Shelter

(Updated 11/01/2013)
 
"One feels more snug and cozy, and secure, too, in a slight and flimsy shelter, provided it serves its purpose, than when insulated within thick walls and roofs which do not allow even a consciousness of the weather to penetrate."  From Shantyboat--A River Way of Life, by Harlan Hubbard, Copyright 1953
 
 

 

When we moved to Arizona in 1997, we decided to live in a temporary structure and then, if life in the desert suited us, to build a more permanent home. So, we began by constructing a small, portable cottage. What we've discovered in the intervening years is that, for a host of reasons, our little abode is the favorite of all the dwellings we've ever lived in. Indeed, we've given little thought to a larger or more permanent house since.

At 8 feet wide and 16 feet long, it is laughably tiny by American standards and has no running water and only minimal solar powered electricity. Nor does it have many of the features commonly considered "necessary" in a house; aside from lacking running water or grid power, it also has no bathroom, pantry, washing machine or refrigerator. It is distinctive not in what it has but in what it lacks. It comfortably provides just the shelter we really need and no more, thus maximizing our freedom: we have no mortgage payments, no homeowner's insurance premiums, no mechanical noises, little maintenance expense, negligible utility costs and little extra space to fill with encumbering "stuff".

Originally, an important aspect of the design was portability since we were living on cooperatively-owned land and were unsure of how long we would live here. It has an axle and wheels that bolt on underneath and can be pulled behind a pick-up truck. Should we eventually decide to move we hope to leave little evidence of our tenure here.

Some visitors interested in sustainable building have questioned our use of wood as a building material. We chose wood in order to keep the cottage lightweight and thus portable. With respect to building materials, our priority was more quantitative than qualitative. Although the lumber used was not a local resource, the quantity used in our entire cottage was less than that in the roof of most homes. We focused on making the structure as small as was reasonably possible in the ways described below.

 

Kitchen (above)

a.k.a. Office (right)

 

We achieved a comfortable dwelling in a very small size in several ways. We designed the cottage with an efficient but open layout, thus reducing wasted space. Many large, fully opening windows contribute to a bright, airy ambiance inside. It helps that we are also fairly neat by nature and have designed a place for everything and keep everything in its place. Most importantly though, we decided to take advantage of the desert climate by incorporating a lot of outdoor living, thus reducing the need for enclosed space. One of the unexpected joys of having our shower, toilet, laundry area, dishwashing area and pantry outdoors is that we are brought into intimate contact with the natural world around our dwelling throughout each day and through the changing seasons. Whether looking up at the stars as we shower, watching lizards patrol the garden beds as we wash dishes, bird watching as we do laundry, or contemplating the desert scene from the toilet, we are reminded of where we live and why.

 

Washing dishes

 

In winter, our cottage is comfortably heated on 1/4-1/2 cord of wood which is cut sustainably and by hand from the grove of mesquite trees that surround the cottage. Little wood is required because the interior volume of the cottage is small.

In summer, our cottage is cooled in several ways. Contrary to conventional thinking regarding desert dwellings which favors high thermal mass (heat-storing) materials such as adobe, we prefer a very open, lightweight structure with minimal thermal mass. This approach is similar to many of the light, brush-covered Tohono O'Odham desert structures of the last century. Our focus is on nighttime comfort since we tend to be outdoors and active during the day. Ample, fully-opening windows turn our cottage into something approaching a screen house, permitting excellent cross ventilation. The bed is at window height so breezes pass over it. In the evening, cool air pooling in our canyon-bottom location quickly cools the cottage, making it comfortable for sleeping.

 

Note bed at window height for ventilation

 

Although we have been spending recent summers in Oregon, we have also spent most of several summers here in the desert. Midday in summer is often uncomfortably hot and if we were to spend summers here regularly we might consider installing a small solar-powered evaporative cooler. We'd give it long thought though, since we've become so accustomed to the sounds of the desert that we prefer not listening to the noise of a mechanical cooling system.

Our tiny home in Oregon is similar in many respects to the one described here and we hope to feature it on a future webpage.

2007 Update:

After 8 years of living in a remote desert canyon, the portability of our home came into it's own in the fall of 2005 when we decided to move closer to the heart of our rural community. We had a variety of reasons for making the move. We'd been involved in the recent creation of a community garden and wished to be closer to it. We also wished to be closer to friends and to community events. We had a longstanding desire to replace more of our motor vehicle use with bicycling and walking. We wanted to spend less time on road maintenance.  And last but not least, we had observed over the years that changes in the contour of the canyon bottom due to periodic flood events might eventually make it difficult to move our cottage our of the canyon. The portability of our cottage made the move possible and we're now happily ensconced in a location much closer to friends, community center and  community garden.  We're also doing significantly less driving and more biking and walking.    

We also replaced our kerosene lighting with a solar electric system.  The system is powered by a 50 watt solar panel which charges two 85 amp hour deep cycle batteries.  We have two 23 watt compact fluorescent light bulbs that run on 12 volt DC.  A 400 watt inverter provides 120 volt AC power for a laptop computer and a small radio/CD player.  The system has worked very well for the past two years.   

 

2013 Update:

Pearl has long been captivated by the idea of living in a converted school bus.  In 2010 we happened to come across a used step van in good condition and at a great price.  In what was one of the few impulsive decisions we've ever made, an hour later it was ours.  In the winter of 2011, we spent a couple months of spare time work converting it into a tiny home.  Later in 2011 we moved it to our property in Cascabel and in early 2013 we moved into it.  With one exception, we've been quite happy with it. 

The exception is that, like all vehicles parked in the desert, it's a packrat magnet.  We returned to Arizona this fall to find the engine compartment filled with saguaro fruit, cholla and prickly pear cactus and just about everything else the packrat could carry.  Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any damage to the wiring, which is a common result of packrats nesting in vehicles.  Last summer we were already considering moving the van to Oregon and making it our summer home there.  The packrat has encouraged us in that direction.  If so, we'll move our cottage into its place.  Since there are no sizeable trees for shade on our property, we'll probably increase the size of the ramada somewhat.  . 

The van, like our cottage, is equipped with a small solar electric system which runs the lights, computers and sound system.

We'll be updating this page as our plans evolve.  Meanwhile, below are photos of the van. 

               

Van before conversion

 

During conversion, rear wall and window installed

Rear wall and all windows installed

 

Interior almost finished

Bed

Office , formerly driver's seat.  Laptop will go on inclined surface.  Office is removable for driving.

 

Homemade woodstove.  1' x'1 x 2'.  Sides are 3/16" thick and top is 1/4" thick. Has partial interior baffle for better efficiency.  Pearl loves it. 

   

Van with awning.  A downside was billowing up and down in the wind.  To prevent this, we later added 5 pairs of 10' long 1" x 4" boards.  The pairs were each in line with the poles, one board above the awning and one below, screwed together with the awning sandwiched between.  This helped considerably.  

Van after we moved in, looking toward rear

 

Van after we moved in, looking toward front

Van on our property

 

Guests visiting

Recommended reading:

--Walden by Henry David Thoreau

--Tiny Houses by Lester Walker was one of the early books leading to the burgeoning interest in tiny houses.  A web search on the topic will lead to a plethora of sites featuring all manner of tiny dwellings.  

Home page