Thursday, October 9, 2014

Simplicity extra: A tiny bit more

Posted By on Thu, Oct 9, 2014 at 10:18 AM

In this week's Simplicity column, I spoke with TEDx presenter and tiny home builder Andrew Morrison, about what it's like to live in his now-famous construction, hOMe.

As is common with the Q&A editing process, I was only able to share a segment of our interview in print, though we actually spoke at greater length. Since tiny homes are all the rage, here's a chance below for those interested to read the full version of my interview, with much more elaboration on the questions featured in print, plus whole other topics. 

If that was the tiny home version of the story, here's the bloated mega-home. 

click to enlarge Andrew and Gabriella, in front of hOMe. - COURTESY ANDREW MORRISON
  • Courtesy Andrew Morrison
  • Andrew and Gabriella, in front of hOMe.


Indy: We’ve been talking about simplifying since Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, and times like the 1973 energy crisis, when E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful. But most of us aren’t good at it. Does the tiny home movement show that we’re making progress?

Morrison: I think so, it definitely shows that some people are. If you look since 1973, the average house size has actually gone up, by 62 percent or something like that. Now 2,600 square feet is the average size. At the same time our household size has dropped. From like 3.5 to 2.6, it ends up being an average of 1,000 square feet per person now in a household. If nothing else, those of us who are doing it will help bring averages down and it’ll bring awareness to others. My sister lives in Texas. She recently downsized into a 3,500 square foot house. She considers it downsizing because she still had to get rid of stuff. It’s still ginormous.

Why is everyone freaking out about tiny homes? Is it Barbie’s Dreamhouse syndrome? The same reasons we like snow globes — because they’re small and cute?

There’s some of that. Those are probably the people you see who end up getting a tiny house, moving in, and then after a year, saying ‘that was fun,’ then moving out. For those of us who are in it and really enjoying it, it’s a much deeper reasoning. The fact that where we are now, if we don’t move again, we won’t ever have a house payment again. That’s a huge freedom. If we have visitors coming over and we want to clean house it takes like half an hour and the whole house is clean. Everything’s easier. We have less stuff. That’s a huge thing. It’s a whole lifestyle. Not even focused just on the house itself but the house itself doesn’t permit us to get a lot of stuff. So when we shop our shopping habits are different. Our spending is different. Everything changes. It’s a much bigger cause-and-effect and reasoning to get into a tiny house and that really revolves around simplifying and looking at what matters. We can spend time doing the stuff we want to do, not the stuff that we have to do.

My walls at home are filled with art. I can’t imagine my space without it. Do you miss having wall space for art, or anything else?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s one of those things that you have to look at what’s important for you. It may mean a 200 square-foot house isn’t viable for you because of that, because you want to hang art. But you might also find that a 300 or 400 square-foot house would work. And maybe you set up a few walls specifically for artwork, and they rotate through. Maybe you decide it’s worth having a small storage unit on your property. That’s fine. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all for anybody. You have to find things that work. For us, we’re scuba divers, I’m a musician. That doesn’t well into a tiny house at all. You can’t get four tanks and all the gear and guitars and banjos and mandolins into a tiny house. So we do have a place to store those things. Are we cheating? Maybe. But with our 80 square feet of extra storage, we’re not even at 300 square feet yet. You have to look at what’s important and what brings you joy. If art brings you joy, design a place that’ll allow you to express and show that.

Is your storage unit on your land or in town?

Well, right now, we actually have both. We’re still transitioning; it’s a long process. We have a unit in town. Actually two units in town. One is where we’re just getting rid of stuff, our old couches and furniture and things we haven’t finished selling yet. So that’s going away. The other is much smaller — the smallest they have. The funny thing about that, the reason we have it, is that we sell DVDs, a four-disc set on how to build a tiny house. And when we place an order, we get so many of them that we have to have a storage unit to store the tiny house DVDs, which is kind of funny. It’s a little ironic. The intention is eventually to pair it down to the unit in town for a friend to access and sell for us. But things like our scuba gear will probably end up on our land on our shed up there. My intention one day is to build a music studio so I can have all my instruments and a recording studio on our property.

