As the weather (maybe) cools and autumn quickly approaches, here’s a quick roundup of what’s going on at DC’s tiny house community over the next few months—
Back in February, I shared a tour of the Matchbox put together by Deek Diedricksen, but before I leave for my summer in Europe (today!), I thought I’d offer a video update on tiny house (and community) progress. Enjoy—
We keep most junk around for economic reasons: because we think we’ll use it, because we think we’ll need it, because we can’t accept a sunk cost or because we can afford to buy knick-knacks of no value. The last breed of junk, however, isn’t economic; it’s emotional.
#5: Books (stuff that you’ve [maybe] read once and will [probably] never read again)
I should begin by noting that I am nothing if not a bibliophile, a lover of literature and the limitless knowledge and entertainment books contain. But loving literature is not the same as loving books.
I have great friends with lovely libraries, cabinets and cases of texts and tomes, paperbacks and publications, hundreds and hundreds of bindings containing thousands and thousands of pages. It’s beautiful wall art.
But is it functional? Hardly. Think of all the books you’ve ever read. If you have a library, think of how many books you own. Now think of how many of those books you’ve read a second time. Some? A third time. A few? A fourth time. Maybe two, one, zero? Practically, personal libraries are overwhelmingly underused: a book purchased, read, and then shelved, never to be opened again. With over 130 million different titles in existence, the reader rarely returns to her collection. Rather, she adds to it—buy, read, shelf, repeat—and the library grows.
|Many books, lots of space.|
So what’s the harm? Space, for one—libraries take up a lot of room and are a pain to move. Finances—buying books costs money. And then there’s the environmental cost: books are, well, made from trees, and every new copy of a book requires new pages, new trees. My simple back-of-the-napkin estimate of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, for instance (200 million copies at an average of 500 pages each, with a single sixty-foot pine tree yielding about 80,000 pages), has required nearly 1.3 million trees to produce over its long print-cycle—about 3% of the Amazon’s (the forest, not the retailer) present inventory. And remember, that’s just the impact of one (very high-selling) book.
But space and money and planet aside, perhaps the best argument for ditching the library is sharing. As with just-in-case junk (for what is a library but just-in-case-I-want-to-read-this-later junk?), everything we have is something someone else can’t have. When we hoard five hundred books just in case we want to reread five, we’re keeping 495 books from our community, 495 books that can be read not later, but now—right now. And let’s face it: if we care about a book enough to keep it, isn’t it inherently something we think others deserve to experience as well?
But how do we go about reading without amassing a library? Simple. We begin by donating our books—all those but the few we really, really, really believe we’ll read again—to real libraries, public libraries, libraries with free and open access to all. Or we build a little free library in our neighborhood and stock it with our best. Or we pass on our collection to a used books store, perhaps even sell them on Amazon (the retailer, not the forest) for a fair price. We keep the revolving door revolving.
Then, we get a library card. We check books out and check them back in, or we buy new books and sell them back when we’re done. Maybe we get an e-reader. Me, I’m partial to the Kindle Paperwhite (though I trust they’re all very good), finding it to offer quite a few benefits over the paper book:
- It’s light. At under 8 ounces, an e-reader weighs half of an average paperback, and that weight doesn’t change for the epic novels. Infinite Jest and Cannery Row not only weigh the same, they weigh the same together—8 ounces on a Kindle, 2 pounds in hand. For travelers, e-readers are phenomenal; one can easily pack 100 books for a multi-month excursion, and stuff the whole collection right into their back pocket.
- It’s … light. Speaking just for the Paperwhite here, it’s an absolute pleasure to read in the dark. With a soft, adjustable backlight that’s easy on the eyes, reading lamps, flashlights, and strained lenses are a thing of the past.
- Books are affordable and available for all. With thousands of titles in the public domain—and many more free to download if you know where to look—e-readers have the potential to truly close the literary gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Growing up with neither the money for books nor someone to take me to the library regularly, it’s heartening to see such open access to literature growing and evolving, but it depends on the support of all of us to continue doing so.
Of course, I’ve heard the arguments against them—but I love the feel of a book!, they smell so good!, or the entitled and illogical ramblings of Jonathan Franzen—and for a while, I believed them too (maybe not the Franzen bit). But the truth is, first you try an e-reader, then you get used to an e-reader, and then you prefer an e-reader, and the bookworm inside of you thanks you for it. The minimalist in you does too.
|Many books, little space.|
#6: Sentimental junk (stuff that we may or may not hold dear)
I won’t ridicule sentimental junk as I have junk’s other five forms, for our sentimental items are often those we’re most sensitive about. We give them value that transcends currency; often, we consider them irreplaceable. These treasured bits of our very selves adorn our home and warm our hearts—the very type of thing I’ve advocated for keeping around in the past—so I want to be clear that what I’m talking about here is not the urn or the photo album, nor the old rocking chair passed down through the generations. Sure, these are sentimental, but they are not sentimental junk.
