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My Tiny, Free House

Michael Janzen had a big house and a big mortgage. Then the financial crisis hit, and he wondered just how small, and how cheap, a house could be.

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In 2008, as the value of my big house was evaporating and layoffs seemed to loom in the distance, I came to my senses.

I began to question the true value of a home—and the real risk of a mortgaged home. I was making a huge financial commitment but not buying the things that really matter, like security and more time with the people I love. A mortgage can buy a lot of instant luxury, but at a significant cost in time, money, and financial risk.

In short, I woke up to the reality that I had taken on too much risk during good times and was totally unprepared for tough times.

I had taken on too much risk during good times and was totally unprepared for tough times.

Armed with this better understanding of the financial risks I’d already committed to, I started looking for answers and found the tiny house movement, which offers a different way of thinking about housing.

The core values of the tiny house movement are that living simply in small spaces empowers us. Committing to a tiny house removes many of the burdens we accepted when we bought into the idea of a "normal" American lifestyle. Instead of focusing on how much we can afford, the tiny space forces us to consider how little we really need.

Building Tiny, for Free

mj1.jpgI wouldn’t have believed this scale of housing was possible until I was introduced to Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Jay has spent years living in tiny houses smaller than 100 square feet. As I learned more about the tiny house movement and began blogging about tiny house design, I met many more people who are carving out fulfilling and happy lives through extreme downsizing.

mj3.jpgI decided to take this minimalist approach even further: to build a tiny house without it costing me anything but time and energy. I use mostly recycled materials I can get for free; any money I spend on building supplies will be recaptured by selling the free stuff I find.

mj4.jpgThe house is built on a small trailer that measures about seven feet wide by 12 feet long, making the total interior space about 80 square feet. It will sleep three people, two in a loft and one on a handmade flip-out bench/bed. A small kitchen and bathroom with a composting toilet will also be included.

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Photos by Julia Janzen.

Most of the framing wood has come from used shipping pallets I’ve salvaged from dumpsters. Pallets aren’t very easy to build with, but it seems like poetic justice for a house that questions consumerism to be made from the very things that carried so many consumer products to market.

I’ve scored some used plywood for the sheathing and a pile of scavenged felt for the roof. I thought about collecting and flattening 200 #10 tin cans for shingles, but a stormy summer has convinced me to hold out for some scrap corrugated roofing.

Construction of my tiny house been slow going, but I couldn’t be more convinced that it’s worth it.

An Education in Independence

You can apply this kind of thinking to any size living space—it really begins with downsizing possessions, debt, and other external burdens.

With a family of three, I don’t plan to live full-time in the tiny house—it’s more of an experiment to find out if a totally free house is possible. I’m convinced, though, that the biggest impact of a tiny house is the way it changes your thinking about what you really need. You can apply this kind of thinking to any size living space—it really begins with downsizing possessions, debt, and other external burdens.

How House Size BallonedThe Righteous Small House
An architect asks, at what point does size cancel out sustainability?

When we choose to live with less, we also choose a lifestyle that requires fewer inputs and increases our immunity to outside forces, like economic turmoil.

Building the tiny house has definitely changed the way I think about my “normal-sized” house: Its upkeep and expenses keep getting in the way of things I want to do (including building the tiny house!), and it feels enormous. I look forward to the day when we’re free to make our own downsizing move—I’ve learned that a home’s value should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost.

Now I feel like I’m on a path toward a more sustainable, lower-risk, and more fulfilling lifestyle. I still have a long way to go but I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m moving forward.


MichaelJansenbio.jpgMichael Janzen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. While he makes his living as a professional web designer, he shows others what it takes to make their own tiny house dreams come true through his blog TinyHouseDesign.com. His education is in the arts and he lived as a studio potter for several years.

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