The Big Tiny

This past weekend I read a book by Dee Williams called The Big Tiny, which documents her endeavors to build a tiny house. I bought the book because I recognized Williams from a Netflix documentary on tiny houses that I had watched a month or two ago. I’m very interested in tiny homes, and I remember liking the interview with Williams. She did a wonderful job not only documenting her physical efforts to build a tiny home all by herself, but also weaving in bits and pieces of philosophy that really resonated with me. But perhaps I should back up for a moment.

I’ve been interested in the idea of tiny houses for quite some time now. Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like–incredibly small homes. Micro-homes, if you prefer. They vary in size, but the premise is creating a small yet livable space that can exist off the grid. Most tiny homes are solar powered, collect rain water, and their small size makes them much easier to heat and cool. My interest in tiny homes came to be for a variety of reasons, the first of which is economic. Tiny homes are very affordable. I also like the idea of a house with less environmental impact, one that doesn’t encroach on nature so much. Here is a great website with some floor plans. In general, though, a tiny house might look something like this:

This one is 370 sq ft
This one is 370 sq ft
This one is only 161 sq ft
This one is only 161 sq ft

You get the general idea. These houses can be built on a trailer or on a foundation, your choice. You can build them yourself (they offer classes) or you can hire someone to build them for you. And you can customize them however you want. But as Williams argues, there are much better reasons to live in a tiny house.

Williams started her journey like the average American: in a 3 bedroom house and up to her eyeballs in debt. And she spent most of her spare time remodeling, rewiring, and replumbing her house. She did all of this because that’s just what we expect people to do once they become an adult: buy a house and fill it with stuff.

But then Williams was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and her entire worldview changed. Time was what became most precious to her, and her relationships with family and friends. And she realized that what was holding her back from really enjoying those things fully was her house. She spent all of her time working to pay it off, fixing it up, and filling it with things. So much so that she had neglected the things in life that really matter. Her solution was building the tiny house.

And build it she did, on her own with her bare hands. Her tiny house is 84 sq ft–not much bigger than a parking space. It doesn’t have running water and it has a composting toilet. Williams can now write out all of her worldly possessions on one piece of paper. She’s completely debt free. And since she’s debt free and the tiny house costs next to nothing to run, she can work part time. And she’s free to spend the rest of her time doing the things she enjoys with the people she loves.

I really identify with the philosophy that Williams laid out in her book. I do think that we tend to place too much value on material goods and following the norms that society presses upon us. Now, to be clear, this book and this way of thinking is not an indictment of capitalism. Nor is it a plea for us all to become hippies and stop working. What this philosophy wants of us is simple.

Live an intentional life.

You don’t have to stop consuming totally, but be intentional when you buy things. That’s all. George Carlin once had a bit about how houses were just places to keep your stuff. And I think he was on to something there, and that something overlaps with what Williams has outlined with her book. Don’t waste all of your time and money trying to keep up with the neighbors or you’ll just end up bankrupt and buried under a pile of stuff you don’t even use. And let’s all be honest–most of us probably don’t even use half of the things we own. It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.

And this isn’t to say that money doesn’t matter. But it isn’t what is important. Being rich isn’t important, ultimately. So much of our lives are spent in pursuit of money. And to what end? Get this raise, earn that promotion, get more money and buy more things. Society tells us that this is normal, and that this is good. But is it?

Where does it all end? Quite literally on our deathbeds. And what do you think the majority of people say they regret with their dying breaths? That they wished they could have worked one more day at the office? That it all would have been worth it if only they’d had a bigger boat? That they regretted not investing more in their 401k? Nobody says those things, yet that is what society tells us we should spend our lives doing.

When people know they’re going to die, they wish they could have more time with their grandchildren or spouse. They wish they could have seen Europe. To hell with their economic needs, they want their human desires and needs fulfilled. They want more time to laugh and cry and hug people and impart their wisdom to someone. In the end, it’s not about having a fat wallet or cool toys, it’s about being rich in spirit.

Death is a morbid topic, but really isn’t that what all of us want, to have a good death? And in order to have a good death, doesn’t one need to have had a good life? Ask yourself whether you do things intentionally, or whether you’re just going through the motions. Ask yourself if you could do more with less. Ask yourself what matters the most to you in life and then figure out what you need to make that happen. You might just find that by downsizing, the world gets a whole lot bigger.