Sentimental junk are those items we keep because we feel they should have value. Old holiday cards with more matter than message, ticket stubs we plan to scrapbook one day but never do, letters from lovers long gone, a final draft of a senior thesis or a diploma itself. In my own downsizing journey, these were the most difficult items to part with. But after the hesitance, recycling my diplomas and burning old correspondence felt cathartic, freeing, leaving my past alive in the only place it really exists and the only place it can be truly treasured: my memories.
And then, of course, there’s digitization. Yes, we can burn our letters and toss our photo albums and discard our physical encumbrances, but that needn’t be our only option. For we live in the digital age, an age of uploading and archiving, an age when the contents of a shoebox or a trunk can be preserved on a chip smaller than a fingernail. Perhaps flipping through digital albums isn’t quite the same as passing an afternoon in the attic perusing old photobooks, but hey: at least you don’t need an attic.
This post is the fourth of a series on living simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.
The Matchbox, like nearly all tiny homes, saves on space with a sleeping loft: forty square feet elevated roughly seventy-eight inches off the ground, just enough room for a mattress and its occupant(s). Having spent my fair share of nights in the Matchbox’s queen-size loft, let’s take a look at the the good, the bad, and the ugly of loft living, from safety to sustainability to sex—and everything in between.
|The Matchbox and its spacious loft, with the skylight adding a feeling of great openness.|
To begin, lofts are cozy—like, really cozy. When designed right, with ample headroom and a generous skylight and soft linens, the loft is a lovely place to read, rest, or watch the clouds drift by. A hideaway flatscreen (like the one featured in the Matchbox) can transform the space into a tiny cinema, and the removable skylight provides quick egress to the roof—important for safety, but also a lovely place to sit and contemplate on those warmer summer nights.
The loft does great in the cold as well. Because hot air rises, a loft will always be the warmest place in a tiny house, so running the fireplace a short time before bed is typically enough to keep one comfortable for hours: no need to use electricity the whole night through. And when things get a tad too toasty, easy access to the skylight allows for heat to be vented up and away at will.
Then, of course, there’s the space savings: forty square feet elevated means forty square feet of surplus down below, or forty square feet less altogether, allowing for a tinier, simpler, cheaper, greener home—though one not without a few admittable tradeoffs.
Brian designed Minim House without a loft, as he found the elevated bed useful only “if you’re young, don’t drink much, can handle rain noise, and don’t get too creative during sexytime.” Some fair and very valid points: loft ladders are more physically taxing then simply rolling into bed, for starters. When I had surgery last year, I had to spend a week away from the Matchbox because I couldn’t make it up the loft, and after a long run or a full day of rock climbing, lifting myself into bed is something of a chore.
They also, indeed, require more sobriety to climb. I’m a responsible drinker, so I’ve yet to find myself in a serious liquor-versus-ladder showdown, but loft safety more broadly is a serious concern. In testing a (failed) method of securing my ladder to the loft this winter, I fell off it twice while climbing, fortunately making it back to my feet with only a few bruises. And while my memory foam mattress and calm sleep demeanor protect me from rolling right off the bed while asleep, most tiny house lofts do lack railings, and thus are a terribly dangerous idea for he-who-tosses-and-turns or she-who-sleepwalks.
To Brian’s third concern—rain noise—I can’t say I ever recall being bothered by the crash of rainfall, but perhaps my fondness for nature’s dearer sounds leaves me biased. I won’t, however, rebut Brian’s final claim: a loft does, indisputably, limit your intimacy options.
I’ll admit that in designing my loft and choosing its height, “maneuverability” played a key role. I’m quite satisfied with the way the loft turned out; I find that between the queen-size mattress, the flat ceiling, and the raised skylight, there’s more than enough space for a roomy romp. But there are limits, of course: prohibited positions and the occasional bumping of the head and a mild awkwardness that demands that one, well, have a little familiarity and shared sense of humor with one’s loft guest(s). It’s a tradeoff, sure, but one with a simple solution, if need be: just take it downstairs.
Getting downstairs is, in itself, something worth noting. Life with a loft means no more rolling out of bed. Waking up and descending into productivity becomes a careful, deliberate action, and when really tired, it truly is the last thing you want to do—when the loft is nice and warm and the space below cold and unforgiving, even more so.