With all this downsizing and simplifying, it sounds like you still end up with a bunch of stuff outside of the tiny home: your solar array, water well, the storage units, and you go to town to do laundry. Someone from the outside could say, ‘Wait a minute, these guys didn’t really simplify, they’re just running around and rearranged things.’ Does it come down to how you feel?

You hit it on the hit by saying ‘how do you feel.' And we have the storage unit, but it’s not something we visit hardly at all. In our solar shed we’ve put a washing machine in so we aren’t going to town to do laundry anymore. It wasn’t that big of a deal even when we were doing that, because we’ve got things that happen in town. Our daughter rides horses, I play hockey, Gabriella does CrossFit, so we’re going to town and doing those things, so we just have to create a schedule that combines those things so we aren’t making four or five trips a day. We’d go put the laundry in, go to class, come back and put the clothes in the dryer, then go food shopping, then come back and pick it up and go home. It can be done in a way that provides sanity still. I think it would be hard for anyone to come look at our lifestyle and say ‘Wow you guys say you’ve downsized and simplified, but you really haven’t’. We definitely find ourselves busy. The big difference is that ultimately we’re busy by choice. Some things we’re still finishing. I just tripled our solar system in size, that took time and effort. The whole thing of not having a mortgage and utility payments and all that stuff — if we want to stop working, we can stop working. We don’t have that huge overhead we used to have. We work now because we love it and we’re taking our message out to the world to help other people simplify. I do straw bale construction as well, to teach people to build naturally. All of these things are important to us, we do them because we want to.

For people living in urban settings with building regulations, HOA restrictions and the like, should they be eying a tiny home more as a vacation home, or you are advocating for downsizing into one and living on the road or on someone else’s property?

I’d say both. They could be great for a vacation home or retreat, but if it’s the right match of person and house, it could absolutely be their home. It doesn’t have to be something they travel around with or that they park on someone else’s property. My want is for building departments to start getting on board with allowing people to live in them. I understand part of the reasoning why there are minimum square footages and things like that — to stop people from having shanty-shack towns on their property. I get all of that. I get that there are tax revenues and stuff that comes from building permits and property taxes and all that. I think there’s a way that everyone can be happy and we can work it out, so for example there’s a minimum building permit cost and minimum taxation, like if they’re requiring a minimum of 1,000 square feet and tax it as if it is 1,000 square feet even if it’s only 200. Is that unequal tax? Yeah, but it’d be almost like more of a fee that allows us to live in tiny house. There’s ways that jurisdictions can work with people. If you look at photos of our house, it’s not the kind of house that someone’s going to drive by and go ‘Ugh, that thing is horrible, it’s a shed.’ I think people could create standards. A town near us is a national historic landmark city. Everything that goes through design has to go through an architectural review committee. Every single structure, even just to change your windows. They have the authority to do things like that. So why not create architectural boards that review your tiny house and make sure it’s going to fit in with the language of the street or whatever. I think there are ways we can all come together and satisfy the needs of the neighbors and building departments and tax departments and people that want to live in a tiny house.

I’m guessing you don’t advocate to tear your house down and build a tiny one in its place. That’s not a great use of our existing resources. Are you saying, as we continue to build and do in-fill and sprawl, if we were waving our magic wand, tiny homes would compose most of our new structures. Is that how you’d approach the sustainability end of it?

I’ve always felt that way with straw bale, as well. The best example, is for many years, when we raised our kids, we lived on 100 acres. We didn’t have a straw bale house. We lived in a vinyl sided plywood box. It was terrible. The reason we lived in it was the house itself was only 10 years old, basically new when we bought the property. It sat on the perfect spot on the land. Our options were to tear it down, which was way too wasteful and totally anti-green. Or move it, which we couldn’t afford, or retrofit it. So there were three options and none were available by cost or choice. So we lived in the house that was there and that was the greenest thing we could do. I think in that sense, if someone wanted to live in a tiny house, they could apply for an ancillary dwelling unit permit and put a tiny house in the backyard and live in that and then rent their home to someone else. There are people who maybe that 2000 square-foot house they’re living in, they’re ready to downsize into 200. You’d get your AVU permit, and start making moves toward downsizing and simplifying without throwing all those resources away.