8 thoughts on “The Big Tiny

  1. A friend of mine told me about these houses not long ago. He’s been harping on about them ever since. I’ve been looking into them for quite a time for economical reasons, and I’m pretty convinced that I’d be happy in one of these. I’ve always lived in a pretty small space, anyway.

    Big houses are also a pain in the ass to upkeep even without plumbing and wiring issues. The cleaning alone takes up a solid 40 hours a week. I may have stayed in small spaces for my life, but those were just my rooms in various places. My childhood house was probably over 1,000 square feet. Cleaning wasn’t the most fun part of my life.

    I’ve been actually considering this since that friend brought it up to me, though. They are pretty cheap to construct (about as much as a new car, if that), they’re cheap to maintain, and they’re easy to clean. I’ll want something a little larger, eventually. Computers aren’t the smallest things, and I’m a gamer, so I’ll need an extra room for that, but you can always expand these things. You did build the damned thing, after all.

    After saying all of that, it really seems like they’re made to fit what you need when you can afford it. Utilitarianism at its finest.

    1. I think that’s part of the appeal with these homes, that you can customize them for pretty much whatever. You could build a tiny house dedicated and designed around gaming if you wanted. You’re really only limited by your imagination when your budget is realistic. And you can make the house as tiny as you want. Most people would be hard pressed to live in 84 Sq ft like the author. But I’ve been in some layouts that were 300-500 Sq ft and they were surpringly roomy. It’s all about having an open floorplan. Oh boy, now I’m droning on!

  2. How interesting that I would come across your post after spending hours yesterday checking out videos on tiny houses. Several years ago I got rid of all my possessions. I’ve always traveled a lot, sometimes being away for months or even a year, and it became ridiculous to try to maintain an apartment which I was rarely at, full of things I rarely used, not to mention paying rent and bills on a place I wasn’t using or having to bother finding a sub-renter. So, I let it all go, and now everything I own fits in a backpack and shoulder bag for my laptop. I’ve never felt so liberated. Room mate situations are pretty easy to find, no matter where I am, and as a bonus I’ve met and lived with some very interesting people.

    Recently I’ve come across an opportunity to purchase a few acres of land in the middle of nowhere, very cheaply. Buying the land and building a tiny house has very much been on my mind, sort of a place I could go to, between traveling, which wouldn’t bury me in debt nor allow me to collect crap I don’t need. I have experience living offgrid, so my eyes are very open to the difficulties and not clouded with romanticism. I’m still not sure if I’ll do it but I do think I need to check out Dee Williams’ book! Thanks for posting this!

  3. I can’t imagine living in one myself. I agree with everything you said about money, and intentionality. I think intentionality is the key. I do like stuff, but I, mostly, pay close attention to what I consume. I like having space for listening to music. I also like being able to get away from everyone to do what I want, like write or read or play very loud music (and sometimes very loud soft music). I also have a drum set which would barely fit in a lot of the tiny houses I saw, haha.
    When I watched that documentary, legitimate personal space didn’t seem like a possibility.

    1. It would definitely take some getting used to, living in something that small. That being said, I think the spirit of this movement is to just downsize and use only the space you need. In that sense, “tiny” is completely relative, I suppose.

  4. I agree with the concept, but… Living space the size of a jail cell would get to me pretty damned quick. I like having a bit of space to breathe in.

    My wife recently had surgery, we were stuck in a small H room for 2 friggin weeks. By the time they finally released her, I was on the verge of having some sort of conniption fit from being confined in that small room for an eternity.

    When we got home it felt strange having room to breathe, but it was/is a welcome relief. Not feeling confined has a lot going for it, but at the same time I can see the attraction to living small. I just don’t think I could go that small… and retain my sanity, such as it is.

    1. A jail cell or a hospital room would probably be luxurious to someone like Williams, since they have running water and toilets :p

      But in general I agree, it takes a special kind of person to go THAT small. I take comfort in know that at least with pricing in my neck of the woods, buying a tiny house would mean I’d be able to afford putting it on a nice big plot of land. As long as I had the ability to escape into nature, I think I’d be okay with a small space.

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