So there’s the good: lofts are simple and cozy, they take advantage of thermodynamics to save energy, they provide easy access for escape (essential or otherwise), they save considerable space, and though the athleticism required to climb in and out of one daily is sometimes a pain, there’s something to be said for a loft doing its small part in keeping you young, both at heart and in body (the edge of the loft also serves as a perfect pull-up bar, I should add).
And then the bad: they’re not the safest sleeping solution (a fall or two is to be expected), and they are a bit of work to climb down from after a long night of slumber. They limit sex—not prohibitively so, not at all with a little creativity, a well-placed skylight, or a descent downstairs—but they do, incontrovertibly, make some of its manifestations a touch inconvenient (I won’t argue that Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it were that big brass bed switched out for a tiny house loft). And they do bite a chunk out of ceiling height in the bathroom (atop which they’re usually placed), perhaps making it difficult for the taller among us to shampoo and lather without bumping a hand or elbow against the bottom of the loft.
Finally, I haven’t forgotten the ugly. Up to this point, I’ve been discussing a well-designed loft, a loft like the one with in the Matchbox (exact size 66″ x 88″ x 39″), with a flat ceiling and a wide skylight and a queen-size mattress and three-and-a-half feet of space to sit up in. Or like the one in the Pera House, with shallow dormers and loft windows and lengthy dimensions. Most tiny house lofts, however, are designed with little thought toward livability, a casualty of a gabled roof design that looks cute on the outside but feels like a coffin on the inside.
|A typical tiny house with a gabled loft—cute, but not necessarily comfortable.|
I spent a few nights in the loft of a Tumbleweed tiny house—thankfully, before I began constructing the Matchbox—and reacted so strongly to the claustrophobia of a gabled loft (that is, a pointed roof with a thirteen-degree pitch on either side) that I changed the Matchbox’s roof design to a flat one the very next day. Yes, they look mighty spacious when photographed at the right angle with a wide-angle lens, but sleeping in a steeply gabled loft is a bit like camping in a tent: fun for a few nights, but clearly not built for long-term comfort, and certainly not built for two.
|Richie Tenenbaum’s yellow tent, which affords more space than the typical loft (though, presumably, the same level of discomfort).|
Of course, there’s no right answer here: for some, a gabled loft will do just fine; for others, any loft whatsoever would be absurd. For me, I’m more than happy with the Matchbox’s loft—despite its drawbacks, it’s the best thing for the space and for my needs. And as always, for a chance to check out a variety of tiny house sleeping solutions in person, where you can get the truest sense of scale and suitable sizes, feel free to come by any of the upcoming tiny house tours at Boneyard Studios.
It’s been a pleasure having Elaine’s house on the lot for so long, allowing us to show yet another tiny house design to the many folks who have toured the site during our regular open houses. But last week, the Lusby hit the road once again for a new adventure, leaving our tiny house showcase with the remaining three models: the Pera House, the Matchbox, and Minim House.
More change is coming to the lot soon, of course—we recently announced our plans for a communal studio shed to replace our rented shipping container, and we’re currently exploring options to put the space between the Matchbox and the Pera House to good, creative use (suggestions welcome—or if you think you could personally use the space, get in touch with us with your ideas). More to come soon! In the meantime, farewell to the Lusby, and many thanks to Elaine for her wonderful contribution to the Boneyard Studios project this past year.
We believe tiny house workshops should be like tiny houses: small, intimate, and designed to your individual needs. That’s why a couple of the professionals involved in building houses at Boneyard Studios put together a tiny house design workshop for the DIYer who wants more technical information and planning materials for their tiny house build. Our first workshop this past fall was a success and a lot of fun to put on, so we are redoing it again this Spring at Howard University. Find out more details about the workshop and watch a video from our past workshop. Check out our photos and materials from the past workshop below and see why I, Lee, was motivated to help design a workshop with these professionals after my experience building a tiny house.
Throughout my tiny house project, I have realized how much building requires project planning, understanding major decision points in the process, and a knowledge of building code and materials. I didn’t fully understand how one decision impacted another or what building decisions and techniques were unique to tiny houses. I had naively bought into some of the promotional materials in the tiny house world that claim you can build a tiny house with just 14 tools or that make it seem like building a tiny house is simpler and easier just because it’s smaller than a regular house. Our experience has been the opposite: a tiny house actually requires more planning, and a pretty thorough knowledge of building science, health and safety, and codes (International Building Code, RV code (ANSI/RVIA), and city code and zoning) in order to build a structure that is safe, durable, and is an efficient use of space. Come learn with us again this spring!