We’ve featured many a tiny house on Inhabitat, but did you know that one trailblazing lady was the inspiration behind many of those miniature homes? Meet Dee Williams: an early pioneer and sustainability advocate of the tiny house movement, she downsized from a three bedroom home into an 84 square foot house she built herself for $10,000 after she was diagnosed with a heart muscle disease. Ten years later, she’s inspired countless others to pursue big dreams in tiny spaces and has just recently published her first book and memoir, “The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir.” Unlike the typical how-to construction manual–Williams has already published a DIY tiny house e-book called “Go House Go”–“The Big Tiny” delves into Williams’ motivations and life lessons learned from building and living in a tiny house the size of an area rug. Click through to read our interview with Dee Williams.
Determined to make a change after a heart attack and life-altering diagnosis of cardiomyopathy at the age of 40, Williams decided to follow the example and house plans of Jay Shafer, a leader and major founder of the modern DIY tiny house movement. After three months of construction in 2004, Williams completed her miniature 84 square foot home for just $10,000 and parked it behind her friend’s house in Portland, OR. Powered by a photovoltaic system and built with numerous green and salvaged materials, the house allows Williams to live so lightly on the land that her utility bills average at less than $10 a month. We had the chance to talk to Williams about her tiny house and memoir shortly after the conclusion of her “The Big Tiny” book tour.
Inhabitat: Before “The Big Tiny,” you wrote an e-book “Go House Go,” a how-to manual for tiny houses. What drove you to write a more personal, built-it-myself memoir?
Dee Williams: Well, there were a lot of different reasons. One was that I had been getting encouragement from friends to write a memoir about what it was like to live in my little house because there were (and still are) more and more people who are interested in living similarly. Go House Go was written to be a more linear, technical guide, answering questions about engineering, codes, zoning, green building, electrical systems and the like. With my memoir, I wanted to dive into the ephemeral nature of “home” – starting with what it is and where it can go. I wanted to describe what the day-to-day looks like in my house. And I simply wanted to address why a reasonably normal, middle class, middle of the road lady would choose to live in house the size of a tool shed.
Inhabitat: You’ve just finished up your book tour around the U.S. Can you talk about the reactions that you’ve had to your book and the most common questions that people have asked?
Dee Williams: I have been totally blown away by how many cool people came to the readings. I went all over the U.S. and I wasn’t sure if it was just going to be tiny house people or not. And while there certainly were a lot of people interested in tiny houses, I was also really surprised and humbled by how many cool people who showed up just because they liked the story. Even if they weren’t necessarily interested in downsizing, many people just liked the idea of double dog daring yourself to make a big change, of determining to be something more and doing it. So, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised that people got it, that it’s not necessarily all about trying to downsize and squeeze myself into a little house, but it’s more about making a decision and going for it.
And I think the biggest question that I get is from people who really want to know in all honesty if I’m claustrophobic, do I eat out all the time, things like that, A lot of the questions tend to focus on whether I’m really happy–and I love that. I love that they’re curious about that because you can just see the wheels spinning as they’re asking these kinds of questions.
Inhabitat: And you write in the book you’d say you’re about 85% of the time happy right?
Dee Williams: Yeah, it’s a good solid B average, you know? I’m happy with a B average.
Inhabitat: I like that you’re realistic in the book. You don’t just sing the praises of small living but you also talk about the challenges as well.
Dee Williams: Right, I’m a little curious when people ask me if I’m happier now than I was when I lived in my big house. It’s funny to compare my old life and my new life with the question of whether or not I’m happy because I was certainly happy in my old life. It wasn’t like I was miserable or anything. So yea, that 85% mark was important for me to make sure people understood that I think I’m happy as a clam most of the time, but you’re certainly going to have days when you’re not happy.
Inhabitat: In other words, building a tiny house isn’t a silver bullet for all your problems.
Dee Williams: Exactly.
Inhabitat: In addition to being a pioneer in the tiny house movement, you’ve also incorporated many green and sustainable elements to your building process early on. Can you talk about some of those features?
