Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tiny House Living: The Rubber Meets The Road

It has been six months since I became a proud home owner of a tiny house. After spending the summer steadily building and outfitting the interior it was time to move in. Time to put to the test my design decisions in this experiment of extreme living.

First Impressions

The first night I spent at my tiny house in the backyard where I had come to live, I noticed a cat sitting on the garden path lit by the security light as though by moonlight. She sat looking at me in my tiny fairy tale size cottage. What a magical sight I thought, a welcoming omen. I opened the door to say hello, but the noise of the door scared her away. Indeed it was so quiet in that garden I climbed into my loft up under the eaves and fell into a deep sleep I hadn't enjoyed in some time.

In the morning standing by my dresser I was startled by the morning light streaming in. With the two windows on each side of the house being only 6 feet apart the contents of my house were sharply lit with daylight. I could see every dust speck. I immediately got out a cloth and started polishing all the chrome—on my Berkey water filter, my electric kettle and my vintage insulated carafe. Once everything was free of fingerprints and water droplets it sparkled as though in a showcase. I was reminded of the work of Joseph Cornell with his arrangements of objects in shadow boxes providing a tiny view into a tiny surreal world. 

Thus the tiny house magnified the experience of living. The confined space, the strangeness of my kitchen layout plus the added dimension of being so tightly connected to other activities further down the road, emptying a waste water tank, pee tank and poop bucket for instance, all created an intense feedback loop that added a pressing dimension to every mundane activity having to do with cooking, eating, washing up and putting things away. It forced me into a state of hyper mindfulness. 

But this was the way I had wanted it. I wanted to be involved in the entire cycle of my water, energy use and waste stream in order to mitigate my impact on the planet. I just didn't know yet what kind of impact that would have on my routine and this unknown made me feel a little uneasy once I moved in. Add to that the stress of being in a new place, working out new routes to all my clients and figuring out what to feed myself now that I was single. This was why moving was stressful I reminded myself. My body reacted by being hungry all the time and I wished my outdoor freezer was full of frozen dinners.

Adjustments To Life In The Tiny

I had been congratulating myself for having finessed my move into the tiny house moving two or three boxes at a time while carrying on with my full schedule of clients. It did take longer, but I convinced myself it would be less painful that way, like pulling the bandaid off a little bit at a time. I wrote a post on downsizing and getting a taste of my own medicine as an organizer as I got rid of things while trying to squeeze as much of my old life as I could into the tiny house.

I had done numerous moves unpacking clients with crews of organizers. But those houses were so much alike there was hardly any difference between one kitchen and another. The challenge of my tiny house was that it was unlike anywhere I or anyone I knew had ever lived before. Nothing could be taken for granted to function normally from the fridge to the sink to the toilet. I had purposefully deconstructed and reorganized basic systems and I had no experience using such systems on a daily basis.

Would the cooler keep my food cold enough? What would it be like to boil water for all my washing up?  Would I be able to cook breakfast successfully given my regime of fried eggs, sausages and refried beans? How long would my butane cartridge hold out in my stove? Where could I buy more? What would I use for heat? I had joked that the house was so tiny it could be heated with a candle and besides I was menopausal, why would I need heat at all this being California in an era of global warming? And then it got cold, colder than it had gotten in some years.

Winter is a hard month to move into a tiny house. The days are so short there is little time to tend to things outdoors. I came home to a dark house with an unlit entrance gate to open. Then it rained and rain seeped into my outdoor freezer. I had the wrong footwear for the muddy garden I was to tend. The mud tracked into my house. My bicycle no longer had a garage to park in so I had covered it, but my karate uniform which was strapped to the carrier in a sports bag felt slightly damp when I put it on at class. 

I did order a propane heater and when I saw a space heater at a garage sale I picked it up. But the house would not stay warm on its own. What was wrong with it? It had felt so insulated during the hot summer months, staying so cool inside. 

A few days later while wiping the floor I felt a draft and tracked it down to a half inch gap under the door. No wonder the house stayed cool. It was pulling cold air across it constantly. It took two trips to the hardware store to find the right weatherstripping. Then I didn't have any nails on hand to install the rubber flange I got for I no longer had a garage. All my hardware was now at my stepmother's house two miles away. In the summer these were easy problems to solve, but the winter gave everything an edge of desperation. 

