Becoming Home

March 10, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

We are putting the finishing touches on a 665 square foot house for our family of five.  Here is the backstory.

All this talk, lately, about this little house of ours, and I haven’t told you the backstory, have I? Not really, no.


Here begins a series of words that will take you back to the beginning, lead you up through the middle, and place you right here beside me, now. Sound good? 

Let’s begin…

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I drew a pencil line across the paper, exactly eight feet long, in quarter-inch scale.

The vision of this wall and its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves flashed onto the screen of my mind like a slide in a projector. Yes, this would work: three feet for the width of the hall, plus two feet for the ship-ladder staircase, yes, that would leave the perfect length for the bookcase wall, which would also be just right for the bathroom on the other side.

Each wall, in turn, slid across the screen, and I drew them down in that shallow winter light: a bump-out for the sofa; another on the facing wall for a window seat at the end of the dining table. Opposite the bookshelves, stretching across the gable-end wall, would be the kitchen. A simple kitchen, just over thirteen feet long, all of it.

I tapped the end of the pencil at my lips.

Then sketched some more.

Under a shower of ideas, necessities, graphite dust, and eraser crumbs, a little house was forming. A cabin, if you will.

Born from the thought that maybe, just maybe, we could one day build a house debt free, we had long ago begun a conversation of outside-the-box ideas about what a stepping stone dwelling to that debt free house might be – Sailboat? Cabin? RV? It all seemed far fetched and a little off-your-rocker, especially since we were a family of five living under a mortgage, under possessions, and under unspoken expectations. But still, the thought lingered, the ideas mounted, the conversation continued.

And we weren’t sure it would ever happen.

Dreams seem to tantalize just beyond reach, sometimes for years – the antithesis of angst and intrigue. With crossed arms, you wonder if it wouldn’t be better for those dreams to just disappear and leave you alone with ordinary.

Then came fall, 2011.   

After languishing for two years, the mortgaged house sold, the rental lease was up, the summertime care-taking position was over. It was time. Time to either fly or fall with these cross-grain ideas of living small and debt free. Only thing was, we weren’t exactly sure how.

All we knew?

Since Wyoming is home, a sailboat was out.  

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photo source: Country Living

Inch-the-toes-forward, stab the darkness.


Inch-the-toes-forward-half-a-scary-step more, flail-stab the darkness.

This is what October 2011 was like for us. Because, even when you are sure you’re heading in the right direction, you’re pretty sure you’re not. Winter was fast approaching, and we were nearly homeless, save for some flimsy ideas that, in themselves, would provide little shelter when the snow began to fall. Beam and plank and nail, steel and glass are what ideas need to shore them up solid, and we had none of those.

A small space. Something small to live in for the next few turns of time while we saved toward buying land and building a house, this is what we needed. A stepping-stone dwelling.

At the risk of having Chris Farley as Matt Foley in Saturday Night Live’s Motivational Speaker on forever-repeat in the back of our minds, we considered an RV. People do happily live in them (hey, if Matthew McConaughey can do it), and they are portable, which is helpful if you want to take it with you when you eventually buy the land on which you’ll build. But, in the end, an RV purchase was scratched from our list. We would be spending cash, and we had to spend well. A slow nose-dive of depreciation wasn’t what we were looking for.

Stab the darkness.

A cabin? Would this, could this be?  Could we design a small cabin-house that would serve our needs now, and become the guest house in the future? Could it be of solid construction, full of character, and built to last a lifetime? And, seeing as how we were not yet landowners, could it be portable? If so, where in the world would we put it to live in now?

Flail-stab the darkness.

Let me just say that it is, in fact, possible to be hesitant and jittery, yet solidly intentioned at the very same time. We told friends and strangers of our unusual plan to live in a small, portable cabin that wasn’t yet built, on somebody else’s land that we hadn’t yet found. We ran ads in area newspapers, we prayed, we risked. We wondered if we were completely crazy.  

Curiously, this was precisely when Time decided to kick back all loose and saggy-like, as if there was no impending move to be made. Complacent and uncaring, it mocked our efficient tendencies and smoked our neatly rolled, right-now reasons. Each day leaked away, and every possibility fizzled, forcing heavy exhales like a sharp slap on the back.

They say that things come together in the eleventh hour.

The eleventh hour.

For us, it had come and gone. 

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Our kitchen

The keys sounded a faint tap-tapping as I typed words into the blank space then clicked the magnifying glass. Searching.  Quite literally searching for home. Scrolling, clicking, looking. Cabins. More cabins. More possibilities. More hope. For hope was indeed rising. Yes. Just when it seemed like this dream of ours had become nothing but wet streaks down weary faces, a portion of land was offered to us on which to place a portable cabin. Just. like. that. Land with a well, septic, and electric all in place, with mature trees and a cabin-spot there at the apex of creek and horse pasture – all of it calling out to us, Here! Come live here! After a long stretch of nothing, this sudden something was hope that filled like breath rising; hope that we could quite literally stand on, wade in, and run across.

A little cabin came up on the computer screen in front of me. It was small, yes, but there was a right-track feeling about it. It had plank walls, paned windows, wood siding, a tin roof. And? It was moveable. Saved to favorites, we visited often; looked at it, talked about it. Would this work? Could this be? We made phone calls to the man who builds, then a dashing road trip through autumn’s leaves to see ones similar, to stand in them, to touch them, to imagine. To decide.

