THINKING SMALL: Life in 100 square feet

My love of small space living began in 1975 as I traveled the US in an Airstream for three years. The Airstream was a brilliant example of no-waste-space revealing a place for anything I could possibly need. I marveled at how I could function with such ease despite living in such intimate quarters, and would brag to people we met that we were ready for anything from skiing to black tie.

Through the Airstream, I developed an appreciation for the simplicity and order that can be found in good design. While living in Santa Fe, I began to consider the impact my home had on my health. My passion for sustainable design and aesthetics came together when I opened my business Casa Natura in 2001, an organic lifestyle store for home furnishings and clothing.

When I moved to New Zealand in 2007 to be part of a design team for an Eco-Village, I experienced the joys of living small once again. While designing and building my "big" house of 1000 square feet, I lived for two years in a 100 square foot cabin I built entirely from recycled materials. I was as happy living there as I'd ever been in any of my homes, and anyone who knows me can tell you I've had some lovely ones.

Collecting building materials was the beginning of the fun. Hunting and gathering took on new meaning as I assembled the components of my tiny house. My first purchase was a large forties-era window for the north (in the Southern hemisphere you want to orient your house to the north for solar gain.) that covered most of that side of the house. Next I found a medium-sized window for the west to go over a combo kitchen/bathroom stainless steel sink and counter that was nearly the exact width of the cabin. I then located a perfect glass door for the east, and lined the windowless walls with cubbies and bookshelves. One of my favorite features of the cabin was the recycled wood I found for the floors, walls and ceiling. Used corrugated iron, with one small piece painted orange for character formed the exterior. In between the iron and the wood layers, old wool became my insulation. 

I built a loft for my sleeping area and put a sofa bed downstairs so I could host guests, even in my tiny space. My 70 plus year-old mother visited and I'll never forget the image of her, lying there reading with my headlamp. From my bed loft, I looked out through the eucalyptus treetops on to the Tasman Sea. I felt so cozy as if in my own personal treehouse.

My cooking needs were met with a one-burner camp stove and a small propane fridge outside. There was no hot water, yet I never minded boiling water, whether for tea, or even for washing my entire self on days when it was too cold to use my outdoor shower. My shower was built next to the outhouse with composting toilet, all with a view to the sea. Showering in the sunshine or moonlight was divine.

I had one solar panel for electrical power, enough to run the three low-energy light bulbs and my computer. When the days got shorter, I learned to conserve like crazy. Over time, I added rain barrels, and grew less dependent on the city water.  

Friends in America thought I'd lost my mind when they heard how I was living. A middle-aged, middle-class American woman living in 100 square feet alone on nine acres of New Zealand bush. But most people who came to visit were surprised at my cabin's comfort and charm. Like in the trailer, I had utilized every nook and cranny and had everything I needed, but now my new home also embodied my mission of living in beauty with minimal waste.

People imagine living small as claustrophobic and contracted, yet my experience was nothing but the opposite. My large windows brought me right up against the wild beauty of the land, and connected me to what was just outside my door, all the closer because of the house’s size. I was grateful for the daily opportunities to move between the inside of my cabin to my outdoor shower and kitchen areas. The sense of contentment I felt from dwelling in such a simple way gave me a sense of oneness connected to nature and to my own humanity.

When I finally moved into my 1000 square foot home, it felt too big.  I learned how little space I really need. When I returned to the US, I saw that living small was big news. Today, I enjoy working with people on helping them do just that.

How small could you go?