollars. Oh and to see if two adults and two cats can live in less than 300 sq. feet and not lose their minds. So far so good!

Some people get tattoos or buy expensive sports cars for their 50th birthday. I built a house. At age 49, ½ of everything was in place, but confidence and courage. My usual optimism failed me when I thought about all the things I didn’t know about building. In fact, I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know until I really needed to know it. Ignorance sometimes works in our favor. Several mini nervous breakdowns in hardware stores trying to make the million and one decisions about things I totally didn’t understand made me re-evaluate. I got a grip, dried my eyes, and reframed the whole endeavor from One Giant (and probably impossible) Project to a series of small, inter-related works of art. I would tackle one unknown “impossibility” at a time that would eventually build my confidence AND a house.

latest pic of tiny houseDesign process:

Applying my inner armchair anthropologist, I observed our behavior and mapped out our movements in three different apartments. I measured and charted the area used and time spent in each location and was amazed to find that the overall space used was remarkably smaller than what was available. Bathrooms, bedrooms, and living rooms had the greatest amount of excess or wasted real estate considering the activity/time spent in them. Bathrooms and kitchens are labor intensive to keep clean so having more space than needed, or awkward unusable parts to them, equates to more time spent cleaning.

Not having built anything larger than a bookcase, ever, was certainly an obstacle but nothing compared to discovering that nothing in a hardware store is the actual size they say it is. 2 by 4 inches is math I can do. Throw fractions into the equation and things get a bit more complicated. I also had no vocabulary for any of the 10 billion things I needed. I had no idea what existed or didn’t and where to find it if it did. Countless hours of research and shopping went like this: “Where is that— uh— you know— doodad that attaches to the thingamajig so you can mount the whatsit? Here, let me draw you a picture.“ Three years later, 500 trips to hardware stores later, and I know exactly what aisle it is in, how much it costs, and how to use it.

Free advice: Living in something while building it is hard and I would never recommend it to anyone. That said, let me tell you what useful torture it was getting to see and feel the immediate results of my design applied to reality. Anything that didn’t hold up had to be altered tout suite. Which kept me flexible as I tweaked what I thought would work into something that functioned much more smoothly. Redoing something a couple of times was preferable in the long run. What good is a plan that only works in theory?

The Greatest things I learned:

  • If you want something bad enough you can make even the seemingly impossible happen.
  • When everything has its own easy to access place it maximizes your space.
  • Permaculture philosophy applied to small spaces is brilliant. Spaces should serve multiple functions. Go counter to the age of specialization and think- generalist. Example: my couch is a guest bed, a closet (underneath), a library (on the sides), and a great sunny place to sit and read.
  • Permaculture talks about concentric circles or zones that are frequented less and less in areas farther out. If the compost pile is too close it may interfere with the view, if it is too far away you might not use it as often as you should. It’s all about location, location, location! It contributes greatly to streamlining the boring quotidian tasks of daily living so you can get on to the things that are more enjoyable. FACTS: If the hamper is too far from where you get undressed there will be a pile of dirty clothes on the floor. Clean clothes don’t often get put away immediately. A shelf to put them on while they wait can be useful. Otherwise they take up valuable real estate elsewhere.
  • Junk drawers are built in space for rebellion and creativity. Not everyone likes their clothes hanging in the closet coordinated by color. Creativity isn’t neat. It requires a certain amount of mess, so that needs to be factored in. Consider having junk drawers for inevitable chaos.
  • Keep the middle of spaces open and line of sight long to avoid claustrophobia. Galley kitchen’s rock since they help with this.
  • Hallways waste space and are unnecessary in small spaces, if designed correctly.

“Small rooms and dwellings set the mind on the right path, large ones cause it to go astray.”  – Leonardo Da Vinci

Tiny Houses as renaissance, therapy and reinvention opportunities:

Over the years I realized that the quest for quality of life had become a process, a verb, whose definition was ever-mutable and evolving. I had gotten rid of everything I owned several times and have long had a rule that I could not own more than what would fit in a truck, which gave me the conscious relationship to consumerism that Tiny House living requires. Building your own small home is an opportunity to re-evaluate not just your possessions, but your life as well. It is a chance to get new perspective on material possession and question if they fall in the quality or quantity category. And like other things in life, our ability to be radically honest with ourselves, our resistance or flexibility in response to experience, and our level of self- awareness determines the outcome.

