10 Guiding Principles for Living Tiny

Posted February 1st, 2010 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 15: Small Space Tricks

Since plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, I borrowed some of Andrea Zittel‘s writing (from her ongoing “Things I Know For Sure” series) because, well, I’m quite a fan. Below I’ve put together a mashup of tricks for living in small spaces — or guiding principles, or billboard-quality truisms. Whatever you want to call them, I hope they are as useful and inspiring to you as they are to me.

1. What you own, owns you.

2. What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves.

3. Things that we think are liberating can ultimately become restrictive, and things that we initially think are controlling can sometimes give us a sense of comfort and security.

4. People are most happy when they are moving towards something not quite yet attained.

5. Ideas seem to gestate best in a void—- when that void is filled, it is more difficult to access them. In our consumption-driven society, almost all voids are filled.

6. Maintenance takes time and energy that can sometimes impede other forms or progress such as learning about new things.

7. Surfaces that are “easy to clean” also show dirt more. In reality a surface that camouflages dirt is much more practical than one that is easy to clean.

8. All materials ultimately deteriorate and show signs of wear. It is therefore important to create designs that will look better after years of distress.

9. Ambiguity in visual design ultimately leads to a greater variety of functions than designs that are functionally fixed.

10. The best rules are never stable or permanent, but evolve, naturally according to content or need.

Image credit: Andrea Zittel, Andrea Rosen Gallery

Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer and preparing for full-time travel. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com.

Making the Tiny Leap

I’m sitting at my desk with a sprawl of paper threatening to eat my organic, goat cheese pizza.  I just crunched numbers over my late night feast.  I can do it.  My bank statement is sitting on top of my Tumbleweed plans.  Across the table, my research list scribbles every trip to the hardware store and every name of my construction recruits.  I know what I need to build my tiny house.  I know what it’ll cost.  With my new bank statement, I know I have the money.  Here’s the tripper; I also have the land.

What’s the Problem?

It’s this last point that’s caused the late night pizza binge.  My free home site lies in the corner of my parent’s yard.  My tiny home will sit on a permanent foundation and forever keep me living with Mom and Dad, while I chase the ghosts of my childhood.

Even though my relationship with my family doesn’t require a tunicate, there’s something deep seated in me that calls for autonomy and needs physical separation from my family.  I’ve grown up in a country that expects independence, and lays out this freedom along a linear flow of events:  Education, career, house, spouse, kids, retirement.  Although a degree of variation is acceptable, cross too far off the path and you become a social eyebrow raiser.  “Live in Mom’s backyard,” lies in the realm of eyebrow raising.

Questioning Freedom

I know I can easily point to the downfalls of this freedom lineup.  It’s impossible to ignore the high cost of education, the sick-laden workaholic and the mortgage meltdown.  These are the questions I ask as I chase simplicity: Is this freedom?  What happened to my independence in this pile of bills?

Balancing “We” and “I”

For me to accept land from my family, and dig my foundation in their space, I feel like I’m crossing a boarder that values, “we,” over, “I.”  It would be a sharing of resources, with an acceptance of work and care in return.  No, my parents would not breath their expectations through my windows.  But I would need to be around to care for their animals when they go out of town, tend to the garden, and resolve myself to share my comings are goings.  Then there’s the larger question of care as they grow old.  It would only make sense to become their caretaker when it’s time.  I would be their closest neighbor.

Working this family dynamic is a process for every person.  But it becomes more alive and tangible when you live in close quarters and rely on their grace to build your tiny dream.

Asking the Question

Without question, planting my tiny home next to my parents would afford financial freedom.  Sharing resources would lessen our impact on the environment as a family.  So the question remains.  Can I hack it?  Can I leave the social norm.  Sure, I see tiny homes on the path to culture coolness.  Living in Mom’s backyard isn’t quite there.  When I except that cool is not my destiny, can I hold on for the lifetime ride of these new family ties?

Figuring Thing Out.  Slowly

This is why, fellow tiny house-ers, I resorted to my organic pizza binge.  From here, I’ll continue to mill over my questions.  I’ll practice clear speaking and deep listening with my family.  I’ll give myself the room to make a decision, knowing there is not only one way to live freely and walk lightly on this earth.  Of course, I’ll leave the oven on, pizza ready.

Author Bio

Amber is a writer and outdoor educator.  She lives small in Los Angeles with her mutt, Kona.

Overcoming Obstacles, Past and Future

The subject of this issue of Small Living Journal was actually my suggestion. I thought it would be useful to hear how people have solved, and plan to solve, past and future challenges. Here are some example of common obstacles and my solutions.

Past & Current Obstacles

Debt Reduction

After watching the equity in my home evaporate I began to think very differently about money. I decided that for me, debt is to be avoided at all costs because the risk it too high. For example if I were to loose my job I would put my family in a very difficult position.

I’ve made some immediate changes in spending and have chosen to eliminate every unneeded expense. Living frugally immediately puts money back in my pocket and gives back some of the freedom lost by taking on debt.