What’s the average cost to get into a creative home like yours?

The materials cost right around $33,000. The average cost for tiny houses these days is right around $23,000 in materials. You’re basically looking at doubling material costs if you’re asking someone to build it for you. What’s interesting, is if you look at, for $33,000, if you look at just a down payment on the average home size in the U.S. it’s about $50,000. So you can build our house and live in it, or make a down payment and pay for the next 30 years. Financially it’s a huge impact.

Can you take us on a virtual tour of your land and hOMe?

Our property is 5 1/2 acres. We have a big open meadow and a lot of wooded area. The home itself sits on the edge of the meadow. It’s horizontal cedar siding, sort of a modern clean line building, very simple, not lots of detailing. Near it we have our solar array as you walk on the property and our wood-burning hot tub. We have a series of other structures on the land. We have two cabins which are used for our kids. We have an 18-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. Our daughter is home-schooled so she uses the cabin as a school and sleeping area, the rest of the time she hangs out with us in hOMe. Our son goes to school in Colorado Springs, he’s a boarding student at Fountain Valley School. He has his cabin when he’s home, so a private space as well. His is a 150 square foot treehouse, hers is a 120 square-foot platform house — it’s built not into a tree, but up in the trees. Our house, when you come in, is 207 square feet. It has open ceilings, so it’s about a 10-foot ceiling. To the left is the bathroom, behind a separate wall. Above that is what we call our tiny house lounge; it has my guitars up there and a TV for movies. Straight ahead is the couch and sitting area and to the right of that is our eating and work area. They’re folding tables that hinge off the wall and we use that to eat and as an office. Further to the right is our kitchen. We have a full-size kitchen, with a full-size range, oven, refrigerator and sink, wine rack, and lots of counter space. Above that is our bedroom, our sleeping loft. That’s about 8-by-9 feet. Both the lounge and the sleeping lofts are low, about 4 feet at the tallest point.

For those looking to retire into a tiny home, do you have advice for aging-related features, like ladder alternatives?

Absolutely. There are several tiny house designs. It’s really whatever you want to design within building standards, with bedrooms on the first floor. Some are like hidden beds that slide underneath floor framing or Murphy beds. I’m only 41 and Gabriella’s 44, and neither one of us wants to climb ladders much either. So we actually put stairs in our tiny house. We have a stairway going up to our sleeping loft. Our lounge does have a ladder but we don’t use it nearly as often. The idea of getting up in the middle of the night and climbing down a ladder to go to the bathroom sounds horrible to us too. So the stairway makes it much more simple. It’s great. When you reach the top, I’m just shy of 6 feet tall, and I’ll be on my knees, and my head won’t hit the ceiling when I’m on my knees. And the top step is a double depth and double wide step, so you basically swing your feet from knees to standing and your upper body doesn’t move and you’re still clearing the ceiling and from there its just a standard walk down the stairs, actually a little steeper, but not by much. It flows well, with no headroom issues whatsoever.

Do you ever feel confined, where you feel like you need your own space or time and can’t get it because you can’t be in another room away from your partner?