Some questions to ask yourself before you design and/or build any size house:

  • All the world’s a stage: What role are you playing? Who are you? What is the story you tell yourself about who you think you are? Well thought out (andpie life felt) design can make the difference between a building you live in and a place that feels like yours, a home, a context that truly fits who you are. If you are playing Viola or Peter Pan you don’t want to live on the set of Death of a Salesman right?
  • What do you own and why? What do you own but wish you didn’t. Who or what makes you feel like you have to, and are their alternatives? Stuff stuffed away in closets you haven’t seen in over a year must be questioned. If you never see it or use it, what purpose does it serve?
  • Who and what brings you joy, makes you happy to be alive (things, people, activities)? How could your living space be re-oriented to make theses things more accessible to you, more of a priority?
  • What don’t you do/own but would like to?
  • What is your aesthetic? Modern, Rococo, shabby chic? Is what you like congruent with what you can live with? We might like black leather and stilettos but they may not be right for our own closet. We might like modern architecture until we realize glass and steel house in a desert would be hard to temperature regulate. And think of all the window washing you would have to do! Aesthetics are a vital and necessary part of mental health.
  • How is your time/energy/ money spent daily? Pie chart each individually with radical honesty. Now make a new set of pie charts showing how you would prefer your personal resources be utilized. Are your resources used doing things you think you have to do but would prefer not to? What changes can you make to re-organize for better physical/ mental health?
  • What is your relationship to the area outside your house: the seasons, landscape and wildlife, the weather and light, the neighbors? How do you want these things included or excluded? Brought in or kept out?
  • Will there be room for your: puppy, prize winning orchids, couch-surfing nephew, 12 cats, seed sprouter, sock monkey collection?sock monkey
  • Would you like to have written the great American novel? Do you wish you were already a famous author or do you realistically need a place to write? In other words- do you really need vaulted ceilings to practice juggling so you can join the circus?
  • What does Quality of life look like to you? Make a detailed list. Do you need to be self-employed, get in shape, raise chickens, have 40 acres and a mule?
  • What do you want your house to do ultimately: separate you from the outside world or be a place to invite it in? Or maybe a bit of both? Is community an important element on your quality of life list?

When charting time spent consider questions like:

Does line drying your clothes really take longer than using a dryer and if so is it worth the environmental/ financial savings? Does using a teapot really take longer than using a microwave and if so could you be flexible enough to adjust your routine to fix toast while you wait for the water to boil? What is your work week and weekend schedule? Do you want to sip your coffee in the morning sun? Would having a view of the garden from the couch contribute to a sense of well-being? Would you like to work less or have a career that is healthier for you? What are your life goals? Is self-employment on the list? If so, you need to leave space for an in-home office. Does the amount of money you make justify the hours you spend at work? Or does your soul long to do something else? Weigh your bank account against the benefit or stress it provides you. Does your money buy you security, happiness?

You may think your life, systems and routines work just fine as they are. But maybe we unconsciously adapt to our environment. How much smoother would our life be if the filters, mugs and coffee were all together and near the espresso machine? If we thought of our day as a performance, would three unnecessary trips across the long kitchen be clumsy? Building your own house is your opportunity to choreograph the best, most fulfilling dance of your life, one that ideally does not bore the soul.

A house should be more than a building. It should be a second skin, an extension and expression of our best self with space and placement so intuitive and user-friendly that a stranger could easily figure out where the silverware drawer is. It should be a place in which you could maneuver blindfolded and not miss a beat.

Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.    – William Morris

Factoring in the Currently Unknown (or) The Zen Factor for Inner Peace

One of the most important bits of design information I stumbled upon in my process of learning to design for a smooth functioning and cozy environment was to allow for the unknown. What this means is that we need to think of ourselves and our living spaces as evolving and changeable. We all know by now what happens when chi gets stuck. Rigid, unmoving, stagnant = lifeless. The very definition of life is change so any design needs to factor that in. You can make sure that everything you really need in your kitchen has its own convenient space, but what happens in the future when you learn to ferment and pickle or get a hankering for homemade pastry and you have not included crocks and cookie sheets in your previous design? Empty space is breathing room. It is potential and possibility. It’s a place for your cat to dream or for your visiting cousin to put his backpack. It’s Zen!

Then there are the unforeseen things one doesn’t plan for- the things you don’t know you don’t know.

EX: I never liked air conditioners. Never had one and never wanted one. I had NO idea that the town I moved to has 6 month summers filled with 90+ degree weather. A month after living here I had to figure out where to put a hole in my house for an air conditioner. Punching holes in something you just finished building is not an emotionally easy task.