When the housing market recovers we’ll be able to move on and into a smaller less expensive home on a larger piece of land. Once we’ve landed my financial focus will be becoming debt free.

Income Growth

I have a simple plan to create multiple revenue streams by leveraging my knowledge and skills. Most of us make money by selling our time to an employer. We make more money over time as our skills and knowledge improve, advancing as our contributions increase. The problem with this is that we’re reliant on someone else to support us and if that company should fail we go down with the ship.

There is another option that everyone can capitalize on immediately, and that’s banking your knowledge. To some degree everyone is an expect in something and when you take the time to record that expertise on a blog, book, recording, video, etc, you are banking your knowledge.

I’ve chosen to blog about my passion for tiny house design and have a couple book ideas in the works. Each one of these efforts becomes a small self-sustaining revenue stream. They don’t have to be large, they just have to be plentiful and require little effort to maintain. Blogging does require a lot of time and energy but I love to do it so I’d actually say the effort is low. In other words I’ve taken something I love doing and turned it into a revenue stream.

My long term plan is to create enough small streams to help eliminate debt and give me back more and more of my time. It’s a slow process but can work if you can maintain that entrepreneurial spirit.

More time with my Family

In 2006 Julia and I adopted our daughter Katie. As every parent can attest, having a new baby is life altering. The job I had at the time was a 100-mile commute away. I took the bus mostly and then the train when the bus route got canceled.

After Katie was born I began to make the trip to San Francisco by car because it was faster and gave me back about 2 hours a day with my family. But this was still not enough, I wanted more.

One day a job opportunity presented itself and a few months later I had switched positions and was working from home full time. Working from home has saved me so much time commuting and I can even have lunch with my wife and daughter.

Not every profession is as accommodating to working from home as mine. It’s also very hard to imagine working from home if you’ve always worked outside the home. But I think if you use your creativity and do some research you might be able to find a niche that fits your skill-set. My only warning is to look for real jobs and avoid anything that looks like a scheme.

Future Obstacles

Peak Oil Transition

I realize this is a loaded topic so forgive me for blurting it out like this, but hang in there with me for a few minutes.

At some point in the future the demand for oil will exceed supply. This will be due to increasing demand and fewer sources of oil. It’s clear that business and government are focused on the problem and are injecting more resources into finding a way to curtail demand, like using energy more efficiently, and diversify energy production by exploring coal, new oil exploration, tar sands, solar, wind, nuclear, etc.

In my humble opinion, all of this momentum has created a peak plateau and I’m certain it’s all in an effort to make a smooth transition to a new alternate energy source world. Some see our future powered by coal, nuclear, and natural gas; others see a wind, solar, hydro world… but they are all united in finding a way to make the transition smooth to keep human civilization strong.

Here’s a list of things I’m doing and plan to do. Ironically no matter what your predictions are for the future, none these choices can hurt.

  • Eliminate all debt.
  • Move to a temperate climate with adequate rainfall.
  • Become less dependent on an income by building a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle and multiple small revenue streams that could theoretically survive a deeper economy downturn.
  • Move toward a sustainable lifestyle and live in balance with nature.
  • Buy only things I’d be happy keeping for a lifetime.
  • Buy only electronic devices that can run on 12VDC.
  • Invest in alternative energy equipment like photovoltaic solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines.

Life, Liberty, Happiness

While peak oil concerns have acted in part as a catalyst for my interest in simple living, downsizing, sustainability, and self-reliance; I think it’s really the desire to live a happy and free life that is my primary motivator, as it should be.

This is also something I think every human around the planet can relate to, we all ultimately want to be happy and freedom is a prerequisite. It seems many of us have strayed from that goal by giving into short-term perks powered by borrowed money and a society that seems to require the sale of our time, aka, a job.

Ironically the solution to this obstacle has been staring at us through the pages of history. Species that survive are those that are in balance with their surroundings. We are an incredibly resourceful animal. I’m certain that if we choose to solve this puzzle and take into account the need to be in balance with our natural surroundings we will prosper, be happy, and free. I suspect if we choose to use up our natural surroundings we will ultimately fail because we’ll be so far out on a limb when the branch finally decides we’ve gotten too heavy to hold.

So I’m choosing to get off the limb and climb down the tree. I certain I can find a way to live free and be happy by choosing to use my clever human ingenuity to architect a sustainable future for myself and family. I figure the more of us that put our focus on what truly sustains life the better our chances will be for a long and fruitful civilization. The first step is it to move our focus off the noise around us and redirect it on the things that keep us in balance with the life around us.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design.

Requirements, Choices, and Following My Nose

Posted May 18th, 2009 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 5: Future Plans

By the end of this article you will probably think I’m not telling you the truth when I say that I don’t have a plan. Instead of a plan I have requirements, try to make good choices, and then just follow my nose.