I think it’s actually the opposite. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that our family has worked ever since our kids were born and before that, between Gabriella and I, we really worked on communication and willingness to be honest and vulnerable in how we’re feeling. The smaller space actually invites better communication and relationships in our opinion, because of precisely that. In a regular house, when someone gets pissed off, they can storm down the hallway and slam a door and be in their own room, and now they’re dealing with their issues by themselves or maybe texting a friend or whatever. And then the other person is dealing with their response by themselves so there’s this disconnect. Whereas, the story I always tell, is when we first started our downsizing journey, we sold or gave away 90 percent of what we owned. We took a pop tent trailer and went to Mexico and lived on the beach for five months. It was us and our daughter; our son was in his first year at Fountain Valley. At one point my daughter got pissed at me about something, and she went into her room and slammed the curtain. It’s like an eighth-inch piece of fabric between me and her, and it was like, ‘okay maybe we should talk about this.’ So it took a couple minutes, and she opened it up and we talked about it. She was 11. So for kids especially to learn to communicate. And I won’t even say especially. For husbands and wives and partners to learn to communicate, it’s so good for relationships to do that. There have been many times I was in the hockey locker room and talking about the tiny house, and guys will be like, ‘Man I couldn’t stand it, I’d drive my wife crazy, she’d have to move out and buy another house.’ It’s kidding but there’s a level of truth in what they’re saying. I tell them it comes back to how their communication isn’t honest and not vulnerable and real, maybe at some points, but when it gets to those really painful spots where someone else is triggered by another person’s behavior it’s risky to be honest with your communication, but you have to be willing to do that in a tiny house.

Even when you just want to read a book, have you gotten to a point where you can comfortably disappear into your activity and feel like it is personal time?

Yeah, there’s definitely ways to create that and part of it could be going for a walk or one person stays home from town, or even when we’re both in the house. A time where I want to watch a movie and she wants to read a book or something, so I’ll just put headphones on to watch the movie. The loft is on the other end of the house, so even though it doesn’t seem that far away it creates enough separation that we can have our private space. And that’s one of the main things about creating the cabins for the kids is even though they spend most of their time hanging out with us, when they have their friends over, when a boyfriend or girlfriend or four or five friends come over, that’s a lot of people to have in a tiny house, especially younger, higher energy kids. That may be too much for us to be able to create our own privacy in that space. The cabins allow them to have a place to go and have their own place to retreat to if they want to. It’s by choice, but the interesting thing is we find that by choice they spend their time in hOMe with us, which is really nice.

Do you advise people to think about those peripheral aspects? Is it very situational in terms of tiny home culture?

Just because it’s called a ‘tiny house’ doesn’t mean it has to be the same thing. There’s a conversation going on about tiny houses; we belong to several groups. There’s very often conversations about ‘what is a tiny house’? Is it a 400 square-foot house on a foundation, or is that just a small house? To some extent I think we get hung up in the nomenclature a little bit too much. I think if someone is downsizing from a huge house, say 15,000 square feet, a 2,000 square-foot house to them is tiny. It’s all relative I think. It’s about creating what works for you and what allows you to downsize as much as possible to where you’re enjoying it. We did not want to downsize into the 100 square foot trailers. We looked at them and said, that’s too small, we can’t do that. Somebody else could but we can’t do that. The design that we came up with is perfect for us. It actually never feels small. I don’t think we ever have the experience of feeling like ‘wow our house is really small.’ We typically have the experience of saying ‘wow we love the way our house feels.’ We love being home and the layout of the house and cabins and hot tub and way our land is set up. It’s all very inviting and we just love being home.

How long is your TEDx talk, and what will you present?

It’s 18 minutes. It’s specific for TEDx, it’s the first time I will have given this talk. It has a lot of information I’ve used before. Basically it’s a primer. It’s getting people to open their eyes to why a tiny house could be an option for them and what are steps they can take to move into living a tiny lifestyle and what are the benefits they gain from it.

On your bio at tinyhousebuild.com, you say you were “shocked by the wasteful mentality pervasive in the field of construction.” Can you elaborate?

