Sightline & Grist on Living Large in Small Spaces

During finals Alyse Nelson sent me a request to answer some questions about tiny houses for a piece for Sightline. Alyse did a lovely article that features me as well as my heros Dee Williams of PAD Tiny Houses and Eli Spevak of Orange Splot.

The Sightline article Living Large in Small Houses is available here. The story was also picked up by Grist for crossposting. Woohoo! Here's the Grist version of Living Large in Small Houses.

To think I thought I was getting my Fifteen Seconds of Fame a year ago when I got my first press request. At the time I was pretty camera shy when I was interviewed by a Canadian reporter. It's been lots of fun advocating for the tiny house movement the past year!


Getting All My Docs in a Row

As I explained in Strategizing Digitizing, my New Year's Resolution is to go paperless. After conducting my New Year's Re-Inventory yesterday and realizing that I'm over on My 200 Things Challenge I decided to get to work. I was a little horrified when I took inventory today and realized I had The Only Existing Copy of various electronic files stored in the following places:

  • my laptop computer,
  • my personal drive at school,
  • two different USB keys,
  • my back up hard drive,
  • Google docs,
  • Dropbox, and
  • a small collection of CD-Rs.

I used to have documents on floppy disks and a zip drive, too, but I tossed those years ago when I couldn’t find a computer which still accepted them. It was definitely time to consolidate! It doesn't make sense for a minimalist to have this many Little Pieces of Important Paper.

I haven’t yet added the documents from my personal drive at school, but I started with the documents that were handy. I dumped everything from my USB keys, back-up hard drive, and CDs onto my laptop. This involved borrowing an external CD drive since my MacBook Air doesn’t have a CD drive. (Note to self: when your computer has evolved beyond a storage technology, it’s time to catch up with it!)

I’d used various organizing schemes over the years so it took a little while to get everything sorted into a new filing system, but eventually I got there. I was surprised by how much I could archive. I do still feel compelled to keep much of it, but it’s not relevant to my daily life, so I don’t need it available there at a glance in the left-hand sidebar. It’s now nicely organized within my Archive folder and I can still get to it quickly if necessary. The folders I do seem to use on a regular basis are these:

  • Archives
  • Journal
  • Little Life
  • Recipes
  • Tiny Houses
  • a folder for each of my classes (which I add to the archive at the end of the term)

I’m still Strategizing Digitizing. Scanners are notoriously unreliable. Working with them has often given me more headaches than it’s worth. A friend of mine has a scanner he loves and he offered to loan it to me. So I took it home and messed around with scanner drivers for a while, but I never could get it to work for me. I looked into buying the brand and model he swears by, but I’m not in a place to spend upwards of $300 on a scanner right now. I considered buying a used scanner off Craigslist, but I couldn’t find one that would scan both sides of the page and I don’t have the patience to feed pages through. I think it would take me a week to scan all my documents and if it’s that cumbersome I’ll quickly abandon the habit. Anyone out there have a digitizing strategy they’d recommend?

New Year’s Re-Inventory

Although I've done a pretty good job Maintaining the Little Life, a new year is upon us and it seems like a good time to check in on My 200 Things Challenge. I’ve re-inventoried my possessions and I currently have 214 things. You can see My 214 Things List here. So I’ve slipped a little. Oops! Like so many other people, I’ve done a little acquiring over the winter months! 2 water jugs, a 1-burner cooktop, a mini-fridge

By the way, I was impressed with myself for having less than 200 things on My 198 Things List when I moved into my Home, Sweet Yurt in September. But I realized as I was re-inventorying this week that since I did my inventory before moving into the yurt, I wasn’t counting the things I’d be living with that were not yet in my possession. I’m renting the yurt partially furnished with a bedframe, a table and two chairs, and a nightstand. Two water jugs, a one-burner cooktop, and a mini-fridge also came as part of the deal. I also forgot to count my power tools since they were still at the jobsite of My Summer Dream Job. So I when I compared today’s inventory to My 198 Things List, it seems like I’ve acquired 16 new things in the past few months, but about half them I just hadn’t yet counted. I wasn’t deliberately cheating. I just wasn’t taking into account the things that weren’t right there in front of me.

