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Standing in his house that sits on a once-abandoned lot in Stronghold, Jay Austin, 24, packs for a trip to Europe. He weighs some possessions on a scale—hat: 2 oz.; tablet: 11 oz. The backpack he’ll carry for three months of unpaid leave from his government job will at least fit in the airplane’s overhead bins, if not under the seat in front of him.
An impressively light traveler, what Austin calls his “experiment with minimalism” is more dramatically manifest throughout his house, which he’s named “The Match Box.” Inside, there’s a bathroom with a shower and composting toilet, a lofted queen-sized bed, ample kitchen and counter space, and a comfortable seating area—all in a space that measures around 150 square feet. Large windows on each wall and a skylight above the bed flood the space with natural light. “Empty space is crucial for making the space seem bigger than it is,” he says, which explains the high ceiling, low counters, and walls almost entirely without cabinets.
Tiny houses, which clock in between 100 and 400 square feet (the average American house is nearly 2600 square feet), take a new approach to traditional household functions and finances. Dee Williams, a teacher and sustainability advocate from Olympia, Wash., will visit Boneyard Studios (the lot of tiny houses where Austin lives) tomorrow to share what she learned while building her own tiny house. The talk coincides with the release of her memoir, The Big Tiny.
Named for the neighboring granite tombstones and tall hardwoods of Glenwood Cemetery, Boneyard Studios was founded in 2012, when Austin and his friends Brian Levy and Lee Pera—both in their mid-30s and fellow tiny-house enthusiasts—moved onto the Stronghold lot, which Levy owned. They built all three dwellings on trailers to comply with housing code, which doesn’t allow such small homes on foundations.
Williams’ story starts a bit later in life. “I was drawn to living just like my parents,” she writes. “I imagined that, by buying a house, I would finally arrive into my adulthood.” So she took out a loan and bought one, a sprawling home in Portland, Ore.
At the age of 40, Williams suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition that led her to reexamine how and where she spent her time. One day, in the hospital waiting room, she stumbled across an article about Jay Schafer, a man in Iowa City who’d built himself a tiny house. After paying him a visit, she returned to Portland with blueprints in hand, already scheming up her new home.
Williams’ writing is charming and fun-loving, and the book evokes images of her in overalls and flip-flops, drinking a beer, loading plywood into place with the help of a few admiring friends. While she is candid about the annoyances and challenges life in a tiny house brings, she makes a good case for living debt-free with plenty of time for the pursuits that time-consuming house maintenance can preclude.
As for Austin, he says friends are impressed with the big impact of his small space. “People visit and say it feels more spacious than their apartments,” he says.