A great sea of paperwork opens up when the possibility of building is on the horizon. Permits were submitted for, phone calls were made to this office and that one. It seemed that we spoke with all the powers that were and all the powers that weren’t. And all the while, images of small dwellings and ideas of the spaces within them filled my every thought and waking moment, for I knew that a few short weeks is not much time in which to plan a home, even a small one. Good thing I had a savings account of design inspiration that I’d been keeping for such a time as this. I’d surely be leafing through.

We’d found land, we’d found a builder, the last of autumn was falling, and I began to sketch. 

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There’s something of a jewel found in a small box, a place where there’s room only for that most treasured and nothing more.

Our jewel-box dwelling began coaching us in simplicity, even as a sketch on graph paper. It gently guided us in tailoring our possessions to include only the dearest-held and the most-loved. There would be a place for the old oak rocker that my husband remembers as a boy in the bunk house of his family’s Montana ranch; there would be a nook for a writing desk (because there surely would be writing); there would be a drafting table in the loft for the boy who cartoons, and a place for an electric guitar and amp for the boy who plays; there would be shelf space for collections, a hook for grandfather’s hat. Select pieces of full-size furniture would ground the living and dining areas. The design carefully danced the line between small and too small.

The kitchen was drawn in its most basic form, all on one wall. Only the simplest of elements needed for preparing our family’s nourishment were included: a down-draft range, a petite refrigerator, and deep double sinks. There would be no microwave, no garbage disposal, no dishwasher. There would be one drawer bank, six cabinets, open shelves, and sixty inches of counter space all together (with the open dining table just steps away). There would be a pot rack and a vintage light fixture.

Raw need cultivated innovation as the space plan took shape and every inch was ripe with potential – potential to be filled or left open, seeing as how space not filled is as important as space that is. A sense of calm permeates a room when the eye and the soul have a place to rest. 

Three and four-foot traffic patterns brought breath to the open living spaces and the vaulted ceiling with its high dormer window broke the area wide open. Most rooms in this little house were to be shared, certainly, but also? There were spaces for seclusion (a bed nook with a curtain drawn, found in the loft reached by a ship’s ladder/stair, anyone?). The master bedroom at the end of the hall held a queen bed lit by vintage porcelain pull-chain sconces. The writing nook was flanked by built-in cabinets, one for a stacking washer and dryer; the other slated for shelves top to bottom. 

This little house would require things of us. It would require off-loading. It would require giving away. It would require a reckoning. Needs shifted; wants changed. Perspectives were aligned along a new plane. And a certain fervor for life rose as the plans came to completion.

On an early day in the newly turned year, the design was complete, the contract was signed, and the builder began his work. 

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The print you see here? It’s one of my favorites. Found here.

It was around the bend of a new 2012, that our 665 square foot cabin began to take shape. Wood, glass, and steel slowly brought those poured-over plans straight up off the paper and stood them up solid. It really was happening for us, this big idea of small!

But, how does one prepare, exactly, for this small sort of living? Moving from much space to little has to require some sort of intention and adjustment, right? And must you let go of one way of life in order to receive another?  Was it possible, really, to have everything you needed and nothing you didn’t? The answer to these questions and more, we were finding out each and every day, because, in anticipation of living in 665 square feet small, we chose to live even smaller.

Two hundred square feet. Five people. Seven months. A little camper down by the river, where we lived while waiting for our cabin to be built, where we fed our neighbors carrots across the fence and saw those orange-red sunrises in the east. Remember those blue velvet skies? I do. I remember stepping out the camper door that night, and snapping that shot.

It all felt a bit pioneer-ish, really, living in a box on wheels, doing something that few choose to do. But if we wanted to learn this living small, we’d come to the right place.  A week’s worth of clothes for everyone (I imagined us going on a seven-day trip – what would we pack?), a warm bed for each (three of which were laid out every night, then put away every morning), hot biscuits instead of fresh bread, and quicker showers, if you wanted them hot. It was like living in a three-dimensional puzzle where everything had a place – even the Lego models hanging from the ceiling, and the art drawings on the wall. There were boy toys, Mama knitting, and Daddy books – but only the favorites. And? There was a pond to run around when the sanity indicator began to slide toward crazy.

The camper schooled us quickly in living small, in living efficiently, in living respectfully. It certainly wasn’t our forever home, but it was a way to get where we were going.

When we moved the last of our things out of the camper and into the cabin on that early summer day, a deep knowing came along with them:

When you pare down to less, you may just find that you’ve come out with more.

Our cabin arrived. Our cabin arrived!

The day after Easter, 2012, a red semi towing our small house, draped with flashing cautions and ‘wide load’ signs, pulled down the drive. It was something like seeing our first newborn home; we were a jumble of emotion – all the waiting was in the past, and now, here it was. After aligning it just so on the site, after the unhooking and undraping, after a farewell to the truck driver, we anxiously stepped up some make-shift stairs, opened the front door, and went inside.

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The smell of fresh wood drew us right in. And there we were, standing in a pod of dreams. Pages and pages of sketches and inspiration were standing solid, right there around us.

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We went from room to room. We climbed the ship’s ladder stairway. We opened cabinet doors and looked inside. We were amazed that this really was true.

Then, we sat on the subfloor, leaned our backs against the plank walls, and just looked around.  


The conversation soon turned to lists, for lists were indeed in order. The builder had built, and now we would finish. We would seal the walls, install bath plumbing fixtures, hang antique lighting, and install flooring throughout. Custom built-ins and interior trim would be added, too. And then there was exterior paint and the installation of skirting, and how to do that in a way that wouldn’t look like ‘skirting’ at all.

In time. All this in time. Over the next set of months, each of these things would slowly be moved from ‘to do’ to ‘done.’

Our home had come.

Tags: personal resilience, tiny house movement