my kitchen in a cupboard

Knowing I had a smidge of wiggle room, I gave myself the okay to purchase a few things. One of my first acquisitions was My Kitchen Cupboard. Shortly after that I got myself a 700-watt microwave, which is smaller and less likely to trip my electrical circuit than the big one that moved here with me. When it started getting cool in October I bought myself another Envi Heater since I really liked living with one in the tiny house last year. I also got myself a Smart Klean laundry ball as I described in I Love my Laundromat even though it was one more thing and according to the rules I made for My 200 Things Challenge I wouldn’t have had to count laundry soap. I also got a dehumidifier to help in Managing Mildew & Moisture. And since I’m now living with rugs again after years of hardwood floors, I got myself a vacuum cleaner. It’s the Bucket Head, which fits onto the top of a 5 gallon bucket. It seemed like a very practical way to go since the bucket can be used for all sorts of other things, too. Yay multi-functionalism!

my Bucket Head vacuum

Most of those were very practical household items, but thanks to Portland’s amazing free boxes I’ve also acquired a few new clothing items. Speaking of clothes, one of the things I noticed as I swapped out my summer wardrobe for my fall wardrobe and then my fall wardrobe for my winter wardrobe is that I have more warm-weather clothes these days. When I tucked away some things away for winter (such as my short-sleeve shirts, capris, sandals, and my hammock) and got out my winter wardrobe (hello, felted wool hat, fuzzy scarves, and cozy gloves!) I realized it might be time for The Minimalist’s New Clothes.

But at the same time, I do really want to get back down to 200 things. I plan to take time over an upcoming weekend for Taking Stock without Stocking Up. I'll also be Getting All My Docs in a Row. I’d like to have a smidge of wiggle room because I do actually have a couple things on my wish list. Top of the list right now are a pair of cozy slippers. These floors are chilly on cold days!

Maintaining the Little Life

my little dining nook & pantry In September I marked A Year of Little Living by Downsizing from a Tiny House to a Tinier House. When I moved into a 113 square foot yurt I embarked upon My 200 Things Challenge. I've continued to learn a lot about simple living through these adventures. So now as 2012 winds down, I figured it's time to reevaluate.

As I moved my belongings out of the tiny house into My Summer Garden Cottage and then into my Home, Sweet Yurt, I had an opportunity to critically evaluate my possessions. When I began the process of downsizing a year and a half ago so that I could move into a tiny house on wheels, I was very intentional about choosing which possessions I would bring with me and what activities I would do. I knew I'd be busy studying for my Masters of Urban and Regional Planning, so I figured I'd need my very small collection of design reference books, my office supplies, and my laptop computer. I knew I wouldn't have as much time to cook or as much space to host dinner parties, but a well-stocked kitchen was important to me, even in a tiny house. And, of course, my clothes and bedding would be essential. Special things I brought along included my craft supplies, decorations, and scrapbooks. I rented out my two-bedroom bungalow in Walla Walla partially furnished and stored four boxes in a friend's basement.

in storage: four boxes and my food dehydrator

I’ve never enjoyed shopping much so I didn’t have to give that up when I moved into a tiny house. But I do have a hard time turning down a good deal (especially free!) so this year I’ve had to be more intentional about not letting anything into my life that I don’t either know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. As I’ve thought about my consumption patterns I realize that I usually pick household items that I enjoy using. Good tools – like an impact driver that fits well in my small hands and flatware that has nice balance – make the task more enjoyable (and eating and building are pretty great anyhow!) So I insist upon comfy shoes and cozy coats... and delicious healthy food for that matter. Focusing on high quality things, whether durable or consumable, seems to really increase my quality of life, and that's invaluable. Some household things I consider essentials (such as sharp knives, a warm blanket, a comfy mattress). Others household things – like a set of candleholders and a pretty wooden salad bowl – aren’t necessities, but I think they make my house my home.

my kitchen chicken rooting in my kitchen cupboard

I haven’t acquired much over the past year. It helped that there simply wasn’t much room to store new things. My acquisitions were mostly things to support my Little Life: a drinking water quality hose, a Kill-A-Watt electricity meter, an Envi Heater, a utility bike with a rack for grocery-getting, and a speedier road bike for longer distances. I've been gifted a few things this past year, too, and fortunately most people have been very conscientious in their gifting. The items have been very special things that are worth counting, including some air plants (these are so cool!) and a my kitchen chicken (a clay sculpture, courtesy of my talented 10 year old cousin Baeven). Thanks to grad school I also seem to have collected more paperwork, too, but I’ll be Getting All My Docs in a Row sometime soon. So all things considered I've done pretty well at maintaining a Little Life.

