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This solar home in the mountains above Nederland started out as a shipping container. Photo by Brad Tomecek.

Some residents are finding their lives are fuller with less.

By Kerstin Lieff

Ah yes, the carbon footprint. The thing we all know we should shrink. Hard to do in a place where the average home is upward of 2,600 square feet. Some local residents, though, have taken the idea seriously. I recently visited with three of them at Mapleton Mobile Home Park to find out just what this living-small lifestyle is all about.

Tiny houses can accommodate all types of architectural styles and sustainable- building practices, while reducing both bills and belongings. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier, Courtesy Rockefeller Partners Architects.
Tiny houses can accommodate all types of architectural styles and sustainable- building practices, while reducing both bills and belongings. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier, Courtesy Rockefeller Partners Architects.

I hoped to find some cool architectural innovations (which I did), and hoped, too, to discover some creative use of space (which I did), but a surprise I didn’t expect was a sort of by-product. Living small changed lives—in a big way. Of course everyone reported the obvious benefits—lower utility bills, less upkeep, less space to furnish—but a common theme was feeling like they’d finally come home. Each expressed contentment not known before in a “bigger” life.

“My previous house had a hot tub, three bedrooms, a dining and living room filled with furniture, not to mention all that three teenagers can collect,” says Tom, a photographer who might never have chosen that profession had he not reduced his lifestyle. “I wouldn’t have even thought to do it professionally. I used to have to rely on my carpentry to make a living, but now my 570-square-foot space allows me to do what I love without a large expense, and I don’t even need to leave my house.”

Tom’s 570-square-foot mobile home in Boulder doesn’t lack for anything. In fact, he’s got everything he needs to be comfortable and pursue his photography career. photo by Tom Sundro Lewis Photgraphy, www.tomsundrophotography.com
Tom’s 570-square-foot mobile home in Boulder doesn’t lack for anything. In fact, he’s got everything he needs to be comfortable and pursue his photography career. photo by Tom Sundro Lewis Photgraphy, www.tomsundrophotography.com
Photo by Tom Sundro Lewis Photgraphy, www.tomsundrophotography.com
Photo by Tom Sundro Lewis Photgraphy, www.tomsundrophotography.com

“I moved from a five-bedroom farmhouse,” says Isabel, who reduced her space to 660 square feet. She was used to a farm lifestyle and wasn’t about to give up any of it. But she didn’t have to. She still keeps chickens, rabbits, tilapia, bees and a vegetable garden that feeds her family from March to November. All this in a yard half the size of a basketball court. “I notice my family spends more time together now,” Isabel tells me. “We work our garden and tend our animals together.” She has six children, four of whom still live with her, and yet “it usually feels quite roomy around here. Things just get put away. There’s nowhere else for them to go.”

This solar home in the mountains above Nederland started out as a shipping container. Owner/contractor Andrew McMullin with Tiburon Builders built the home, which was designed by Brad Tomecek of Architect Studio H:T. Tomecek is now with Tomecek Studio. Photo by Brad Tomecek.
Owner/contractor Andrew McMullin with Tiburon Builders built this solar home above Nederland, which was designed by Brad Tomecek of Architect Studio H:T. Tomecek is now with Tomecek Studio. Photo by Brad Tomecek.
This solar home in the mountains above Nederland started out as a shipping container. Photo by Brad Tomecek.
This solar home in the mountains above Nederland started out as a shipping container. Photo by Brad Tomecek.
Photo by Brad Tomecek.
Photo by Brad Tomecek.

Sunny reduced from 2,800 to 660 square feet, and finds she now socializes more. “I had 10 people over for Thanksgiving, and no one felt crowded!”

The process of downsizing takes some effort, I’m told. Tom spent years giving away stuff (see “Downsizing To-Dos” below). “It’s amazing how much you can collect, and how little you really need,” he tells me. Sunny kept only her cookware, art and CDs. She looks around as if she forgot something, then adds, “No, that’s it.”

Isabel’s response? “If I don’t absolutely need it, I don’t buy it anymore.”

Constrained or Unfettered?

I wonder if these residents feel confined, like they live in a dollhouse. But I observe Tom making tea and notice that his tea drawer is as large as the one I keep all my pots and pans in. Hardly a confined kitchen, it appears to stock all the essentials. There’s a microwave, cupboards, a workspace, a stove and oven, and two small, under-the-counter refrigerators. One, I discover, is a freezer. It’s full, not surprisingly, but I’m impressed with Tom’s organization: Everything is in neatly stacked plastic containers.

Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise
Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise
Many tiny homes are totable, so you can pick up and move to new surroundings whenever you like. Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise
Many tiny homes are totable, so you can pick up and move to new surroundings whenever you like. Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise

Organization is a quality I notice in every one of these homes: an entry closet large enough for only four jackets, with a small cubby below for only four pairs of shoes. A bathroom with no toothpaste or jar of lotion to be seen. Just counter space, and one lone towel.

