They told us it was small, and they weren’t joking. When we pulled up in the middle of the night in Eugene, Oregon after a 9-hour journey from Victoria, B.C. we didn’t really know what to expect. Advertised as “not for everyone”, our first thoughts when looking at our new home amidst a grove of cedar was that it looked more like a shed then a trendy micro house in Vancouver or Tokyo. Shelter comes in many forms and at 280 square feet this 1930’s converted one-car garage was the most affordable home we could find.
I’d first heard about micro houses about ten years ago and I was intrigued by their small environmental footprint, affordability and clutter-free feel. I saw the micro house movement as a way to live large in an expensive metropolitan city, but I didn’t really think it was for me. I have never been particularly drawn to small places and the idea of living in a trendy shipping container seemed claustrophobic at best.
When I was offered a research term to study at the University of Oregon my husband and I jumped at the opportunity to experience a new city and explore the Oregon Coast. After a few months searching for a place to live and being less than thrilled with moldy basement suites and monthly rent that was half our combined income, I stumbled upon a listing for a little house.
We rented the space from a couple whom are professional micro home builders, designing spaces using sailboat quarters as a guide. Equipped with a skylight in the loft upstairs, a small deck and a two-seater couch we decided that the space probably wouldn’t threaten our newlywed status and our 6.2 and 5.8 frames. We packed our things into a storage locker, reflecting that at 10 x 8 feet, the space was actually larger than our new home and headed south on the I-5 with our few possessions in the back of our truck.
Climbing up the ladder into the loft that first night, we wondered if we would ever get used to the coffin-like feeling of our new bedroom. Exhausted from travel we both drifted into a restless sleep while January rains pitter-patted against the tiny skylight window.
Firstly, there is little and then there is really little and there is intimacy and then there is little house intimacy. For example, when there is no door in the bathroom and the bathroom is in the kitchen and you need to use the bathroom you must announce “I’m going to the bathroom,” with the click of the fan above the oven if you hope to get a moment of privacy. Some might see the ability to cook a meal while on the toilet or in the shower a convenience, but for us the two were mutually exclusive. We found that communication was especially important to avoid serious head bonking, toe stubbing and general frustration and confusion. Warnings such as “I am opening the fridge”, “I am on your left”, or“I am having a shower” were essential to a smooth operating household.
Some other caveats of little house living that you may not be aware of are that you cannot have anyone over, so if you like to host guests this living situation may not be for you. If you have a pet that is bigger than a hamster or have nightmares about waking up in a coffin and realizing it is your bed it might not be for you.
On the flip side, living small can be incredibly freeing. When your house is smaller than most people’s kitchens you have to get out and explore and that is what we did. Every weekend we would pile our gear into our truck and camp under starry skies in the high dessert or under a dense canopy of rainforest. Part hungry for adventure and part thankful for the roomy sleeping quarters of a tent or the back of our truck we would take off Friday after work and squeeze in every bit of fun before returning late Sunday night. When you don’t have a space to enjoy or a home where you putter about there is plenty of free time and it is pretty easy to make every weekend feel like a little holiday.
Packing our two “fun bags” each weekend was easy because we didn’t have much and more importantly we didn’t need much. We started to wonder if we really needed all those things we put in our storage locker so many months ago. Without realizing it, we had become part of a growing trend of having vast amounts of stuff that we didn’t really use. We found that some things are really important to have, for example, you can make almost anything with a blender and a slow cooker, but probably all other kitchen appliances are superfluous. If you have a bar fridge as your only fridge you don’t waste food because it can’t hide somewhere is the back and there is absolutely no doubling up on condiments. You spend less time looking for stuff, because if you can’t find it, it probably isn’t there. We learned to be more adaptable, mobile and about the value of space. The most important lesson we learned was that if you want to increase your square footage you can do it by spending more time outside.
After a winter exploring and studying in Oregon we were sad to go. In many ways we had grown to love our little house, but the truth is we never got used to showering in the kitchen, that terrible two-seater couch and the coffin-like sleeping loft that still gives us nightmares. Shelter comes in many forms and we quickly learned that starting small is a good way to make a 700 square foot home feel like a mansion.