In the next couple days I'll do a New Year's Re-Inventory to see where I stand with My 200 Things Challenge. Stay tuned for the update!

Strategizing Digitizing

My New Year’s resolution is to go digital so I’m getting ready for it. I tend to be one of those uber organized people who keeps important paperwork all categorized and in one place. On (approximately) a monthly basis I sort new paperwork I’ve acquired, file the important documents, and recycle everything that’s not compostable and then shred and compost everything I can. I began acquiring important paperwork as a teenager, so for the past fifteen years, every time I’ve moved, I’ve hauled around a Tupperware tote of paperwork. Over time I replaced it with larger and larger totes. Eventually I added a second one. I’m now the not-so-proud owner of three large totes of paperwork. As this post from Life Edited explains, even for us minimalists, it’s hard to downsize those Little Pieces of Important Paper. They might actually be… important!

But they don’t need to take up so much physical and mental space. I can certainly imagine how nice it would be to be paper-free. Wouldn’t it be convenient to have any document I need available just by doing a quick keyword search on my computer? Wouldn’t it be a relief to not have Little Pieces of Important Paper taking up physical space, time, and attention?

I hate that these totes are 3 of my 200 things. So I’ve made the decision to go all-digital. This will involve three big steps:

1)   First I’ll organize all the documents that are already in a digital format.

2)   Next I’ll begin digitizing any new documents that I acquire. I’ll get in the habit of scanning anything that’s important and shredding anything that’s not, so that they don’t pile up.

3)   Then I’ll scan my totes of paper documents so that I can eliminate Little Pieces of Important Paper from my life entirely.

Eventually, I’ll also scan old journals, too, so that I’m no longer lugging around that giant tub of paper and ink. This, I realize is a larger project and one that will involve some emotional energy as well as time. Speaking of which, I’ve set aside some time this week to tackle the first step by organizing my electronic files. You might call it Getting All My Docs in a Row.

Just Stuff

sister's quilt
sister's quilt

This time of year, as we consider what we are thankful for, I realize that this year I’m grateful that my relationship with stuff has shifted to make more room for people. To help you understand what I mean, let’s peek back in time…

When I was six years old we lived on Fremont Avenue in Seattle in an apartment that was created when a big historic home was subdivided. Whenever I took my bath in the claw-foot tub my mother would rinse my hair with her beloved clay pitcher. The pitcher was a lovely shade of pale blue-green with ochre accents. It was handmade by a professional potter and Mommy said it felt right in her hands. I could tell she appreciated the sensory experience of scooping warm water up with the pitcher and pouring it over my hair, shielding my eyes with her other hand. The pitcher had a special spot on stool next to the tub.

One evening when I climbed into my bubble bath Mommy told me she was going to make a phone call. She told me to holler when I was ready for help rinsing my hair. I’d recently entered kindergarten and as I learned what my peers were doing on their own I began trying my independence, attempting to do more things on my own. So I decided to rinse my own hair with Mommy’s special pitcher. So after washing my hair I stood up in the tub and reached over for the beautiful ceramic pitcher. It felt good in my hands, too. It was the perfect combination of smooth glaze and rippled edges, with a thick curved handle. I sat down carefully, clutching the pitcher with both hands and filled it with warm, soapy water. I tipped my head back to pour the warm water over my hair, but the pitcher was heavy and slippery and as a counter weight above my head it sent me shooting forwards in the tub with a squeal.

When the beautiful pitcher hit the back of the claw-foot tub, it broke into a dozen pieces and the water it contained splashed across the bathroom wall and floor. I burst into tears, clambered out of the tub, and began picking up the pieces. Mommy hurried into the bathroom and saw me there sobbing, holding the pieces of the broken pitcher in my tiny outstretched hands, water across every surface. She pulled me close and asked if I was okay. I kept crying, so disappointed with myself that in my attempt to be grown up and do something by myself I’d broken the pitcher she loved so much. My mother checked me over to see if my tears were an indicator of pain. When she realized I wasn’t physically hurt she clucked and shushed me until I could talk again.

“Why the tears?” she finally asked when I’d settled back down to a whimper.

I wailed: “You’re gonna be mad at me for breaking your favorite pitcher!”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “I’m disappointed the pitcher is broken, because I enjoyed using it. But I’m not going to be mad. The pitcher is just a thing. You’re much more important to me than a thing. I’m glad you’re okay.”

