Technology, Sustainability, and Human Evolution

Posted December 7th, 2009 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 13: Technology and Simple Living

I have a bit of a growing love/hate relationship with technology. I’ve been making my living online for over a decade now so I’ve become a bit of a computer geek; but I’ve also begun to recognize that all this cool stuff is a dangerous double edged sword.

One one hand all the information channels (web, phone, television, radio, etc) bring us closer together it seems to do it in cyberspace and not in person. Some people are able to continue to make offline connections but it seems bulk of our personal relationships have moved toward online interactions. I would also argue that all our faceless interactions distract us from the real people around us. It’s a common reality these days to have families disconnected at home while each surfs the web on their own computer, watching television in different rooms, text messaging and chatting with their distant disembodied friends.

But technology is also an amazing tool for accessing information and reaching out to people you would never otherwise meet. I run into this everyday while blogging and have made really great connections with people from around the globe who share my values and enjoy exchanging ideas. So while I have a lot of harsh things to say about technology and human connections I can also clearly see how it’s become a powerful tool for bettering the world.

Clearly we need to find a balance between too much and too little technology to achieve simpler lives. I will actually go as far to describe our current predicament as a critical time in human evolution where we must choice to use our cleverness to coexist with our surroundings of face extinction. My logic is simple. Since it is impossible for a something to grow at exponential rates without end inside a closed system, the growth must at some point reach the confines of the closed system. When this happens growth is stopped suddenly causing a major disruption.

Let me bring that abstract logic back to reality… I basically just said that if humans continue to grow in number and continue consuming at an increasing rates we’re going to run into serious trouble when we finally hit a point where out cleverness can’t outwit the confines of our planet.

But humans ARE clever animals. We’ve learned to manipulate our surroundings to the point where we’ve been able to virtually extend the size of our closed system… in other words through the exploitation of petrochemicals we’ve been able to produce quantities of food far beyond what the normal environment can support. Petrochemicals have also catapulted us forward in all areas of technology and we now sit on top of a vast wealth of knowledge.

The problem of course is that simply due to greed we’ve never really had a strategic plan for how we would cumulatively use all this great black stuff. Instead we’ve allowed a few people to get stinking rich off the stuff while the vast majority continues to pretend that we aren’t running out. No one can really say when we’ll run out of gas, and those who probably can probably won’t simply because it would cause too much trouble for them now (seems logical).

Some people say we’ve already reached peak, others still say peak oil production is 10 to 20 years away. I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter because the right choice is obvious. What matters is that we have a choice to use technology to better our lives while finding a way to live in balance with the all the life around us. In fact I’d argue that it’s easier to do this than living the lifestyles many of us still currently live. The hardest part is breaking free.

Simple sustainable living and technology can coexist but a delicate balance must be maintained in order for us to achieve the goal of a sustainable life. Some would say that turning our backs to technology is the only way to truly live in balance with nature but I think our specie has come to far for that now. I think we can use our cleverness and what we’ve learned so far to slow down and find a sustainable way to live.

The trick to the success of this wild dream is that each of us must take it upon ourselves to seek our own sustainable existence. I don’t think we can wait for government and I can’t imagine we can expect much more from the billionaires that really run the show than we’ve already seen from them in the past.

The only piece of the equation we each have control over it ourselves. Choose wisely and evolve.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design. You can also read my bio at MichaelJanzen.com.

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.

Requirements

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.

Choices

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.

new-homestead-overview

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.

new-homestead-shed-cluster

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

new-homestead-studio

new-homestead-workshops

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

new-homestead-main-house

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.

How To Draw a Tiny House with Google SketchUp

camping-trailer-front-porchI’ve been having so much fun drawing 3D tiny houses lately that I thought I’d use this opportunity to show you the basics of drawing with Google SketchUp. Instead of writing it all down I decided to dust-off my podcasting microphone and do a quick podcast video to show you how to do it first hand.

Google SketchUp is free 3D drawing software that’s easy to learn to use and will run on both Mac and Windows computers. Before trying it do yourself a favor and watch a few of the SketchUp training videos. I made that mistake and couldn’t draw a thing until watching the videos a few times.

