"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry D. Thoreau



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Making Room for More Joy: A Tiny House Manifesto

By L D J

(L D J is a writer and gardener near Marchand)

Your house is your larger body.

It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless.

Does not your house dream? and dreaming, leave the city for grove or hill-top?

Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.

Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.

 - Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet


Disparity is a concept I first considered through school bus windows. The route our bus travelled through St. James, Winnipeg- and specifically the neighbourhood of Woodhaven- efficiently highlighted the differences between one home and the others.

While Alex got off the bus at a two-storey colonial palace with symmetrical white-trimmed windows and a three-car garage, Lea got off the bus at a one-and-a-half-storey house with a front yard no bigger than a pick-up truck. Another road would bring us to Erin’s even smaller house: this one with peeling paint, a broken stair and three older brothers. Then Chris hopped off and entered a ‘70’s masterpiece clad in stucco and cedar that boasted a massive triangular profile.

On the other side of Sturgeon Creek, Cindy and I got off. Cindy to a veritable shack that had plaster coming off in chunks and all kinds of crap in the front yard, and me to a cold-war era bungalow of 1100 square feet.

I spent most of my time not in this stuffy cement bunker, but at the end of our street where the imperceptibly mighty Assiniboine River finally accepted the muddy end of Sturgeon Creek. There I would perch on a mossy boulder and watch sturgeon negotiate their steely grey-green bodies around stones in shallow waters (this was back when Sturgeon Creek actually had sturgeon).

My home on this present day is a total mess now that I look around, but otherwise is the stuff of my absolute dreams. It’s a proper tiny home at 475 square feet and even though my husband’s a carpenter, and even though the bank wouldn’t give us a mortgage for years because our place was “too small” to earn one, I wouldn’t add a thing.

The timbers for our home came from a sawmill just down the dirt road, and the wood (oak, maple, poplar) from the forests around here, too. My husband built the whole thing himself while living in a tent. The windows he collected from places like the Re-Store (which supports Habitat for Humanity) in odd shapes and sizes at discount prices, or were ones he removed for free from the kinds of homes where replacing perfectly good triple-pane windows is considered normal- or worse- desirable, by banks, and interior designers hired out of sheer boredom.

Our red enamel farm sink came from the Old House Revival Company. Our first kitchen cupboards were wooden crates, but we’ve since downsized and now don’t have any kitchen cupboards at all. Our insulation consists of recycled steel door knockouts, and our roof is tin, which you can buy in odd sizes and mis-matched colours for less.

Other things around here came straight out of construction site dumpsters.

I recognize disparity now not in the micro-details of a few decades worth of architectural aesthetic as displayed by more-or-less privileged white folks living in a west end Winnipeg neighbourhood, but on a global scale where sixteen hungry, cold, people might squat in a home the size of Cindy’s, except instead of the luxury of cracked plaster, the walls consist of a plastic tarp rattling in the wind all night. These tents number in the thousands, along riverbanks and garbage dumps, or wherever else a begrudging and spoiled society puts unwanted refugees. And that’s just one sad scene on a big, sad globe.

I recognize that this hand-crafted “tiny” home with two adults and two kids ranks me among the wealthiest people on earth. And ever since I abandoned my city life, hitching my wagon up to the materialistic ball and chain of Success (or at least the appearance of such), I have spent the last ten years living in the tiniest house I’ve ever seen, mostly unemployed, pretty sure I won a lottery.

Three seasons of the year I spend my days submerged in gardens of wildflowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables, many of them naturally occurring on pristine remnant-prairie land that we didn’t have to plough over to make a home. On the days I do spend indoors, windows on every small wall renders this place practically transparent. Even in February, over my second cup of coffee, I note how the blue jays are chasing the pine grosbeaks away again.

In my back yard I see four acres of functioning wetland that has real live salamanders in it (!) and a clearwater creek coming freshly filtered from the Sandilands, just like in my childhood - but without the clayey water, and prehistoric fish, so I’m not too afraid to swim in it.

