Friday, October 26, 2012

The Beginning

My Idol: Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau once said, "We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success."

On October 7th, 2012, we leaped into the dark.
Our story has begun, but in this first entry, a little about the who and why.

We are Jess & Dan, a young couple embarking upon an exciting journey down a road much, much less traveled. We have chosen to cast aside the fabricated notions of the American Dream that generations have been bombarded with since birth. We have a different dream, one that is truly attainable for all, and that is the kind of dream worth having. We are going to build a tiny home, live off the grid, and live sustainably. This blog will chronicle our efforts, our setbacks, our thoughts, and our triumphs as we work towards making this dream a reality. It will serve as another voice amongst the growing many, for the tiny house movement.
A Tiny House

Dan and I decided to create this blog mainly as a form of thanks to others that came before us and as a source of inspiration, encouragement, and knowledge for those to follow. It was through various internet resources like blogs, articles, and youtube videos of others that paved the way that allowed us to gain the knowledge and the courage to make the leap.
Massive timber in Alaska
It's difficult to choose where to begin. I guess I'll start with what I know best- me. To say that I'm not your typical 27 year old woman is like describing the tip of an ice-burg and nothing more. Through out my childhood, my family moved many times. I have never lived in any one place for more than five years. I grew up bouncing between the rugged and awe inspiring landscapes of Alaska and the quiet, peaceful woods of Northern Maine. While most kids have memories of growing up with Saturday morning cartoons, birthday parties, and marking off growth spurts on a beloved wall in their childhood home; I have memories of camping in the mountains of Alaska, and panning for gold in the rivers. I remember being taught to be wary of grizzly bears and wolves, not strangers. I remember standing in a large bay, looking out over a great glacier and asking my mom why the picnic table was chained to the ground. I quickly got my answer as a massive shelf of ice broke away; the air filled with the sound of a deep, echoing boom that reverberated in my chest. The earth literally shook, as the massive ice chunk plunged into the frigid waters and created great waves that crashed on the shores of where we stood over a mile away.

Camping- even a tent felt like home to me.
I remember living on a private dirt road in Maine, the next “town” over not even having a name, just numbers. While most kids have memories of complaining about chores like taking out the trash or cleaning their room, I remember having chores that directly affected the comfort and safety of my family. I remember splitting and stacking cord after cord of wood, to ensure we would stay warm through the winter. At the day's end, my little body would be aching, but filled with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, as a true contributor to my family. I remember wandering through the woods for hours on end. I spent very little time inside, how could I when there was so much to see, so much to explore? I remember catching rainbow trout and collecting fiddleheads for dinner. I remember setting off on full days of wild berry picking with my mom, trekking hours into the wilderness, carrying with us only water, containers, and a gun- in the event that we came upon a black bear. I remember my step dad coming home with animals during various hunting seasons. While there are hunters who simply want a trophy for their wall, to us, it was food for months to come. I grew up eating partridge stews, moose meatballs, and venison steaks. I remember learning the various calls of wild animals, and in the fall during rutting season, my brother and I would wait inside for our ride to the bus stop if we heard those calls, because a bull moose during mating season was an aggressive and dangerous beast.
I remember each time we moved, a small part of me was sad for the friends and places I would leave behind, but the better part of me was filled with excitement for what we would see, explore, and experience next. I remember feeling the opposite of most people, happy to have so few things, because it was easy to get up and move. I felt free.
I have lived in trailers, single and double wide. I have lived in an RV. I have lived in massive homes, medium homes, and even a tiny hunting shack. Even now as I recall these, I have no particular memories of any thoughts or concerns for my dwelling; it affected very little about how I viewed life. As long as it was dry and warm, and I had a place to sleep- I was happy. In fact, it was the bigger places that I remember disliking. I never liked walking past empty unused rooms, and being in a place so big you're not even sure who else is home. I hated Saturday cleanings taking just about my whole day. I would sweep, scrub, dust, and polish myself into a fury, grumbling about every bit of space and piece of crap that served no real purpose to us, yet here I was cleaning it every week.
The memories go on and on, but I'm sure can already see, that I lived a less typical life, and it has forever etched into me a sound set of morals, a pair of wide open eyes, a unique perspective, and a deep and loving respect for the environment. It provides all that we truly need, you just have to spend the effort and time- not money.
Starting to gut the house.
It wouldn't be fair to leave out another life-altering chapter of my history. You see, despite all of these memories and unique experiences, I was not yet fully immune to the subtle ways of media and society. I still thought I ought to follow that traditional course. At age 22, I met a young man and we began a serious relationship. When I was 23, we were engaged and in the process of buying a home. We were excited, thrilled to be taking this “next step”, and feeling as if we were doing “the right thing”, because that's what we were taught for years and years. You find a partner. You marry. You buy a home. You fill it with nice things. You have kids. You teach them to do the same. Our story did not go that way.
We were fortunate enough that his family was well off. His father bought the house for us quickly since it was a short sale, and at the time, a fantastic price, $70,000. Even as a “steal of deal”, it was just barely within our means. We were to then get a mortgage and buy from his father. We whole-heartedly embraced this adventure and had endless conversations filled with excitement about simple “face-lift” jobs. We did not expect what we were about to discover. The kitchen floor was squeaky and saggy, so we knew some floor joists would need to be installed. After having a contractor come take a look to give an estimate, he told us he would not do the work; floor joists were not enough and the house was not safe. There was considerable damage to the structural components of the house. Aside from the fact that it was a stick-built house from the early 1900s, and many of the support beams were rough sawn trees still carrying their original bark, there had been years of water damage, and as a result insect damage from termites and ants. The contractor told us he was surprised the floor hadn't caved in yet and that we would need to rebuild the sub-floors. So our house, that we had imagined would just need some hard wood flooring and a paint job, became the most epic project of my life to date.
No floors...completely gutted.