In online software development, the career I found myself in, requirements are all the the things a piece of software is supposed to fulfill. Requirements don’t tell a designer or programmer how to meet the need, they just describe the goal.

I’ve taken this simple approach and applied it to my life and ironically it has put me back on track and steaming full speed ahead toward what I expect to be a very satisfying free life. Here are some examples of the requirements that guide me:

  • Increase personal freedom – The most important goal I keep in mind is freedom. I think a lot of us take it for granted and choose debt over freedom everyday. I was sitting in traffic on my usual 100-mile commute to San Francisco when I realized that I had fallen into that trap. Since that moment my number one goal has been to undo what I’d done to myself.
  • Increase time with family – Julia and I adopted a baby girl, Katie, almost exactly three years ago. Our life and many of my values immediately changed that day. Family is one of my very top priorities.
  • Reduce debt – Debt is a trap. Debt can enable us for short periods of time so long as we are actively monitoring risk but a life of perpetual debt is the antithesis of freedom. It’s voluntary indentured servitude and it sucks.
  • Decrease wasted time – Time is our most limited commodity and we must spend it well. The less time we waste the more we can accomplish and spend doing the things we love to do.
  • Increase self-sufficiency – Many of us have one primary source of income, our jobs. This single point of failure puts our freedom and happiness at risk. If we loose our jobs we put everything at risk. Lower that risk by adding income sources and by finding ways to become less dependent on external forces. Never get involved in schemes or take unnecessary risks.


Every choice I make impacts my progress. Even the simplest choices add up so I’ve made a concerted effort to live as intentionally as possible and make every choice count. Nobody is perfect but as long as forward momentum is maintained progress is achieved. I also try not to distract myself with failure and instead focus on the next step. Here are some examples of choices that drive me forward:

  • Watch little television – TV is a complete waste of time and it distracts us from the people around us and our goals. It also changes how we feel, usually for the worse. Experience the taste of real freedom, turn off the TV.
  • Write everyday – Each of us has something to offer others. Writing is a great way to put yourself out there and always leads to more opportunities.
  • Spend little money – Over consumption is wasteful in every way. I try to only spend money when it moves me closer to achieving my goals.
  • Eat better, move more – Our health is essential for happiness.

Following My Nose

I move myself forward by keeping myself focused on my goals and making better choices. I don’t need a plan with specific dates and milestones; I just need a good general direction and perseverance. If the economy hadn’t taken a dump I’d be farther along than I am, but at the same time I have to thank this economic tsunami for the wake up call it provided. It has helped me focus and harden my resolve.

The Carrot

Sometimes the general direction and passing milestones isn’t enough to keep us going. Often a picture of what the future looks like helps keep us going. Choosing the right carrot isn’t easy and we often latch onto the wrong one.

For example if your first requirement is increasing wealth and your chosen carrot is a big house and fast car you may discover that achieving the house and car is a little too easy, because there’s always someone there to lend you the money. Sadly this is probably the reason so many have ended up in the dire straits we’re in today. We had our eyes focused on the wrong carrot.

If our goal is freedom and the right carrot is a life that enables and protects freedom, we’re more likely to succeed. This is a life that is debt free, secure, independent, and sustainable. Money might be apart of that dream but it’s not the focus. The focus is the freedom money can buy, not the money itself or the visible wealth.

My Carrot

I had intended to post a video tour of this 3D drawing of the homestead that’s been developing in my head. It’s my carrot. It’s an imaginary place somewhere in my future where I hope to raise my daughter and grow old with my wife. Unfortunately my puny little computer couldn’t keep up with my imagination and the video tour was just not possible. But I do have screen shots I can share.


I picture a homestead with a garden and small orchard on at least two acres. The main house would be small but not tiny. The main house pictured here measures 16′ by 24′ has two floors and a wrap-around porch. There would be a place for teaching tiny house workshops and a few tiny houses for people to stay in during workshops. There is also a tiny pottery studio (12′ by 12′), kiln shed (8′ by 8′) and mobile tiny house showroom. The first ‘house’ built would be a shed cluster and would initially serve as a place to stay while building the main house. Eventually the shed cluster would provide a place for guests to stay.

The place would help pay for itself and would be mortgage free within a few years. We’d buy the most value for the least amount of money and then build low-cost buildings. This place would also enable me to spend my time doing things I enjoy while moving me toward increased self-sufficiency and reduced dependence on a single job. I’m very lucky to have found myself in a profession that is made for working from home, so there would be no need to leave my day job behind while my alternate income sources grow. At some point I would technically retire but I can’t see ever see truly retiring.

This carrot will change it’s shape over time but helps me continue moving forward as long as I remember that this is not the end goal but a place that could allow me to reach my true end goals.


Above: Shed cluster built without permits; technically not a residence. Below: Pottery studio, kiln shed, and tiny house showroom.



Above: Tiny house workshops. Below: Main house, garden, and orchard.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my blogs, Tiny House Design and Tiny Free House, the tiny house I’m building right now.