I have two perfect examples. One example is when Gabriella and I first started building we’d buy a house and remodel and then sell it. One of the first we did, maybe the second also, we got a lot of our materials out of the dumpsters from larger construction sites. We’d go there on the evenings and weekends and pull out a 2-by-4 that was 10 feet long that they used for bracing, and cut it to 9 feet, so they just threw it away. Well, if I cut it again, it’s an 8-foot stud — whoo, perfect! I didn’t understand why people threw that kind of stuff away. Another would be that when I had my construction crews, I always had on each job site a dumpster for garbage, a cardboard recycling dumpster, a steel recycling dumpster and a natural-materials dumpster. It was more expensive for me in the short term, but in the long term I got paid for the steel, and it meant that I paid a lot less on garbage, which is quite expensive. One thing my foreman had to do every day at the end of the day was to leave enough time to go through each dumpster and reorganize stuff because the subcontractors would come in and throw everything into the trash dumpster, even though right next to it was the recycling. It’s that mentality, that we’re providing this for you, take the extra three seconds. It never changed, and I used the same subs for years. They just never wrapped their head around it or managed to figure it out. It’s pervasive. I’ve been teaching and out of the industry for the last six years, so I don’t know if it is still like that, but my guess is it probably still is.

The Earthship creator, Michael Reynolds, also became disenchanted by conventional design’s inefficiencies. What we can do better?

That’s the big thing that turned me to straw bale, was recognizing there had to be a better way. I get that stick frame is the main way of building now because it’s quick and relatively simple and it’s repeatable. All those standards work, I get that. It makes sense for that side of things. But there are much better ways of doing things so that you’re using less materials, not using as many resources for heating and cooling. All of those details matter. Say a person isn’t willing to jump into straw bales or an earthship; there’s different approaches even within stick frame in terms of the design. Are you designing so that your roof eves are set perfectly for where you are longitudinally so that in summer the sun is blocked out, so you aren’t having to cool the house, and in winter coming in underneath those angles so the sun is entering your house and warming — passive solar design. Is that something you’re taking in consideration? Or are you mostly concerned about ‘oh there’s a nice view that way, I don’t care that it’s west. I’m going to put a huge bank of windows on the west wall and absolutely fry myself all summer long.’ That’s way too often the case people opt for. ‘I don’t want to look at the neighbors house or I want to orient my view this way or I want the house oriented towards the street because it makes my driveway shorter and less expensive.’ Those things are so short-term thinking. Yeah the contractor spent less to build your house but now for the next how ever many years you’re in that house you’re paying out the wazoo because it’s totally facing the wrong way and all of your windows are facing the wrong way and you have no passive solar and tons of heat loss or gain. Within typical construction things can be done differently and moving even beyond that into the bigger picture of adding something like straw bale or an earthship or rammed earth or something that’ll create a better, more natural building material that’s healthier, not getting the off-gassing and all that other crap as well.

Anything else you want to say about tiny homes?

The summation is similar to what I talk about in my TEDx talk: for people to choose the things that bring them freedom and joy. And I think if people really stop and look at that in their lives and are really honest with themselves and say ‘okay, is this something that’s bringing me joy?’ Is sitting in traffic for two hours to get to work at a job I really don’t like wearing clothes that I really don’t like so that I can pay for a house that I never spend time in because I’m at work all the time — is that really what you want to do? And then be willing to take the risk of trying something that’s outside of the box. It’s a risk. For me, when I was building, I had a good job, I had clients lined up. And I decided to stop building and start teaching, because honestly the building was stressful for me and I wanted to do something less stressful. This is about eight years ago and I had to tell clients no, I’m not taking on new clients right now. I’m going to pay off the rest of my clients and my subs, everything that’s owed. I’m going to try something totally new and I have no idea if it’s going to work, but this is what I want to do. This is my calling, this is what I want to do. And it worked, and it was scary as hell. And I did it anyway because it was supporting what I felt inside was what I really wanted to do. How many people, you probably know a ton, if you asked ‘Are you doing what you really want to do’? they’d say, ‘you know what I really want to do is travel the world, or write a book.’ But nobody does those things because they’re scared. So push through that fear and find a way to align with your passion and bring that freedom and joy to your life, and I think all kinds of doors will open up.

EVENT:
Andrew Morrison talk at TEDx Colorado Springs
10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 11
Stargazers Theatre, 10 S. Parkside Drive, $49 to $59, stargazerstheatre.com

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