At one point, only the four outside walls were standing- the house was gutted, everything was gone- and we could see from the basement floor clear up to the rafters of the roof. However, we remained hopeful and ambitious....for a while. We were not able to get a mortgage right away as we had planned, since the house would only classify for a construction mortgage, and there were no first time home buyer programs that would help with that. We would first need to finish the house under his father's ownership. We didn't have the money to have someone else do it, so we were going to do as much of it ourselves as we could.

I had unknowingly plunged into a crash course on how to build a home. Over the span of two years I learned to do just about everything you can imagine, all while working a normal job. The biggest thing that I learned is that building your own home is very doable. It's not rocket science. We referenced books, online videos, and the experience of friends and family. It isn't easy, especially the bigger the place is, but it's not impossible. You CAN do it. It is all just a series of steps, and like puzzles pieces they all come together.

The first handful of months was all back breaking demolition. We filled three 26 foot dumpsters. I remember being covered head to toe in filth at the end of each day. Then the contractor came and put in the basic sub-floors. The rest was up to us. I learned how to frame, insulate, repair roofing, do electrical wiring, install light fixtures, basic plumbing, dry walling, mudding, installing wood floors, tile floors, tile counters, building and installing a stair case, interior doors and trim, painting, and staining and sealing unfinished wood floors. As the time went on, the romantic thoughts of the house faded and we were left with the truth. This was a lot of work, a lot of stress, and a lot of money. Our true colors came out. He was not the type of man I thought he was.
Intalling raised ceilings in the bedroom.
Almost every day after work and every weekend we were consumed with house projects. We never gave ourselves time to just enjoy one another and take a break. We should have. Another facet was that we started to live in the house as soon as there was a working bathroom and a closet to keep my work clothes clean. We lived like hobos the first winter. We had a plastic utility sink, a hot plate, and two old cabinets that sat on the dirty sub-floors with a plank board across the top that served as our counter and pantry. Most of the house still had exposed two by fours and insulation, there were only a few lights still wired. It was very drafty, cold, dark, and miserable. As days went on, we saw progress, but could not fully enjoy it together. We spent so much time fighting about how to do something, pointing fingers when a task wasn't accomplished on time, and stressing endlessly about the debt we were sinking into. The house that had been that “next step” toward the American Dream ultimately destroyed us- our marriage lasted only two years.

Installing hardwood floors.
I remember waking up a lot of nights in a breathless panic, feeling a dense weight on my chest, as if I was drowning in deep, deep water. This house that we had poured so much into was no longer our dream, but our prison. We had just enough money to pay the necessities each month. We could afford to do nothing but sit in the house, with so much still looming over us. I was painstakingly aware of every last square foot of that house because we had to re-create it all with our own hands. It was too big, and too much for us to handle. I began to look at things differently. My ideas of a dream life, a dream home, and what it truly takes to achieve happiness changed forever.
And so that brings me to present day. It's been a few years now, and my life has changed considerably. I moved from Maine to Rhode Island to be near family. I got a new job, an apartment, and finally met my true match. I now look back on those rough years with a sense of pride and empowerment, knowing what I was able to learn and accomplish. All of the knowledge and experience I gained came with great physical, mental, and emotional cost, but will serve me well for the rest of my life. I am ready to build again, but this time, a true likeness of a genuine dream that I want- not something we are all told to want.
When Dan and I first began talking about a life together, I wanted to make clear what my dream entailed. I know that the visions of who we want to be and how we want to live can be ever shifting and evolving as we collect more experiences, but with age and maturity that shape-shifting dream of the future slows and solidifies. So what do I want?
I want to live quietly, peacefully, simply, and with utmost respect for the environment- she is our Mother, our only home, and our source of LIFE. I want to live sustainably and depend on the outside world for as little as possible. Our country is owned and run by greed and the almighty dollar. I want no part of that. I want my power to come from the sun and the wind, my water from a well or rain off my roof. I want as much of my food to come from my own land and animals as possible. I want a small, sensible home that is “green” in as many ways as possible- whatever form that may be. I want no bills. Any earnings would be mine to keep, as it should be. In fact, I would choose to barter whenever possible.
Sitting on the stoop of Thoreau's cabin-
also a tiny, modest dwelling...thrilled to
 have such thing in common with him.

That is all.

