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How to Build a Tiny House

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When she sold a three-bedroom home and moved into this 84-square-foot house in Olympia, Washington, Dee Williams found freedom. Photo by Betty Udesen
When she sold a three-bedroom home and moved into this 84-square-foot house in Olympia, Washington, Dee Williams found freedom. Photo by Betty Udesen

See inside Dee Williams’ house

Three years ago, I decided to downsize. I sold my big house (which I loved!), got rid of all my stuff, and built an itty-bitty eco-friendly cottage. When I finished building, I slid my little house into a friend’s backyard. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. My house actually “fits” in the backyard. It looks like a tiny cabin, or a tree house. It’s also super-small and built on wheels.

My house offers 84 square-feet of living space and cost about $10,000 to build. It was built for the highway, but—honestly—it isn’t anything like a travel trailer. It doesn’t contain any space-age plastics or fake wood. Instead, it’s the real deal: knotty pine, cedar, and fir.

I made the house to be as simple and natural as possible. I minimized my construction footprint by using a bunch of “green” building techniques, including:

  • Recycled and Salvaged Wood—The house took shape based on the materials that were offered to me or “found.” For example, I decided to install skylights after I found two huge windows at the salvage yard. I installed knotty pine siding on the interior walls and ceiling, and used cedar planks for the loft floor after the wood became available at the local reuse store. I installed exterior cedar siding after my neighbor offered me a bundle. He had originally purchased the wood in the 1940s, and had been storing it in his garage since that time. It was beautiful old-growth cedar—the kind you can’t find anymore.

  • Insulated Windows—The house has nice, wood-clad windows that are low-emission (which reflects sunlight to keep the house cooler in the summer) and argon-insulated. They cost a mint, but have proven to work great! They cut noise and heat loss, and look fabulous.

  • Solar Electricity—A 240-watt photovoltaic (solar) system powers my lights and other electric gadgets. It was sized to meet my needs, based on Olympia’s cloudy weather.

  • Non-toxic Stains and Sealants—I used a water-based stain on the outside of the house, and a water-based sealant on the kitchen counter. I didn’t coat the floors, walls, or ceiling. As a result, the house carries a subtle, natural cedar and pine smell. I love the woodsy, peaceful smell of my house.

  • Primitive Water/Sewer—I don’t have running water in my house. I pull water from a nearby garden spigot, and jug it into the house. I use a composting toilet, and I shower elsewhere. This “primitive” set-up has presented some of the greatest challenges for me. But I’ve gotten used to things, and I recognize that (on a world scale) any sort of toilet or shower is a blessing. Millions of people live without running water or a sanitary sewer. My situation is gifted by comparison.

  • Other Good Ideas—I used shredded cotton insulation in the walls and ceiling, and Marmoleum (a natural linseed product) on the floor. I placed the house in the backyard with consideration for wind, sun and shade. Most importantly, I simply minimized the size of the house while creating a sense of space, utility and natural beauty (smaller really is better for the environment).

I’ve been in the backyard for over two years. I didn’t intend to find myself stumbling down a “greener” path, but the house has worked on me. I buy less stuff (there’s no place to store it). I re-think leaving lights on, and mull over better ways to manage my compost. I take fewer and shorter showers because I’m imposing on someone else. My ecological footprint has definitely gotten smaller by living in my little house.

I’ve saved a lot of money (my utility bills don’t really exist, and I don’t have a mortgage). I also spend less time fixing things and cleaning. Now, I have more of the “stuff” that I always wanted: time and resources.

I’ve tried to explain my house to other people. It’s a bit awkward. For example, a few weeks ago, a group of 5th-graders visited my house. I was trying to explain how my house works, and what makes it “green.” And ultimately, we spent less time talking about the house (itself), and more time talking about how the house has connected me to the community.

I’m less autonomous. I rely on the sun to power my lights. I trust the rain on the roof to keep me company. I love that the wind cools my house in summer (it works!). I depend on the library and food co-op, and the generosity of friends and neighbors. I have to ask for water every day, and that has changed me!

I find myself wanting (more than ever) to give something back. And that is at the root of all sorts of new ways to live more simply and in-step with my world. Downsizing just keeps getting better!


Dee Williams' tiny house was featured in Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Dee is an inspector with the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Reprinted with kind permission from South Sound Green Pages.

Interested?
Dream House: Tour Dee Williams’ house

See the houseplan at www.tumbleweedhouses.com

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