The Mobile Hermitage

Posted April 20th, 2009 by Gregory Johnson and filed in Issue 3: My Current Home
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Quiet Life. After considerable reflection, by the Spring of 2003, I had decided to commission Jay Shafer to construct a tiny off-the-grid home, the Mobile Hermitage. I felt it was time to live a quiet life, and I believed that dwelling in a 140 square foot hermitage retreat would be just the way to achieve that quiet life.

Media Attention. At the time, I didn’t realize that the decision to live in a tiny house would result in more news and media coverage than I could ever have imagined possible. Within a few years, my tiny home had been in Better Homes and Gardens, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times of London, PBS, National Public Radio, a CBS affiliate, and I’d even received a phone call from the Oprah Winfrey Show expressing an interest in having my house hauled to Chicago to be on their stage for a taping of their show on small living. It soon became clear to me that there was a substantial interest in simple and small living. Below is a video from PBS affiliate WQPT.

Making Small Work. Inside my home, there is a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a study, and a walk-in closet. These are all the same room. This is possible because most tasks in life are accomplished at different times (cooking, eating, studying) instead of being done all at the same time. So, having a single room serve many functions is an excellent way to make small work.

Tiny Experiences Book. I wanted to share my experiences of living in a tiny space. Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet is the book I wrote about my experiences in the tiny house. Below is a video from the launch of the book on 11 July 2008. The interview, book reading, along with the questions and answers that followed were aired on public radio and broadcast on television.

Spreading the Message. I recently spoke at Viterbo University on my experiences with living small and the larger issues of urban and regional planning. The presentation includes photos of my home. A video of that presentation is below.

Looking Back and Living Forward

“Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.”Joseph Brackett

Living Small Today. My name is Gregory Johnson. I’ve spent time in castles and lived in homes of 4000 square feet or larger. Yet, today I’m living in a 10′ x 7′ home I named the Mobile Hermitage (photo by I assisted Jay Shafer with constructing the home for me back in the summer of 2003. By August that year I moved in. I can’t say I’ve written the book on small living, but I can say I’ve written a book on small living. The title is Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned Living in 140 Squre Feet.

My simple and small journey was prompted by a desire for a more efficient, economical, care-free, and enjoyable life. Along the way, I’ve learned that there is freedom with simplicity, as the old Shaker song suggests. Below are a few impressions that had an influence in the downsizing of my life along the way.

Urbanism and Social Activism. As a college student, in the mid-1980s, with an interest in social activism, I began a study of Urban and Regional Planning with the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) that included travel to several South American countries including Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. I was later able to travel to India, Israel, Spain, Mexico, and Canada, which allowed me greater exposure to learn about housing and urban issues around the world. It seemed to me that urban planning largely influences all other areas of life and wellbeing. So, that became an early interest.

Technology Shrinking Our Lives. There was a global shift in the late 1970s, and as computers became more mainstream, our information possessions increasingly became digital. Music, photos, correspondence, and other documents slowly made their way into computers leaving bare shelves and empty filing cabinets. As one of the early adopters of computers, I became a somewhat of a minimalist at an early age. By the early 1980s, I was already carrying one of the first notebook computers on the market.

Early Impressions. My dreams of small and simple living began at an early age, and were perhaps influenced by the Quaker education I was exposed to for a few years. Later, in the 1970s, as a teenager, I spent many years living in an 18th century log cabin nestled on 17 acres in the rolling hills of Maryland. The home had a hidden room in it that was used for the underground railroad. For vacations, my father would take my brother and I to stay at a cabin in the mountains of the Virginia / West Virginia border. This gave us an opportunity to see the great outdoors and escape from the hustle and bustle of the countryside. At the cabin in Virginia there was no running water and no electricity. The water we fetched on foot by walking down the hill to the spring and filling water buckets. There was a holding tank above the kitchen sink for the water. We didn’t really need electricity in those days (the 1970s) because there were no iPods or notebook computers at that time. I had an ink pen and something called a journal for writing in. Information was stored in books in those days. So, as a teenager, I didn’t miss electricity. The summers spent at the cabin, walking the hills and foraging for beeries were some of the best times during my youth. An alternative to spending time in West Virginia was a trip that we would make to Iowa to ride bicycles across the state on an event called RAGBRAI. While in Iowa, we would always visit our Amish friends in Kalona. I was fascenated by the Amish. From seeing their way of life, and romanticising about the cabin in Virginia, I dreamed that one day I might live a simple, small, off the grid life. With that in mind, I began drawing house plans as an early teenager.