My car was so full of stuff thrown in it for lack of storage I put my lunch in one day and I couldn't find it come lunch time. These scenarios were both ridiculous and maddening for an organizer.

I spent my evenings urgently researching. What was the proper temperature for food safety? I bought a freezer thermometer which compounded my fears because the temperature in the cooler was in the red zone hovering near 50°. I did not fancy food poisoning on top of everything else. I researched every item I kept in the cooler from the eggs to the mayonnaise. Mayonnaise I was relieved to learn could be kept at room temperature because it was so acidic. And eggs in Europe were kept at room temperature because chickens there were vaccinated for salmonella unlike those in the states. Hmmm. 

Cooking breakfast was at least doable. I loved my stove in a drawer. And I installed a hook to hang my iron skillet right next to it. And another hook to hang the pot scrubber I used to clean it. It was the washing up I had to reinvent. What kind of dish drainer could I fit and where? I prowled the aisles of Target and Bed Bath & Beyond looking for solutions to new problems I seemed to face daily. Why hadn't I thought of pot holders for instance or a doormat? 

When the temperature dropped I braved firing up the propane heater, Mr. Heater (Little Buddy model). Little Buddy heated things up quickly and the 4" disk of burning wires felt like an open fire. I cracked a window so I wouldn't run out of oxygen until I realized that enough fresh air was entering through the drain in the shower pan. I also put together one of those flower pot heaters so widely demonstrated on youtube. Once I got all the right size flower pots bolted together and some votive candle holders to hold the four tea lights safely it worked beautifully offering a warm presence by my feet that didn't overheat like the propane heater. I used my electric space heater in the morning up in the loft. I also had a hot water bottle (courtesy of my Canadian girlfriend) to warm up the bed at night. A sleeping bag I was needing to store became my winter quilt.

Clients gave me all sorts of useful items and asked me what else I needed. Thus I was supplied with pyrex dishes sized for a toaster oven, silverware, pots, pot holders, tiny utensils from a VW van equipped to live in and containers to put it all in. And a weather thermometer. Very handy so I could watch how cold it was getting. 48° this morning. 

What Had I Done To Myself? 

Some things I thought I'd do a certain way had to be completely revised. My vision of dish washing Thai farmer style required room to spread out three dish pans of water—two soapy and one clean plus room to spread dishes out to dry; all this usually done outside. I knew I wouldn't be able to replicate the three dishpans; I had two dish pans that fit perfectly into my sink with their rims resting on the edges of the sink. I thought I would just switch them out, but moving full dish pans of dirty water got old pretty quickly. And dishes seemed to get greasier in the process.

It brought to mind my first Cat In The Hat Book. The one about the pink stain the Cat In The Hat was "helping" to clean up, but the pink stuff just moved from one thing to another until it became completely overwhelming got all over the house then shot outside and covered the entire landscape. That's what greasy dishwater reminded me of. Plus the waster water tank filling up prompted me to rethink even filling a dishpan.

I took a closer look at the drain in my shower pan, put a large mouthed funnel into it and poured any greasy water (from washing a pan for instance) directly into it (to the waste water tank below). I scraped my dishes clean into my compost bucket. Then soaped it up without laying it down anywhere. From my insulated carafe I poured clean hot water over the dish to rinse it into my dishpan. Now I had soapy mostly clean water in the dish pan where I could throw in my silver ware to wash. This was in reverse order to how my English grandmother had taught me when I was 8, but it worked. 

I found a minimalist dish drain at Bed Bath & Beyond that came strapped to a drying mat and laid it on top of my toaster oven. 

That was another thing about my kitchen. It came in layers. To open my cooler I had to bend over, hold that position and pull away the couch bench that covered the cooler. Then roll the couch bench back over it or I wouldn't have room to move. 

I learned to remember all the items I would need from the cooler for each meal though I'm still forgetting at least one thing. For the evening meal the dishes had to be put away or I wouldn't be able to use my toaster oven. Was there anywhere to put things down that wouldn't be used so soon? 

I discovered where. On my sewing table under the stairs. And on one bench. Plus my chair in a pinch.

The floor being cold I put down a rug, but had to shunt it out of the way to get to the cooler. Then put it back again. I did this with my feet. It got to be a little dance. Then to use the sink I had to step into the shower pan which was often wet I realized so I took to standing on the walls of the shower pan and leaning awkwardly towards the sink. What had I done to myself? I wondered. 