I don't want any of that material bullshit that we are spoon fed by the media since birth- a big fancy house, a shiny new car, expensive clothes and jewelry...that's success? That is happiness? No. I refuse that. I always have. Logistics alone tell me this kind of life cannot be attained by all, with money, there will always be those with less and those with more. Only a small margin will reach this so called American Dream- those that are willing to swallow whatever unique identity they have and grab hold of that ladder, stepping over and pushing off anyone in their way, staring blindly at the sign high above that reads: “When you get here and have these things, you will be happy.”
So am I to believe that only a small portion of people deserve to be happy? And only after they have done a list of arbitrary things, none of which were their own design? No.
I am so thankful that Dan agrees completely.
Dan has told me that he was a bit of a lost soul before we met, just going through the motions, no real hobbies, interests, or goals. It's difficult to be excited about anything in life if the things you are taught to reach for are so, so far from your grasp. I think there are a lot of young folks our age in the same boat. He was working, putting himself through school one class at a time, and scraping together money to buy a house, because that's what he thought he was supposed to do. It was not an idea of his own fashion. Together, we began researching and learning all we could about sustainable homesteads, alternative building methods, and more. I watched him come to life as his passion for this lifestyle developed. “Everything about it just makes sense,” he said one day, “After everything I've learned, how could I not want to live this way? Why doesn't everyone live this way?” The answer is simple: it's not widely accepted by society yet. The benefits are endless for us as people, but many greedy industries would suffer, and so, it is kept out of the light, shrouded in mystery and false intimidation. More on that later.

We thoroughly examined many different options for a home. We were certain of only a few things: we wanted our own land, we wanted to build it ourselves, and we wanted to start as soon as possible. With nearly every idea that we seemed to like, there was one consistent issue: zoning and building codes. We couldn't be certain that we would be allowed to build a home of our choice. That was an especially frustrating truth to face here in the “land of the free”. You have to ask permission to build your own home on your own land. Don't get me wrong, I am all for laws and codes set in place for the health and safety of the people- of course you should have an egress window on second or third floors in the event of a fire, of course you should build with studs 16 on center to ensure a sound structure, but tell me what benefit there is to requiring at least one room be 120 square feet? There's certainly no benefit to me or you, but it benefits the insurance companies who can charge more because they have to insure more, the construction companies because they have to build more, and banks because they collect more interest on increasing loan amounts. Laws that are passed simply to benefit specific industries and add one more way to bleed the consumer dry infuriate me.

We tried brainstorming a variety of ways to get around these obstacles, but none of our ideas were really viable. It was on October 4th, that something finally clicked. I was combing through youtube videos and came across the video of a 16 year old who is building a tiny house for himself in his parents' backyard. The righteous spark within me burst into flame that afternoon. Here was this young kid, building a tiny house on a flat bed trailer. He was taking his time too. He built as he had the money, and used as many second hand materials as possible. He stood on his small porch talking about living a mortgage free life, and how a small home equaled a small cost of living. I was envious, but more over inspired. His youtube video lead me to several other videos of people with the same kind of story. One lady was able to build her home for less than $3500 using craigslist and the dump as her main resources. One thing she said that really hit home was this: “I didn't have the money to buy land, but I could start by building a home for myself.”

By building on a trailer, all the problems with zoning and building codes were out the door. We could build how we wanted. Size restrictions (as in being 'too small') were gone, AND we didn't have to wait to be able to buy the land first! Building a tiny, mobile home makes sense in every way for us. Choosing to go small means everything is much more manageable and realistic- the cost, the effort, and the scale of the project. I felt completely revitalized, my veins coursing with an excitement and energy I've never felt before. There were only a few unknown factors that needed to be sorted. We needed a place to build and access to tools.

Dan spoke with his father about borrowing the necessary tools, now we just needed the space. On October 7th, we sat down with my Dad and I laid it all on the table. I was nervous. We had gotten some less than favorable and supportive reactions from others, but those people didn't really know me. My Dad, however, does know me. He knows that I have never been one to look around and base my decisions off what everyone else is doing. He knows that when I pose an idea or make a decision, I have already examined all options thoroughly and have a plan. When I say I'm going to do something, I make it happen. He sat and listened quietly, nodding at things he especially related to, like living without a mortgage and very few bills. He actually thought it was really interesting. When he agreed to let us build in his backyard, my heart soared. The rest was up to us...
Watch this documentary called, "We The Tiny House People", to see how so many people all around the world live in a tiny space. Although many unique perspectives are illuminated, the same concepts shine through in each: freedom, clarity, and contentment.

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  1. Awesome glad someones got the courage and can do attitude. You's have the same sentiments as me. I've had the dream for tiny living for over a year now.My family think Im crazy. I am a solo mother of 2 and foster my niece. I am just waiting for the purchase of our family farm to go through and hopefully everything else will fall into place. At the moment trying to purge all of our over abundance of stuff. Looking forward to watching your journey I will keep coming back.Blessings Elle&Girls

  2. Thank you so much for sharing, Elle! I can't tell you how much I appreciate it! I'm very excited to be on this journey and I truly hope you can benefit from following along as Dan and I go through the experience! Happy reading!