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the Earth Died Screaming Issue

My Tiny House Experiment

For years I've been hearing about tiny houses' benefits—their eco-friendliness, their manageability—so I finally decided to try it out for myself.

by Edith Zimmerman
May 11 2015, 4:00am

This article appears in the May Issue of VICE Magazine.

What is it about tiny houses that's so appealing? Is it their tidy cuteness, their manageability? That they sometimes seem like solved Rubik's Cubes, everything in its neat and perfect place? To me, they're like an architectural version of taking deep breaths—a sign that everything is under control. They also foster the fantasy, from afar at least, that my surroundings could finally become peaceful and understandable, if only because they've been whittled down. The vision is romantic but neutered—like an adult fort, or a living dollhouse.

So after years of reading stories and watching shows about various tiny houses—tree houses, pod houses, shipping-container houses, dumpster houses, micro cabins, trailers, all of which are generally under 500 square feet, and sometimes even under 100—I rented a tiny, partially off-the-grid house in Western Massachusetts. The eight-by-20-foot wood cabin, set on the edge of a field beside a forest, was straight out of a pioneer-girl childhood fantasy, with little windows on all sides, a tiny front porch, a pointy roof, and a sweet little chimney. The owners had placed the house (it had wheels and had been built nearby) several hundred feet behind their main home, on a long country road about a half hour's drive from the closest town.

The house had no internet, no cell service, no landline, and no running water. (In the warmer months a gray-water system originating from the main house filters water into the surrounding plants and gardens and woods.) There was also a composting toilet. A miniature wood stove provided heating. The house did have electricity, though, which maybe kept it still on the grid.

For my three-day stay, I'd been given about six gallons of water in three different containers, although I didn't use all of it, in part because I didn't bathe beyond washing my hands and brushing my teeth. The "bedroom" was in the open loft above the kitchen, accessible by ladder and set up with a full-size futon. There was room for a couple books and cups on either side, but that was about it. A small stained-glass reading lamp was mounted above a little window that looked out on the trees. There was just enough room for a person under six feet to sit up in the middle of the bed, which is where the roof peaked. The futon had been made up with a cozy down comforter and flannel sheets. It was wonderful, and I slept better than I had in months.

In his book The Small House, tiny-house builder, dweller, and pioneer Jay Shafer presents the tiny house as an antidote to American McMansions—our "bloated warehouses full of toys, furniture, and decorations"—and as a partial solution to energy overconsumption. "My decision to inhabit just 90 square feet," he wrote, "arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I just do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space."

Admittedly, I'm not as concerned about large houses' impact on the environment as I am about my own desire to feel more in control of things than I do where I live now. While my Brooklyn apartment isn't exactly a McMansion, I've never been particularly (or, at all) in touch with the processes that go into making it easy to live in. And so, instead of reading up on how water, heat, and electricity work, I tried living in a tiny house, which I'd let myself believe promised an implicit degree of understanding and control. I'd thought that, by virtue of living so small, I'd somehow turn into someone who understands how a whole house works. That, because of the smaller scale, I'd magically understand the basics of what makes it possible for humans to live indoors. This was in part because compost toilets and firewood seemed easier to figure out than indoor plumbing and apartment radiators, but it was also because I'd hoped that a tiny house might just automatically make me feel more in tune with my surroundings. One thought I'd had before I got there, for instance, was that if the tiny house's roof should spring a leak, I'd somehow be able to fix it not because I know anything about roof-fixing but simply because it would be small enough to reach by ladder, and that I'd be able to jury-rig something until I could actually figure it out.

I think there's a bit of truth to this. If the house is small enough, I could go up there on a normal ladder and cover the hole with duct tape (a tarp?) in a way that I'd be too scared to do with a regular-size house, but mostly I think I was just channeling some of the fun I remembered having with dollhouses. Specifically, the satisfying feeling of being in charge of it all—the top, the bottom, the sides, the interior—watching over it, master of everything.

To a certain extent that was the case. It felt great managing the fire, for instance. It was gratifying to help create heat—not that I built the stove or anything, but putting logs into a metal box, and being capable of creating enough warmth in below-freezing weather to not die, to in fact be totally comfortable, for days, felt amazing. And the compost toilet was a pleasant and convenient surprise.

But I also realized, pretty much as soon as I got there, how absurd and ridiculous it was to have fantasized that by simply being in a smaller space I might magically gain any kind of greater grasp on how actual on-the-grid utilities work.

Because although I'd hoped that living without running water might somehow briefly transform me into a badass homesteader type, I just ended up going through a bunch of plastic bottles and then brought them back to Brooklyn with me, because I was too embarrassed to leave them in the recycling there, for the owners to see.

Plus, it was lonely living in a space so streamlined. Even though the house had been built for two (the double bed, the ample bench seating), it was hard to imagine more than one average-size person moving around in there without tripping too much. Not to mention having any kind of bathroom privacy or room for intimacy. (This is the third time I have put my curiosity about how people have sex and/or go to the bathroom in truly tiny houses back into this story, so I guess by now I should have taken the hint and dropped it, but maybe it was my interest in those topics, and not in electricity and plumbing, that I really wanted to "improve myself" by trying to understand. Although I still don't totally.)

In Shafer's book, which was the only book in the tiny house when I got there, almost like a Gideon Bible in a roadside motel room, he writes, "If you do only one thing to make your new home more environmentally sound, make it small." Which, if I ever find myself in that position, I will keep in mind. It seems easier than making it tiny.