Social and Political Commentary

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Embracing the tiny house movement

... living well with less

by Elizabeth Samit

At the onset of the Great Recession of the Twenty-First Century, there was
an article in the New York Times and network TV Evening News coverage of a burgeoning,
minimalist housing movement. For only $10,000, you could purchase the pre-
fab sections of a tiny residence that could be erected even in a friend's
backyard. News stories (including those on the Web) presented images of
cheerful devotees glad to be saving on rent or mortgage payments in their
homes the size of an average American bathroom. Just as suddenly as it had
begun, the mass media focus on this movement ended within a few months.

I decided to embrace the “tiny house movement” in Spring 2011. After living
on unemployment compensation, I was forced to accept that I could no longer
sustain my monthly housing expense. I decided to search for a roommate
situation and “down-size” my possessions to fit accordingly.

Since most older roommate-seekers with published ads were homeowners, I
quickly discovered my shared housing options were limited to a small room,
no storage, and fully furnished common areas. Even without most furniture,
there was no way my belongings (including a lot of camping and outdoor
equipment) could possibly fit. Consequently, I decided to adopt Henry David Thoreau’s
philosophy, and to whole-heartedly embrace living with less. Take up a
Buddhist practice; a spiritual foundation! After all, the followers of the
“tiny house movement” seemed happy and healthy enough.

Fortunately, I found a nearby efficiency of 228 sq feet plus full
bathroom at a remarkably low rent for the Greater Boston area (with heat
included). During my housing search, I had four yard sales in which I
learned two surprising lessons: the first was that items I considered
valuable were not equally regarded by others, whereas crap had buyers
offering to pay more than the original price. The second was that I couldn’t
remember (much less miss) within days most of my rarely-used belongings that
I’d been saving so long.

As my possessions disappeared, I actually began to enjoy the increased
spaciousness of my home. The Feng
, so-to-speak. At least, I could now practice yoga stretches and not
bump up against something.  

I equally enjoyed donating many of my things to local groups and nonprofit
organizations--and the feeling of no longer being a consummate “pack-rat”.

On the other hand, I also began an Internet search for appropriate interior
decorating ideas. Of particular note, Gary Chang (a Hong Kong architect) was
featured in a 'You-Tube’ video for his unique approach to decorating his own
living quarters. In the on-line video, six rolling walls are shown. A
bedroom wall contains a Murphy bed; a kitchen wall holds cooking utensils; a
living room wall contains paintings. As each wall is rolled out by the
architect, the overall appearance of the studio unit is changed. It was an
amazing transformation, mostly reinforcing my view that interior decorating
a small space, WELL, is just as expensive as decorating any other living

On the other hand, three pieces of advice affected me: 1) decorate with
small furniture to increase the illusion of space; 2) build upwards, and
utilize wall space rather than floor space; and 3) use objects for more than
one purpose (so now I hide my cleaning supplies under a living room

As far as my new apartment, I kept a love seat that opened into a double-
bed. Reminding myself that it was customary in traditional Japan to sleep on
the floor, I attempted to convince myself that this would not be a
deprivation but good for my physical flexibility. That worked for exactly
one week, whereupon I bought myself a foam mattress from Building 19
to place on top of the love seat mattress.  

I now imagine when I go to bed that my tiny efficiency is actually on
wheels, and I am traveling across the country. What fun! Or, I think about
an old friend who sold her condo at fifty to live on a houseboat in northern
California (since I presume she was able keep even fewer material
possessions that I did).

My biggest adjustment after two months in my new location is how much time
and energy it takes me to perform my usual activities of daily living, such
as cooking breakfast and cleaning up afterwards (besides rolling up the
bed). In fact, it now takes me twice as long to get out of bed, shower, and
prepare for the day as it used to ..particularly before I was “laid-off” my
full-time job. At this rate, I won’t have time, after straightening up, to
look for a new job, much less work a normal eight-to-five.  

Perhaps, the reason news media attention on the “tiny house movement” has
vanished is that the “simplicity” in daily living, as espoused in the
coverage, is just not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it’s takes a lot
of self-discipline, as well as free time, to make it work.

On the other hand, when I can (hopefully) move next year into a 400
sq foot studio in my building, I’m sure it will feel like a palace.

July 1, 2011

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