Dee Williams: I tried to integrate as much recycled, reclaimed and salvaged material as possible. For example, the cedar loft flooring and interior wallboard are reclaimed from someone else’s house. There are a thousand stories about where I got ‘this’ thing and ‘that’… how I pulled the front door out of a dumpster, and the window trim was created out of a cedar bedframe that a housemate left behind. A neighbor gave me a stack of old growth cedar siding (something I could never afford unless it was salvaged), and the skylight windows were only $50 bucks a piece from a salvage yard.
I also tried to minimize building waste whenever possible, and leaned toward ‘green’ products: low e-argon insulated windows, cotton batt insulation repurposed from blue jean factories, and a 240-watt solar electric system. Some of these choices were more expensive but worth it. I built the house for $10,000 and the PV system and windows were some of the most expensive parts of the house. Those two items and the trailer accounted for half of the total budget.
Inhabitat: I know you don’t have running water right now. How does that work? Do you think you’ll ever add running water?
Dee Williams: I fill up a jug with tap water from a neighbor’s hose and then collect the gray water from washing dishes into another jug below the sink. I use that collected water for watering my garden.
A part of the problem with bringing water into a house is that you have to do something with the gray water, and pouring it out on the ground is a bad idea (it’s a huge volume of warm soapy water). After working at PADtinyhouses and designing other people’s houses, I’ve now looked at different kinds of gray water systems and tank systems that use water in a way that isn’t overly consumptive. In some cases folks are able to get an RV hook up so that they can dispose of the gray water appropriately.
So sure, after studying the options available today, I’d kick the idea of adding running water to my little house; but again, for where I live right now, having a water supply just isn’t a good idea.
Inhabitat: And you don’t have a fridge right now, but you use an icebox under the fridge.
Dee Williams: Right. I haven’t added a fridge. I’ve adjusted. I buy my produce fresh every other day or so; I go through it pretty fast. The only thing that I really need to keep iced is beer and half and half (what more do you really need? Ha). And for that, a cooler works just fine.
Inhabitat: In your book, you have this great picture of a handwritten note that individually lists the 305 items that you own in your 84 square foot house. Has that number changed at all? What advice do you have to others to downsize?
Dee Williams: The things on the list have changed a little bit but the number pretty much hovers around the same ballpark. If I get new jeans, I’ll let go of an old pair. As for advice for downsizing, I’d challenge that opening your arms to let-go is an exercise. It takes a bit of determination and practice, and the more you do it the easier it can be. Like exercise, letting go is easier for some than others; more gracefully accomplished by some than others, but in every case take a little something out of you. My best advice, is to simply go for it. Start with the junk drawer in the kitchen, or a closet in the hallway, and let go of the battery charger for the cell phone you don’t own any more and send that perfectly useful set of old golf clubs off to GoodWill.
Inhabitat: You started a tiny house consulting company called Portland Alternative Dwelling (PAD) a few years ago. Can you talk about the work that you do there?
Dee Williams: Our focus at PAD is on getting information to people who are interested in building a tiny house or in downsizing in general. We offer plans, my e-book Go House Go, and awesome workshops that teach folks the fundamentals of building, options for kitchen and bathroom designs and materials, and what the codes say. So, we are all about getting people who are interested in building a tiny house the information they need to make the right choices. We also help connect people to others who are building the life they dream.
Also, what I like to tell people is that it wasn’t that long ago that we were all builders. It was part of our survival, so it’s in our DNA to build, just like it’s in our DNA to grow food and want to create a home for ourselves. It’s a part of how we learn to get along in the world. So I feel really lucky in that I get to be a watcher and watch people rediscover that side of them while building.
Inhabitat: Do you have any advice to the layman and the non-architect who might have zero building experience, but have dreams of building their own tiny house one day?
Dee Williams: Yeah, it’s to go for it! Building a tiny house is a real big project. There’s so much information available on the web now. Like when I was building, I had an email address at work but I didn’t really have any ability to Google how to begin downsizing or how do to begin building a house. But now there’s so much information available online and I think a lot of people spend a lot of their energy and time doing research nowadays. But there’s absolutely nothing that compares to actually getting out there and building with your own hands. People can volunteer through places like Habitat for Humanity and Builders without Borders. There are all of these opportunities, and it’s really important to develop a bit of muscle memory and learn how to use tools. Lastly, connecting folks who are intentionally building the life they dream is a goal of my company, Portland Alternative Dwellings.
Images Courtesy of Dee Williams for The Big Tiny published by Blue Rider Press