I’ve thought about this moment many times over the years, always a little in awe that my mother was so nonchalant about the broken pitcher. I think I’ve always been more materialistic than her. We moved around a lot when I was a kid and my things were very important to me because they helped to make each new and different place feel a little bit like home. I was especially attached to things that were one-of-a-kind and seemingly irreplaceable, like Mommy’s pitcher.

But recently I’ve begun to understand Mommy’s perspective better. The past year of living the Little Life has changed my relationship with material possessions. The downsizing process was difficult for me. It was emotionally exhausting and time consuming as I decided what objects I cherished and which I could live without. It was also a logic puzzle as I selected the objects that would be most important and functional in a small space. However, as I learned to let go of things that didn’t matter much to me I found that even my attachments to things I really love have loosened up. These days I’m more willing to loan things out and let things go.

Of course, there are some items that are truly irreplaceable. I would be disappointed if I broke the clay chicken my cousin gave me for Christmas and I'll be bummed when the quilt my sister made me becomes threadbare. But these are just things. I’ve come to realize that if I wear out a clothing item or break a dish I can replace it with something else that I like. Chances are it won’t be exactly the same, but that’s okay. I take good care of the things I own but I now recognize that objects have a lifespan, just like living things. Things will come into and leave my life the way people do. But now I really recognize that it’s the people who matter. The stuff is just stuff.

Battening Down the Hatches

As the temperature drops I’ve been slowly cranking my heater up notch by notch. It’s been a wet and chilly week with temperatures in the high 30s to low 50s. Portland has a mild climate and I know it won’t get much colder, but I don’t like that I’m already at the 6th of 10 notches on my Envi Heater. I’d like to wait till winter really hits to have to crank it up again until we hit the coldest days. Weatherizing the yurt is a matter of both saving energy and being more comfortable.

My lessons in building science have taught me that heat transfer happens in 3 ways: conduction, convection, and radiation. In really simple terms, I think of it this way: conductive heat losses occur through the solid, opaque materials of the building’s envelope, radiant heat losses occur through the transparent materials like the oculus and the windows, and convective heat losses occur through the gaps between materials.

I decided to tackle conductive heat losses first. Heat travels from warm to cold so the heat that my Envi Heater produces will transfer through the solid materials that make up the yurt’s envelope: the wooden door, the plywood floor, the vinyl tent. The yurt has virtually no insulation so the conductive heat loss potential is high. It’s a glorified tent and the only insulation is a bubble wrap material that lines the walls, creating lots of little air pockets which slows heat transfer. The floor isn't insulated at all. The bubble wrap that lines the walls provides some insulation as do the rugs on the floor. But it’s not much. There’s really not a practical way to add insulation to the walls because of their curve. It would be possible to insulate the floor and the ceiling, too, but since I don’t own the yurt I don’t have much incentive to invest in comprehensive insulation. Instead I will tackle weatherizing on the other two fronts. This is a very small space, so even if I don’t have much insulation to prevent conductive heat transfer I can still take steps to reduce radiant and convective heat transfer.

Radiant heat loss occurs when something warm gives off heat to something cold. It relies on direct lines of sight. If you can see a cold object you’re giving up heat to it. This often occurs through windows. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of sitting on a stone bench or standing next to a window on a cold day and feeling like the heat is being sucked out of you. It actually is! So closing the drapes at night really can help keep the house warmer. Putting something between you and the stone bench can help your tush not go numb from cold. I had already closed up the yurt’s windows a few weeks ago, thereby reducing my radiant losses. But I could tell that windows were a weak spot in my thermal envelope. There was no insulation here to prevent conductive losses. So I bought a roll of bubble wrap insulation for $20 and cut covers for the two windows to prevent conductive heat transfer through the vinyl window cover and the fabric of the tent flap that covers the windows. Now that the windows are closed, my only natural light comes through the oculus so I’ve been hesitant to create a cover for it. However, I realize that it’s the spot where heat is most likely to radiate to the sky. When it gets really cold, I’ll need to address this and I’ll tackle my remaining radiant heat losses then.

In the meantime, I turned my attention to convective heat losses. This is where air sealing comes in. I’ve noticed that there are spots where I can feel the cold air at the seams. The yurt has seams where the floor meets the walls, where the walls meet the roof, and around the windows and the door. I plan to seal these seams so that warm air has a harder time slipping through the cracks. However, today I tackled the obvious leaks. First, I realized I’d left the oculus open just a crack, so I decided to close it up all the way on these cold days. I can always open it whenever I need to air the yurt out, but keeping it closed on cold days (and especially cold nights) will help keep the yurt warmer. I also put rubber weather stripping around the doorframe so that when the door is closed I can no longer see daylight around the perimeter. I need to be sure to pull the door closed tightly now, but it does seem to be helping.

