One Carpenter’s Life as Told by Small Houses and Spaces
If we will have the wisdom to survive, To stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place, Renewing, enriching it, If we will make our seasons welcome here, Asking not too much of earth or heaven, Then a long time after we are dead, The lives our lives prepare will live here.”
One of the greenest things we can do in the building industry (“asking not too much of earth or heaven”) is to build small. I hold no moral high ground, but I have never lived in a house that was more than 1200 sq. ft. I prefer living in a small home, especially one that I can afford. It would be hard for me to pay the property taxes on a huge house. Besides, small houses are easier to clean, need fewer repairs, and cost less to heat or cool. Overall, they have helped to make my life a little less complicated.
I think that the key to building a desirable small house is design. Years ago, I helped build three such houses up a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains filled with huge oaks and sycamore trees. I am especially fond of the sycamore tree, a California native that can reach a height of 100 ft. or more. The older trees have sprawling branches that follow the contour of the earth. Their thin bark peels off, leaving the trunk and branches looking like an old carpenter who has been working out in the sun too long.
Each house had 650 sq. ft., with two bedrooms on the back side. The larger bedroom was about 10 ft. by 15 ft., and the smaller one was 10 ft. by 10 ft. There was a common bath between. The front part—the living and dining areas and the kitchen—took up the remaining space: 12 ft. by 30 ft. These cold measurements don’t do justice to how warm these houses felt inside. Each was finished with two bay windows, deep window sills, wood floors, high ceilings, and wall niches to hold a statue, clock, or flower vase. The steep-pitched roof made room for a sleeping loft in the smaller bedroom. The front had an inviting, Craftsman-style porch along with clerestory windows that let in extra overhead light.
I drove up the canyon months later. The three houses, nestled between the trees, looked like they belonged there. Like soddies, they appeared to have grown out of the earth. Years later, I drove up the canyon again to show the small houses to a friend. I should have known better and rested with my memories. The houses were gone, along with the mighty oaks and sycamores. In their place were huge mansions with fences, locked gates, and cameras keeping a watchful eye on me. Good idea!
I might as well finish the story. Still later on, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert every year pushed a fire into the dense canyon brush. More than three hundred homes were burned to the ground. Guess what? Nothing is forever, not even diamonds. Maybe it is best to base our happiness on what lies in our hearts.
The message is out: Our earth is not appreciative of our lifestyles. Like water, it doesn’t need us. We need it. Water and the earth will do fine without us. As Joseph Wood Krutch said, “Both the cockroach and the bird would get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most.”
Across our country and around the world, there is a movement among millions to live more sensibly, to slow down some, try to be present, and make life meaningful. Many people call this the “green movement,” taking a responsibility for our homeland. We are being asked if our lifestyle is sustainable. Are we using more of our limited resources than we are giving back? How do we want to spend our precious life?
Building green means we need to take into consideration the impact our home will have on our health—physically, mentally, and spiritually. A well-designed house can nurture and heal us. Small doesn’t have to mean cramped, uncomfortable, or ugly. We can design our living spaces to be uplifting.
The urban sprawl that we have known up until now has been extremely profitable to a few, but maddening for many of us. It is no longer sustainable to build a single-family dwelling on a rather large plot of land. Having to travel long distances to work via an oft-clogged freeway, with one person per car, can take hours out of our day and affect our mental well-being, adding more anxiety to our already stressed-out lives. Road rage becomes understandable in such situations. How can it make sense that we have to drive several miles just to buy a loaf of bread at an ugly, noninviting strip mall that should never have been built in the first place? Neither the gasoline-driven automobile nor strip malls are sustainable in the long run.
We all know that we can do better than this. We can order our lives in a way that is kind both to our earth and that gives our hearts what they long for. The most sustainable type of transportation is to not drive anywhere at all. We should be able to live in communities where we can walk or bike to most of what we need: jobs, food, theaters, parks, recreation, churches, libraries, the houses of friends, and so on.
My wife and I have been living in our present home for twelve years. Once again, it is small—950 sq. ft. and with two bedrooms—but this 1950s house is more than adequate for the two of us. Actually, it is a special place, easy to care for, and fairly energy efficient, especially after I replaced single-pane windows and insulated underneath the floor and in the ceiling. It has good windows to the east and south. The view up the Coos River and on to the low-lying hills of the coastal range miles away is outstanding. We can sit in our living room and watch the sun rise and name the birds at our feeders—the nervous pine siskin, American goldfinch, chickadee, purple finch, junco, Stellar jay, Townsend warbler, white and golden crowned sparrow, streamlined oriole, and many others that fill our morning air with music.
I love to work, but I don’t think any of us like working at a mindless job. We often do it because we need the money, but we don’t like it. The self-gratitude we get from doing a job well that we like is real. This is especially true if we can dedicate ourselves to learning and practicing one of the fundamental arts of our lives: farming, teaching, cooking, nursing, parenting, love-making, carpentry, painting, and craftwork of all sorts. Working within one of these caring professions offers us a chance to experience a fulfillment that won’t come with filling another shopping cart with plastic junk or pushing one more piece of paper in the office of a huge corporation.
In 1969 when our firstborn, Eric, was a baby, my wife and I spent some time living in a small town in Mexico. We had little money, but we lived simply. It gave us time to figure out what it meant to be parents and to just be with our new creation.
When we returned to our country, it was still safe to hitchhike. We were picked up outside of El Paso by a soap salesman working for Proctor and Gamble. During our ride to Albuquerque, he told us that his wife and he had always wanted to travel, go camping, and have fun. He said that all they ever seemed to do was work and buy more things. He mentioned that two years ago they had bought a full set of camping equipment, set it up in their backyard, slept out one night, and never used it again.
When he dropped us off, he went to the trunk of his car and gave us a sack full of soap samples along with $20. He told us that it made him feel good to help us. Being with us for several hours in a closed car also probably convinced him that we all needed some of his soap. We thanked him, wished him well, gave him a hug, and stuck our thumbs in the air looking for a ride on to Denver.
Small houses can be inviting.
I am building a small writing room for myself under a garage. That's the reason for the 4x joists.
This is our 950 sq. ft. home where we raised children. I enclosed the front porch and added two small rooms, one on each side of the entry—one for study and one for listening to music.
Larry's newest book, A Carpenter's Life as Told by Houses, will be available this fall. Many of the blog posts here are excerpts adapted from the book.