Learning to Live Deliberately in a Tiny House

I never sought out a tiny house. I've never watched the HGTV shows, the minimalist documentaries, nor the vlogs that espouse simpler, smaller living. My decision to move into a tiny house was one of practicality: I wanted to leave San Francisco, but live close enough to easily visit my family and friends. I also wanted to live alone, and a tiny house I found on Craigslist happened to fit all these needs for a reasonable renting price. I envisioned a sort of modern Walden, a place where I could write and temporarily withdraw from the city, or as Thoreau described it, a place where I could attempt to "live deliberately."

Even before I visited the property, I knew it was where I wanted to live. Nestled at the bottom of a hillside apple orchard in Sebastopol, CA, this tiny house seemed so ideal, I initially suspected the ad was a scam. But after contacting Dave Callagy, the owner, my concerns were allayed. I scheduled a tour and moved in a week later.

A few years before that, Callagy conceptualized what would become, as I so unoriginally named it after moving in, The Tiny House. Carpentry runs in Callagy's family: His grandfather was a carpenter, and his father built several arts and craft style houses in Bolinas, CA. The apple doesn't fall too far down the hill, I learned. Callagy's expert craftsmanship emanated from every corner of the tiny house and though it appeared to be constructed from an extremely detailed blueprint, my assumption was totally inaccurate.

"The whole design idea came from the internet and looking at a lot of other people's ideas — just doodling on my desk and morphing it all together," Callagy told me of his process during a phone interview for this story. "I didn't make it from paper at all. I made elevations, which is a sketch from what it looks like from the side and from the front."

Callagy's project did share many features with the typical trailer-mounted tiny house: a lofted area for a mattress, a basic kitchenette with two gas burners, another smaller lofted space for storage, stairs that doubled as shelves, a bathroom with a shower, and just enough remaining room for my desk (an "office"). But his use of premium lumber and his attention to detail separated this tiny house from the others I later researched online. He added a sliver of a closet, kitchen cabinets (which were installed by his friend who owns a cabinet shop in Sonoma, CA), sporadically mounted coat hangers, a ladder that could also be used as shelves, a wraparound porch, and several, extremely appreciated, electrical outlets. For some of the construction, he used Home Depot two by fours, but he also ordered mahogany grown in Northern California. All and all, the entire project cost roughly $20,000 — a total that didn't reflect the number of solo hours he spent working towards completion.

"When the house got plunked down on the blocks, I think the tally was around 445 hours of weekends and nights," he said. "If I worked on it full time, maybe I could have done it in a couple of months."

It only took me a few weeks to adjust to living in Callagy's tiny house. I moved in at the end of September, just before the leaves started turning and the temperature began dropping. My lease was a sort of trial six months. I was slightly concerned that my carload of essential possessions would envelop the tiny home when I pulled up its gravel driveway, but I had more than enough space (baskets and a natural inclination for organizing helped). I didn't miss the missing rooms. I only noticed the differences because, at least in the United States, moving into a tiny house is presented as some massive feat, and that lens unconsciously skewed my first experience of what would otherwise be an average sized living space for the rest of the world — if not a bit larger (the average home size in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1973 while the average size of an American family has decreased by a unit during the same time period).

So I only observed the very minor discrepancies between how I was accustomed to living and how the tiny house obliged me to live. I never quite adapted to sleeping under a gabled loft, which required a daily dance to avoid hitting the beams. Truthfully, I continued to hit my head up until the day I moved out. The loft's stairs were also a bit of a challenge: at awkwardly placed heights with extremely sharp edges, ascending and descending precipitated more than one tumble. My new neighbors, a rafter of turkeys, were a little livelier than my previous neighbors, but they were a welcomed spectacle. When winter's chill arrived, I bundled up in layers at night and jumped to turn on the space heater in the morning. The cold did prevent me from opening the windows to allow proper ventilation, trapping condensation and causing some mold to grow around a few of the wooden window sills (an extremely common issue discussed by tiny house blogs). Living in a small space is certainly not for everyone, but the change is not nearly as drastic as it's sometimes portrayed.

It has been a few months since I left the tiny house for Southern California, where I now live with my boyfriend in a larger, though not that much more expensive, guest house. I didn't necessarily want to leave at the end of my six month lease, but it made more sense to move south than trying to maintain our long distance relationship. With reflection, I am able to see past the rather insignificant irregularities of downsizing and notice all the ways it has positively impacted how I live now — and how I will continue to live. I'm overwhelmingly more cognizant of my consumption. I'm particularly conscious of how space can be maximized and taken for granted (I once fit three guests, a dog, and their air mattress in the tiny house). I'm more appreciative of the space I do have — and of being able to stand when I want to get out of bed in the morning.

Thank you Lucia, for speaking with us and sharing your record collection and your musical influences.