This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.
At 41, Dee Williams was a “normal, middle-class, middle-of-the-road woman with a mortgage and a job and friends.” She worked as a state hazardous waste inspector and owned a 1927 Portland, Ore., fixer-upper that she shared with a rotation of roommates. She “went running and climbing and paddling, racing in a thousand different directions at a thousand miles per hour.”
Then one day she woke up in an intensive care unit tethered to a urine bag, IV pole, and heart monitor, and the doctors diagnosed her with a potentially fatal heart condition. “It felt like death, or my mortality, or something bigger still, was leaning into my bed with the moonlight, clattering when I moved hangers in the closet, buzzing behind the sound of the shower running or my car idling in traffic,” she writes in The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir.
Soon after her diagnosis, Williams discovered an article about an Iowa City man who built and moved into a house the size of a shed. The idea of building such a little house—the process itself and the paring down it would require to move in—enticed Williams. “Somehow, it would shrink my life into a manageable mouthful,” she writes. Before long, Williams was drafting blueprints for her own tiny house.
Designing a house, even a very small one, involved some “outright panic” for Williams. She planned to live in the backyard of a house belonging to friends more than a hundred miles away in Olympia, Wash. Thus the house would need to fit on a trailer and be under 13.5 feet tall per Department of Transportation requirements. It would also need to withstand the rough shaking that transporting a house on the highway can present.
Excerpt from the book:
I thought I’d find something in all of this, and I got more than I bargained for. I discovered a new way of looking at the sky, the winter rain, the neighbors, and myself; and a different way of spending my time. Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.
I now this sounds cheesy, and in fact, it sounds fairly similar to the gobbledygook that friends have thrown at me just after having their first baby. But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house—a sense of largeness, freedom, and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place you’d rather be.
As she built, Williams experienced sore muscles, bumps, bruises, smashed fingers—and lost her ponytail after she accidentally glued it to her house. She also had a lot of fun. “Risking life and limb every day” distracted her from her potentially debilitating disease. And she erected an undeniably attractive 84-square-foot cedar-and-knotty-pine house that manages to look open and airy in photos despite its minuscule size.
In a society drowning in commercials, books, and schemes promising to deliver us from hardship, it might have been tempting for Williams to oversell downsizing. She resisted that temptation—The Big Tiny abounds with refreshing honesty, humor, and endearing quirkiness.
Williams admits that getting rid of her three-bedroom house full of stuff was more agonizing than she expected, and living in less than a hundred square feet isn’t always comfortable. She has no refrigerator or plumbing. She cooks on a single burner and sleeps with her propane heater off, because she’s afraid her house will catch fire. She estimates she’s happy about 85 percent of the time, about the same amount of time she was happy in her big house.
When she escaped the “mindless rotisserie of work and projects” that guided her in her old house, Williams discovered a satisfaction that came from getting to know herself. “Letting go of ‘stuff,’” she writes, “allowed the world to collapse behind me as I moved, so I became nothing more or less than who I simply was: Me.”The house and its large skylight helped her connect with nature in a new way. “I like the excitement of the windstorms and the rain pounding down a thousand different ways, inches from my head,” she writes. She also has more time for drinking tea on her porch and chatting with friends, because she no longer has to juggle bills and worry about constant home repairs.
What Williams celebrates most is that her new lifestyle requires her to depend on others. She lives “in community” with her friends Hugh and Annie, their two sons, and Hugh’s elderly aunt Rita because she’s located in their backyard and needs their running water. Williams happily takes on the role of Rita’s caretaker in exchange for using Rita’s shower and occasionally her oven. “If more people understood how nice it is to have a sense of home that extends past our locked doors, past our neighbors’ padlocks…we’d live in a very different place,” she insists.
Williams’ enthusiasm for small living and her charming hand-built house have already helped launch a tiny house movement. The Big Tiny will encourage many more people to assess whether bigger and more means happier—proof that making something tiny can ignite something very big.