“What about storage for, say, holiday decorations?” I ask. Each of the residents claims there’s “plenty of that,” and proudly shows me around. All storage is outdoors, and Tom’s is inside a fenced area that leads to an outdoor patio. Tom opens the doors to the outdoor storage compartment. Beside his framed photography and a shelving unit is a 2-cubic-foot chest freezer. Noticing my surprise, he explains, “I have three kids and a grandson—they need to be fed when they’re here.” Where do they sleep? On a pullout loveseat, he replies.

Sunny’s 3-year-old great-niece has a “room” of her very own when she visits. It’s a cut piece of foam that fits snugly into Sunny’s closet. “She finds it very special that Aunt Sunny’s tiny house has a tiny space just for her,” Sunny says.

“Do you miss anything?” I ask.

Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise
Photo by Sacha Webley, courtesy Shelter Wise

“Not a single thing,” she tells me. Tom, however, shares one regret: He wishes he had a tub. I suggest a Japanese soaking tub that could fit into the base of his shower, but the look he gives me implies it’s all too much fuss.

 

Living small has financial advantages, too. Average home prices in this centrally located Mapleton Mobile Home Park are around $40,000. Not bad for Boulder, where housing prices exceed that by twentyfold. And property taxes are just $50 per year.

WeeCasa in Lyons rents tiny homes along the river to vacationers. The local company also sells tiny mobile homes. Photo by 9 photography, courtesy WeeCasa.
WeeCasa in Lyons rents tiny homes along the river to vacationers. The local company also sells tiny mobile homes. Photo by 9 photography,
courtesy WeeCasa.

Many parts of the world have produced innovations in living small. Container homes have long been an inspiration for creativity that some have dubbed “cargotecture.” New Zealand and Australia boast some very unusual mobile homes that are truly mobile. And in nearby Lyons, WeeCasa rents tiny homes you can vacation in. Fully furnished with all the amenities, the “tiny hotel” offers homes with spaces as small as 135 square feet. WeeCasa also sells tiny mobile homes.

From freezers stacked with Tupperware to a workspace that doubles as a living room, none of it could have happened without a plan. Each of my interviewees thought thoroughly about what was valuable and then adapted to just that. Tom let go of the tools that had defined him as a carpenter. Sunny says, “I kept my art, which defines my space; my space no longer defines me.” Isabel claims her reduced space actually “feels like a village” with her children underfoot. For all three, it was a conscious progression of choosing to live with only what is most important.

I walk away from my Alice-in-Wonderland afternoon and think about families who spend time around the kitchen table, friends who build puzzles in front of a corner stove, and parties in tiny fairytale gardens. I can’t help but wonder about what is really, really important to me. Could I live with just that? Could you?


Kerstin Lieff is the 2013 Colorado Book Award-winning author of Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship (Lyons Press).


 

Photo by 9 Photography, courtesy WeeCasa
Photo by 9 Photography, courtesy WeeCasa

Downsizing To-Dos

Follow these simple tips to ease the trauma of detaching from personal possessions.

 Map your space.

Measuring your furniture and goods will help you determine what will fit in your new downsized space. You can’t really cram the 20 feet of clothes in your current closet into 10 feet in a new one.

Inventory items.

List your necessary and most loved possessions, in that order. You need a bed, but what about that family heirloom you only used once? Visit ebay.com and you’ll see you’re not alone in selling Grandmother’s sterling silver. Choose a sentimental piece to keep and get rid of the rest. Many caterers are delighted to receive silver platters, bowls and serving pieces.

Photo by Tim Bies, courtesy Olson Kundig.
Photo by Tim Bies, courtesy Olson Kundig.
Eliminate.

Turn clothes hangers backwards and, except for seasonal clothes like winter coats, if the hanger is still turned around in six months, the garment goes to consignment or charity. Apply this technique to household items, too. Turn plates and pots, cooking utensils, cups and mugs, blenders and small appliances upside down. If they’re not upright in a few months, out they go.

Make piles.

Go through each room and put articles in piles or large boxes. Then sort through them and make a trash pile for things that can’t be recycled and a second pile for items that still have life but are not needed (“NEED” being key). Further subdivide the latter pile into piles to give away, recycle, donate and sell. Then make a pile for things you truly need.

Digitize.

Your safe-deposit box, lawyer and doctor can store many documents for you. Make digital records of documents you must keep handy to reduce the need for storage.

Give gifts!

Invite friends and family to come over and take stuff.

Sell stuff!

The typical resale value of downsized items is 20 to 25 percent of retail, whether it’s through a garage sale, Craigslist or consignment.

Donate!

Most charities pick up items for free, and you can claim a tax deduction. High-end donations of art and antiques merit consideration. The Denver Art Museum, Kirkland Museum and CU Art Museum are all worthy recipients. The Museum of Natural History and the CU Museum of Natural History accept Native American articles and others with historical significance. The CSU Art and Art History Department accepts antique and special textiles and garments. Boulder History Museum (Museum of Boulder) also accepts items of local historical interest. In addition to a tax deduction, your downsized treasures will be studied and appreciated by others.
—Anne Bliss