Guest Post: Nara Williams on Her Tiny House
An experiment in sustainability by a Hampshire undergrad.
I'm currently at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston; more on that soon. But today I'm happy to bring you a guest post by my new friend Nara, who's set herself up for a very interesting experiment in her studies at Hampshire.
I live in a 130-square foot house in the middle of the Hampshire College campus in Western Massachusetts. The house is a "Fencl" built by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and for the duration of the semester I'll be writing, eating, and sleeping within its eight-foot by 20-foot walls.
I'll be honest: My reasons for undertaking this project were rooted, like most worthwhile things I've done, in anxiety. I had taken a semester of what Hampshire refers to as "field study," which generally consists of a student conducting independent research over the course of several months. My particular research concerned housing. I was examining contemporary American housing from about a hundred different angles, and had become deeply involved in just about everything related to shelter.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where I and most of my friends occupied two-story, single-family detached homes often exceeding 1500 square feet. For most of my life, I had considered this normal. When I got to Hampshire, however, I found myself exposed to different ways of approaching living space. After a semester of exploring alternative housing, I found it fairly difficult to stop focusing on my own future living arrangements. Most of my friends had already figured out situations for themselves, but I was reluctant to live with too many close acquaintances—last year, I lived with six other students in a four-bedroom house. It was a blast, and I paid almost nothing, but the lifestyle was hardly conducive to the quiet studying I should have been doing.
I wanted, for the first time in years, my own private space. I didn't necessarily want to spend the money, however. After spending far too many hours on Craigslist, I grew frustrated. I had also wanted to live in a way that somehow related to alternative housing, but was having no luck. Cost, location, privacy, sustainability: No matter what I chose, I would have to sacrifice something.
One afternoon in November, I vented over the phone to my friend who was living in New York. We shared our housing woes. His advice:
"Just build a tiny house and convince Hampshire to let you live in it."
I laughed it off, yet something about the idea stuck in my mind. I knew from experience that Hampshire would be amenable to a bizarre idea, and had always dreamed of doing something memorable. Furthermore, I'd be covering so many bases: I'd have housing, something to write about, and a "gallery" space for my final presentation, which will likely consist of a short reading and several demonstrations.
I took a chance and e-mailed my amazing advisors, Deb Gorlin and Sue Darlington. To my surprise, they were extremely enthusiastic. They suggested I pitch the idea directly to the president. It ended up being far more complicated, but after a couple months of e-mails, phone calls, and striking an amazing deal with Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the wheels were literally rolling.
Hampshire has been instrumental in helping me bring my harebrained scheme to fruition. As a student of a school that values collaboration, unique approaches to education, and crazy-ambitious ideas, I knew I had a fighting chance. When it came to issues of zoning, health code enforcement, and sewage, I definitely felt in over my head, at times. Getting the thing here was a battle in and of itself—icy road conditions delayed the delivery more than three weeks.
Now, the house is finally here, and after two weeks I can already say it was worth it. My typical winter day begins, usually, with my waking up to the sun beaming through my skylight. I spend a few minutes relishing the warmth of my blankets before I scamper down the ladder and make a beeline for the heater, which I turn off at night to stay safe and to use less fuel. I have a small French press that allows me to make a generous cup of coffee, so usually my next step is a beeline for the propane stove. While it's boiling, I go into my "dressing room," which is actually a bathroom, and bundle up. On my favorite days, I can eat breakfast on the window seat, gazing out at the Holyoke Range. I also do a fair amount of people watching: my house sits in a pretty high traffic location, and I'm never far from several windows.
I've also learned to value quality over quantity: so far, I have one borrowed cast iron pan, one little saucepot, a spatula, and a couple of sets of silverware and plates. I can't cook the most ambitious meals, but I also don't have to deal with dishes as often.
Within my house, I use about three gallons of water every couple of days. I do shower and wash dishes elsewhere: I'm no martyr. And every time I have an opportunity, I fill up my 32-ounce water bottle. But I know for a fact that if I had more to use, I'd use it, and it's amazing to realize how little I can get by on; I find myself trying to use less water outside of the house as well, taking three-minute showers and going by the "let it mellow" rule.
Similarly, the house gets so much sun that I usually don't turn on any lights until the evening, so my electricity usage is limited to charging my computer, listening to music on speakers, and running the small fan built into my heater. It's amazing to be able to see all of the utilities I'm using at once—no lights left on, water dripping, or any other guilt-inducing bad habits are possible in this space.
Beyond relishing the daily pleasures of living in a tiny pine cabin, I want to do something meaningful with this semester. Part of this is opening up the house as often as possible to members of the community, and collaborating with other students on small-scale sustainability projects.
The most common criticism I've heard is that for a college student, this isn't exactly a "sacrifice." As in: Dorm rooms are much smaller. My intent, however, is not to present a viable alternative for college housing. It's certainly an option in some circumstances, but when I embarked on this project, it was with post-graduation in mind. Hampshire already strives to be a sustainable environment, and I admire that.
It's definitely nicer to live in a tiny house, aside from the current lack of certain utilities. I feel much more in control of my environment, which apparently means a lot in this country. It smells great, it's cozy, and there's enough built-in shelving that I haven't had to buy any furniture. But I'm not suggesting that all students everywhere protest dorm life and have their parents purchase them tiny houses.
This is more of a suggestion for what the future might look like--I see it as a representation of small-scale living. Criticism about it not being able to accommodate a family, therefore, feels irrelevant. This particular size and model of house is not meant for everyone. As a young, flexible individual in decent health, it is perfect for me. And as I spend many days and nights in the company of my partner, I say that it isn't too small for two people, either. It's the idea that we can chop off a huge percentage of our square footage and be happy, if we do it with a little foresight.
Nara Williams is a senior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and hails from Chicago. Over the past four years, she's studied journalism, housing, bookbinding, and environmentalism. For her final project, she is writing about housing over the last century. She spends her free time living in an 130-square foot house, drinking coffee, eating with friends, petting animals, and blogging here: tinysemester.blogspot.com.
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