If you were an adult in the ‘70s you might remember economist E.F. Schumacher’s book, “Small Is Beautiful.” He proposed the then radical idea that the world’s economies couldn’t keep growing indefinitely. He argued that the modern economy was unsustainable; that natural resources, like fossil fuels, should be thought of as capital since they could not be renewed; that the concept of “enoughness” could better serve human needs.
Schumacher posited that education was the greatest resource, meaning the development of human capital, and its capacity to assist every individual to develop his or her skills and talents. His ideas were part of a environmental revolution already in progress. (Remember that the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and that this was the decade when attention was first being focused on the idea of global climate change.) Conservation and environmental sustainability efforts were becoming more common. Schumacher merely added the idea that economics too should be thought of as a system compatible with human scale and earth-friendly practices.
The realist and visionary Frances Moore Lappé had just a few years earlier published “Diet for a Small Planet.” Her premise was that meat production practices were wasteful and contributing to the coming environmental crisis and that a vegetarian diet was both healthier and could combat world hunger. Her book included veggie recipes and changed our thinking about what a healthy diet should be — she was primarily advocating for vegetable-based proteins. Many of Lappé’s ideas, though revolutionary at the time, are common practices now.
In 2006, Anna Lappé, Frances’ daughter, published “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.” Anna highlighted the connection between the current food production technology and climate change. (The Lappés are still doing this work; more information can be found at their website: https://www.smallplanet.org.)
Changes in culture — even truthful, helpful, effective ones — take time to take hold, to be believed and put into practice. So here we are on the brink of the 2020s revisiting the “small is beautiful” seeds planted nearly fifty years ago. But look around and you’ll see them beginning to flourish.
Tiny homes, less stuff
Trends are swinging to small in the US: whether it’s fewer kids being born (2014 U.S. census information cites the highest percentage of childless women since 1976); or fewer possessions (see Marie Kondo’s “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up”); Boomers downsizing; or millennials opting for smaller houses. What the catalysts are we can only guess, but the facts don’t lie. Small is beautiful again.
One aspect of “small is better” that I’ve been participating in, at least conceptually, is the tiny house movement. Good friends and collaborators-in-living-well Nancy and Phil Allen and I have been kicking back and forth tiny home ideas for the last couple months.
This all started for me 10 years ago when I lived, part time, in a little craftsman-built floating home under the University Bridge. In just under 350 square feet, I had all the modern features you’d want in a house: a fireplace, kitchen with built-in dining table, living room, bath with shower, toilet, and bed platform. It had arched wooden ceilings, like a gypsy wagon, and a dock platform where in the morning I’d be greeted by Canada geese. Kayakers paddled by and waved. On weekend evenings, my floating-home neighbor projected movies onto the support structures of the 1919 double-leaf bascule bridge. The trick to keeping a tiny home livable is “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
My pictorial calendar for 2017 was all tiny homes: from Abel Zyl’s Fortune Cookie House in Olympia, Washington (https://tinyhouseblog.com/tiny-house-video/the-fortune-cookie/) to the Drina River House in the Balkans, Serbia (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/drina-river-house). Every month I studied a brilliant and differently conceived tiny home.
Then Nancy, Phil, and I began exploring, more practically, tiny home construction because I’ve been considering a piece of property which might be perfect for such a venture. We’ve poured over the lush panoply of literature about tiny homes, and we both have stacks of books and magazines that outline luscious examples being built around the world. Some of our favorites are the following: “The Tiny Book of Tiny Homes” (Lester Walker); “The New Small House” (Katie Hutchison); “Small Eco Houses” (Benitez and Vidiella); “150 Best Cottages and Cabin Ideas” (Francesc Zamora Mola); and “Retreats” (G. Lawson Drinkard III). And, of course, “Dwell” magazine.
Tiny homes on wheels
So I’ve had my eyes open for local examples and have found a few, not the least of which were the homes in Cranberry RV Park. (Remember that Shirley Fisher’s rig is 450 square feet.) Last week I had the opportunity to visit another example.
Eddee Edson, her cat Bugatti and her dog Porcia, live happily together in a 144 square foot house on wheels that she built herself. She and her furry gang are tucked into the backyard of a standard house in Portland, near Fern Hill Park and just beside an organic garden that she can eat from whenever she wants. Even by Portlandia standards, it’s an unconventional neighborhood.
“I just wanted the challenge of building a tiny home myself,” she says. “Remember that ADU [accessory dwelling units, AKA granny flats] are built on the ground with a foundation and are totally different than Tiny Homes on Wheels, [THOW]. They are NOT the same!” (Here’s a little conversation about the differences: https://maxablespace.com/granny-flat-vs-tiny-home/)
Eddee wasn’t starting from ground zero in terms of building skills; she’s a furniture designer/maker and a retired woodworking teacher. She built her tiny home in eight months in a 1,000 square foot shop that she had at the time. But her housing trajectory went like this: she moved from an 1,800 square foot house, to an 800 square foot apartment, to her current THOW. “It was just time for moving into a smaller space,” she said. “When you’ve got a bigger space, you fill it up. And I wanted to have something I could manage by myself. It means less money going out. And it’s more interesting when people come to visit!” When you come in the front door — boom — you’re there; though on sunny summer days, the patio beside her house stands in for another room.
Eddee’s house includes a kitchen; Pendleton-wool insulated walls; a “catio” (cat patio); houseplants; bamboo flooring; bath with toilet, sink and shower; and a propane heater. Her stove-top pulls out like a cutting board from kitchen cabinets and, if she wants, she also has a propane oven. Eddee has a loft for storage and a bed platform where playful Porcia lords over her territory. Eddee’s sewer connection, electricity, water and garbage are all provided by her landlords, and, all told, her costs run just over $400 a month.
The gardeners on the plot adjacent to Eddee love her tiny house; it’s so cool they housesit for her whenever she wants to travel. All in all, it suits her just fine.
As I looked back on her sail-protected front door, I wondered if I could be happy in such a charming tucked in space. Her eight by 18 foot house on wheels means that she can pick up anytime she wants and relocate — her home is entirely roadworthy. “I’m in for five years,” she says, “then my landlords may want to sell the property.” With the money she’s saving she might opt to buy it. Who knows what adventures she has in store.
In the meantime, Eddee is living big in a tiny house, something I predict will be more common in the years to come.