One of my favorite, practical and necessary “empty spaces” is empty shelves and a row of hooks by the door. Why bring things all the way into the house that only exist to be used out in the world: the wet rain coat and umbrella, the purse or shopping bags, the garden boots and picnic basket, the wool scarf and hat. This not only makes sense, it is a visual reminder of what you can or should take with you to be prepared for your day. Running all the way back in to search for rain boots when they could be already there waiting for you is a silly, unnecessary waste of time. What better place for things, that come and go frequently, than near the door.

How Permaculture helped:

Permaculture is a philosophy that takes Nature’s wisdom into consideration when designing for sustainability. It is a guideline for holistic design that considers the interconnectedness and role of each element of an ecosystem for the overall balance and healthy functioning of the whole. It is a type of bio-mimicry that strives to build systems that are beautiful and practical following nature’s example. When plants are taken out of nature and put in rows inside a fenced garden they are defenseless, out of context, and require a lot more effort to grow and keep pest and disease free. No one needs to provide fertilizer, bug spray or even water to a forest. When we apply these guidelines to architecture, we get a house that is oriented for the seasons, and climate that can collect rainwater that functions smoothly and efficiently and feels good to be in. But let me be honest; the thing I like best about Permaculture is its focus on constructing a smooth running, mostly self-sustaining ecosystem. That to me is the very core definition of sustainability. A little extra work and consideration in the beginning frees you up for the 3 million other things on your wanna-do list.

Reasons for building a Tiny House on wheels:

  • My house has as much insulation as a “real” house. Trailers have almost none. It is therefore much easier to climate control. I froze and melted in my airstream.
  • Almost all of the materials used to build trailers are toxic, off-gassing, bad for you and the environment.
  • Building allows you to choose safer materials and re-purpose things from thrift stores and the dump. My bay window, French doors, and all cabinetry were used. My insulation is sheep wool. 40% of landfill is building material so building a tiny house prevents some perfectly good and usable items from going to the dump.
  • Which looks better in your back yard, forest or garden? (insert picture of ugly rv and tiny house) Form and function is the left/right brain marriage, the holistic approach to coziness factor and livability.
  • Building on wheels means it is technically an RV and NOT a house. This bypasses certain limiting laws regarding: zoning, codes, and size limits. Many people don’t realize that laws exist in many states that limit how small a house can be.
  • If you don’t own land yet, having your house on wheels allows you to rent and then take it with you later.
  • It is an economical do-it-yourself way, accessible to all income levels, to live greener and more sustainably.snail home
  • Some people are nomads at heart and the idea of wheels on a house is the perfect match. Some folks are snowbirds that want to live in Minnesota but can’t take the winters anymore.
  • Having wheels allows you to reposition your house on the land to suit the climate: under the trees during summer, south facing during winter.
  • Tiny houses can also be built without wheels. Houses of certain shapes and sizes can be lifted onto a flatbed truck if the likelihood of needing to move it arises in the future.

Read more and see pictures at

$1,000 for a “free” salvaged window

Salvaging windows and finding crazy deals on Craigslist can be fun, sustainable and affordable. But salvaged windows can also be costly if they aren’t part of the plan from the very beginning.

In one of our favorite projects for our favorite clients we used several reclaimed windows in a little 120 square foot office.

The windows were cheap and some were free, but there were several changes that occurred that got pricey. This is an example and cautionary tale about how changing something like a window can cause the cost of the work to double or triple. This is due to the increased hours required to make the changes and every hour that a guy is working adds up.

For example, this cool nine pane window could be installed in about four hours. A $65 per hour carpenter adding water proofing, leveling, squaring and attaching it to the walls will add up to a total of $260.

But this office had different windows planned when the walls were built. The original windows were installed and then removed and then new ones installed.

The original plan was to
1) Build the walls
2) Install the windows

But some new salvaged windows were found as the project progressed and the project ended up requiring these steps:
1) Build the walls
2) Install the original windows
3) Find different windows and the superintendent figures out how to make them fit
4) Remove the original windows
5) Rebuild the walls to change the size of the opening
6) Install the newer windows

These changes each required about four hours of work by a carpenter that earns $65 per hour. That’s $260 for each unplanned step #3, #4, #5 and #6. Plus an extra trip to the local hardware store to pick up additional materials. That’s over $1,000 in labor to put in a “free” window.

These are rough numbers to demonstrate a point, but it’s close to the actual costs of making changes like these.

You don’t have to shy away from salvaged windows – but try to find those great windows and put them in your garage before the architect even starts designing the home.   If they are always part of the plan, then you will save a lot of expense and do the environment a favor.    The sooner you can find them the better!