My kids have eaten over half of their life’s meals outdoors, around the campfire or at the picnic table, which is the only dining room table they’ve ever known here. It’s not uncommon in summer that they run out as soon as they wake and we carry them in for bed some thirteen hours later. Our house is where we sleep and store goods and keep our clothes dry, but our real living room is in the gardens and forest, with a carpet of native sedges and sheep fescue intermingled with big bluestem.

The main floor of our tiny home has an insulated and screened porch that we board up in winter when it becomes our root cellar, cool enough to keep milk in should our tiny fridge become overwhelmed. We have a woodstove in the kitchen, which is divided by a bar top counter, and you’ll find two desks (I favour the secretary type, which has a surface that folds up to hide everything), a daybed, some goldfish, a hamster, a few cats and sometimes two large dogs in the other half of the room.

The whole house, including the porch, has an exterior footprint of 12 x 24 ft.

It only takes about two minutes to mess up the whole house, but then again it only takes a few minutes to clean it, too. Every item we buy, whether it be books or clothes, has to be worth the space to place it, so we’ve come to honour quality, not quantity. After we had kids and because we love books, we started a small library in the garden shed.

After we had kids it also became apparent which toys we wanted to look at, and which ones assaulted our senses. You learn the endless value of simple open-ended toys with pleasing textures and sounds, like wooden marble tracks and building blocks. You are spared from the plastic atrocities that offer up one cheap trick before becoming useless, only to park in a landfill forever.

There is simply no room in a tiny home for inelegant and unintelligent crap, and even when some such stuff coaxes its way in - it can’t hide long before we root it out.

Obviously, it’s cozy in here. Just a few weeks ago we lost power for several hours when it was -40 degrees Celsius out there - and I did a stir-fry on a the wood stove, which is capable of keeping the entire house warm, while one large candle can light the whole floor. In summer it’s surprisingly cool and always breezy, with opening windows from every direction able to clear out heat and humid air in about three short seconds.

The loft above has a clawfoot tub and queen-size bed which we share(d) with our kids (the concept of huge cribs, as well as heating and furnishing entire rooms for babies now strikes me as utterly bizarre), but now also includes a marvellous bunk bed with a staircase that doubles as a very comfortable chair.

Our clothes go under the beds. Each person gets about four milk crates worth of clothing space (if you need more crates you have too many clothes). Seasonal gear like shorts or sandals or snowshoes are transported to a camper trailer half the year, and the camper also doubles as a guest room.

The process of pulling out the seasonal gear and putting it away again gets a bit tiresome, but then again it forces us to purge and donate items multiple times a year. I don’t want to know how long I would have kept some ill-fitting clothes or rotten shoes if I simply had a big closet to stuff them in...

On both floors panoramic south-facing windows provide 8 foot long views, and I eerily open my eyes, head still on my pillow, to witness the exact moment the sun rises over distant spruce forests more days than not.

The composting toilet is a sawdust-filled bucket set in a custom-crafted wooden throne, and it’s a bit astonishing to me one can have so much poop nearby and not smell a thing. In winter the toilet is in the porch, in summer it moves outdoors.

By the way - if you’re feeling a bit disturbed by the idea of safely composted feces, you must eventually come to realize that pooping in clean, fresh, drinking water is the far more deplorable of the two acts, seeing as by the time you’re done wiping your rear end at least one child has died because of no access to the kind of clean drinking water you just fouled up with bodily waste.

As for work, one doesn’t need to do so much of it, because a tiny home predicts a certain lifestyle. It’s a home that costs less to build and heat and power and has less stuff, less stuff that costs money, and less need for money is less need for work, and less work means more hours spent with my kids, in the gardens, in the forests, and at the creek. In this way, a tiny home makes more room for a really joyful life.

Now that my first-born is boarding a school bus I can see the little faces peering out at our home with scrutiny. I know those kids likely think our place is one of the most peculiar, confusing, weird, scary, or saddest ones on the route home.

And while my first-born - an young athlete who really loves to run, and jump, and throw stuff - once said he wished we had a big house to play in, he already understands why we chose this. Unlike most adults, he keeps his eyes bravely open when shown how most people in the world live without more. And like his parents, he recognizes how lucky he is to be so wealthy, living in one of the tiniest homes around.

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