In the video below I’ll show you how I start a quick tiny house sketch. You’ll see how easy it is to draw the basic shape of a house. I’m also posting the actual SketchUp file in case you want to play with the actual file. If you’re like me and like to day dream and explore design ideas I bet you’ll enjoy playing with Google SketchUp as much as I do.

Download the SketchUp model in the video.

Explore the tiny houses I’ve drawn on Tiny House Design… and sorry that the video sound quality isn’t great :-)

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

House of Life Lessons

Posted April 20th, 2009 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 3: My Current Home

michael-janzen-houseMy current home isn’t tiny, but it is the primary catalyst for my desire to downsize and simplify my life. It’s an 1,800 square foot Streng Brothers home built in the early 1970′s. We bought it because it was so different than the ubiquitous ranch style homes that surround it for miles and miles. It’s the largest home I’ve lived in since leaving my parents home as a kid and is the first home I’ve lived in that has had a lawn. It was also our first real home purchase, but it also came filled with lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Energy Efficient: A house must be energy efficient, passive solar, and require little additional energy to be comfortable. Older homes in hot climates cost more to own because their air conditioners run all the time when it’s hot. When you buy an older home you are buying a big utility bill or an enormous upgrade cost.
  • Temperate Location: Choose to live in a moderate climate. The additional cost of these high demand locations could easily pay you back in money and time spent outside. Avoid locations that require homes with air conditioners unless you build appropriately for the region, like adobe homes in the southwest.
  • Garden: This house has some very nice bonsai Japanese Pine trees. Unfortunately to keep them looking nice, which I’m not very good at, requires regular pruning. If you choose to plant a garden or trees consider planting things that require less time and produce something you can use or eat.
  • Elbow Room: Many suburban lots are small. Privacy is limited and if your neighbor decides to light up a cigarette in their backyard prepare to close your doors and windows. More space is also nice for more garden and places for kids to play. The downside is additional upfront cost and maintenance.
  • Roof: This house has a flat roof and water tends to find it’s way inside. Leaks are inevitable with flat roofs. The smart choice it to avoid a roof that is prone to leak like complex designs or roofs with many openings like skylights.
  • Less is Less: Every square foot you add to a house requires heating, cooling, organizing, and cleaning. This includes the space you don’t use. When you choose to have more you are also choosing to spend more of your time and money taking care of more.
  • zillow-chartReal Value: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the true value of a home should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost.  At the moment this house feels a bit like a debtor’s prison and we hope and pray regularly that the market will correct itself and free us. In the future we will avoid this trap buying more value for less money and doing everything possible to avoid a mortgage. Instead of asking ourselves how much we can afford, we’ll ask the question, how much can we get for the least amount of money.

Ironically I knew many of these lessons before buying this house but never really understood how much the size, design, location, and construction of a home really impacted the quality of life until I’d lived it.  I guess sometimes we have to make mistakes ourselves and live the consequences to truly understand what the lesson has to teach.

I also try not to regret any past choices. Every choice we make, good and bad, has led us to where we are today. In fact I suspect that it’s our bad choices that make us wiser and better able to make better choices in the future. I also have to admit that if we had not bought this home and moved to Sacramento when we did we may have never been able to adopt our daughter Katie. That chain of events lead us to where we are today and I wouldn’t change any of it for any amount of money. That simple truth, and her presence in our lives, makes any cost seem microscopic.

My hope for the near future is that before Katie starts kindergarten we’ll be un-stuck from our current situation. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to weather this current economic storm and come out the other end smarter and positioned to built a simple place in a semi-rural area closer to the California coast.

But I’m also prepared to stick it out here if the housing market doesn’t play out in our favor. If this should happen I’ll feel more comfortable about putting more money and time into this house to make it more efficient and cost less to maintain. But for now I’m downsizing everything else that adds to my load like expenses, possessions, and obligations.

tiny-free-house-view-450x675I suspect there are millions of people just like me who were temporarily taken in by a successful career and boom times and then suddenly woken up by the simple truth that a lifestyle built on the bubble is extremely fragile and completely unsustainable.  My hope in sharing this with you is that maybe a few people will be able to avoid learning these lessons that hard way, or if you’re in my boat too, know that you’re not alone and there can be a light at the end of the tunnel if you choose to turn it on. You might also now have a better idea about why I’m building a tiny free house.

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.