This evening it’s much warmer in the yurt, so I’ve turned the heater back down to the second notch. I’m not sure if it’s actually warmer outside tonight or if these little weatherization projects are already paying off, but it’s very cozy in here tonight!

I Love My Laundromat

When I was five years old we lived in a triplex on Fremont Avenue in Seattle and went to the Laundromat on the corner every week. It was one of my very favorite places. It had a warm, clean smell and squeaky yellow linoleum floors. My sister and I loved taking turns pushing each other around in the wheeled laundry baskets, playing tag, and climbing inside the dryers and the extractor. In retrospect, I’m amazed we didn’t get kicked out of the place!

So even if I wasn’t a Whedonite and a fan of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, I’d still have a soft spot for Laundromats. Laundry facilities were available at each of the three other places I’ve lived since moving to Portland, but not at my new digs. So I was secretly delighted when I realized I’d have to find a Laundromat in my new neighborhood. And find one, I did. I think I might have found the coolest Laundromat in the world!

Now once a week I head to the Belmont Eco Laundry with a backpack full of laundry to wash. I alternate between biking and bussing depending on the weather. The Laundromat is an especially nice place to be on a rainy day. I've just gotten a Smart Klean laundry ball at the suggestion of my friend Karin, another tiny houser. So far I'm liking it quite a bit, even though it's one more thing (since it's not disposable it counts as a thing in my Thing Challenge). It's nice to not have to think about buying detergent anymore!

Unless I'm doing sheets and blankets I'm able to fit everything into one of the 18-gallon washing machines, which are the smallest they have. I pay $2.25 for the quick wash on my credit card (no need to bother with all those quarters!) and settle down to do use the free wifi while waiting the 16 minutes for the magical washing machine to finish up. The machine sends me a text message when it is time to switch my laundry to the dryer. I grab one of the wheeled baskets (so tempting to crawl inside and scoot around the Laundromat, pushing myself off the washing machines, but I resist!)

I've been impressed by how my clothes are already nearly dry because of the rapid spin cycle of the industrial washing machines. I've discovered it usually takes only 2 quarters (14 minutes) to dry my clothes. If I'm only doing one load clothes I can get things washed and dried in just half an hour! I don’t have to deal with quarters and I even got to check my email. The only thing that would make this place truly perfect would be if they happened to have a coffee shop next door, but I'm still pretty pleased! I’ll do my best to refrain from turning laundry day into a musical…

Little Life Captured Tall & Skinny

Last spring Hannah Doyle, a journalism student at the University of Oregon, interviewed Brittany Yunker and me for a story she was writing for OR Magazine. OR Magazine is an annual publication that captures the uniqueness of Oregonians. The format of OR Magazine is really unique, very tall and skinny, because it is published in an iPad format. Just zoom in to read the article. Hannah shared the Living with Less story with me and I wanted to share it with you.

You can read it right here: Living with Less. Enjoy!


Electing Simplicity, Sanity, & Smallness

Happy Election Day, everyone! I walked my ballot down to the post office this morning. This evening I'll be gathering with my classmates to watch the election results roll in. I'm honored I was able to vote on initiatives that will make my state and my country places which I can be proud to call home.

It turns out I'm a conservative. I'm all about conserving time, energy, money, resources and talent so that they can be used constructively rather than squandered. That's why I've chosen the Little Life: a small, simple home, active transportation by bike, foot, transit, and car share, and an education that is helping me to create sustainable communities. This enables me to be more liberal with my time, money, and energy for the causes and people I believe in.


I think of Election Day as a chance to consider what we stand for, what we elect in our own daily lives. I hereby elect the following:

  • The right to live in a small, simple space that suits my needs
  • Deliberate and conscientious spending on practical necessities and little joys
  • Freedom from consumerist chaos and unnecessary financial burdens
  • Connection with an incredible network of curious and passionate people
  • Time to visit with the people I hold dear (even if it's via skype and text because of the geographic distance between us)
  • Prioritization of my physical, emotional, and mental health
  • Engagement with the outdoors and my neighborhood

What are you electing to have in your life during this cycle?