Getting Ship Shape

I told myself I was living on a boat. It sounded more romantic. My family had owned a sailboat in my childhood and I had marveled at the cleverness of the living space in the cabin with its dining room table transforming into a bunk. People had lived in their boats in that harbor and I read books about sailing solo across the Pacific. Yes the narrowness of my tiny house did resemble a boat being smaller than most tiny houses. 

Other tiny house dwellers strived for normalcy with kitchens equipped with sinks and refrigerators. Even washers and dryers. But those tiny houses were at least twice as big as mine and a little wider. I wanted to be low profile. This necessity cut into any normalcy. I felt like I was on an expedition climbing a mountain from a base camp. I'd read lots of those books as a kid too. 

This extreme living forced me to put things away all the time. The discipline of the tiny house was severe that way. Both waste water tank and pee tank only took a week to fill I would soon discover. That first week filled me with trepidation. But what really drove me to distraction was the unfinished curtains. The windows were small enough that I could buy just one panel and cut them into two for each of the windows facing the street. I pinned them to the wall and that took care of the street light that kept waking me up and the neighbors looking in as they got in their cars in their driveway five feet from my house. I just couldn't open the curtains to let any light in because I didn't have a curtain rod to slide them on. And I couldn't face going to any store on Thanksgiving weekend with all the doorbuster crowds. I longed for some sense of normalcy. I needed a break from all this hyper mindfulness living. 

I texted Catherine to ask if I could come over because my house was exhausting me. She was happy to have me as she was missing me. She fed me turkey dinner leftovers and I built a roaring fire. What a luxury of heat. We put our feet up and watched a movie. I did not have a TV installed in my tiny house. I suspected I wouldn't have time to watch it. (I had installed a hammock hoping I'd actually have time to lie around in it.) I stayed two days at Catherine's in my old room. Then having restored some sense of normalcy I began to miss my things and decided to go home and face the music. I would boldly empty the waste water tank.

I had bought an 11 gallon waste tank because I knew how heavy a 5 gallon bucket was and even with wheels this tank would likely be difficult to maneuver. It was my aim to empty my pee tank into it to dilute the pee so as not to harm any plants I was feeding with the nitrogen in the urine. I would then trundle the 11 gallons around to the trees and bushes that surrounded my house to water them via the handy outlet on the tank where a hose could be installed. Too bad the garden was already so well watered with all the rain. At least the plants would be fertilized. 

The tank was heavy, but relatively easy to drag around even over the tall clumps of grass. A week was a short leash, but at least in the dry months a weekly watering of the garden would be welcome. I just kept reminding myself that urine was sterile as I handled these tanks. The poop bucket gave me a month before I had to haul it out to empty into my rotating composting bin. An easier task. I also added the dog poop of the resident German Shepherd as it was part of my trade to pick it up thus closing the loop for both of us.

Gradually I adapted to the regime of the tiny house and it to me. I went to the Marine store and bought myself a deck tile to put in the shower pan. This kept my feet dry and the ergonomics of being able to stand where I was supposed to stand to use the sink was a huge improvement. I made a dumb waiter for the loft with a simple pulley attached to the ceiling so I could get my laundry crate down. I did laundry and washed my hair at Catherine's and we got in some episodes of "The Crown". 

I invited some colleagues over to see my tiny house. "What do you miss most ?" one asked. "Space," I said. A place to put down random things. Otherwise I had pretty much everything I needed. I could also multi task like nobody's business. Check e-mail while frying eggs, put my contacts in without having to walk to another room. I would probably never burn a meal again because there was no other room to be gone in. And after a couple of weeks of the hyper mindfulness my concentration and my memory seemed to improve.

And there was still room for the unexpected.

Room For The Unexpected

The helpful client of the VW bus utensils, off loaded a vintage model of an animal cell that had been at NASA (in the department that studied mutations). The cell model needed a home so when she retired from her job as a lab technician there she took it with her. I admired it every time I saw it in the condo she shared with her wife. One day she decided it could go. It was made of clear fiberglass upon which were attached all the parts of the cell painted in blues and green. It was so cool I told her I wish I had a bigger house to keep it in. 

The more I looked at it the more I wanted it so I took it home to admire. I set it on the couch bench where the blue green base blended in perfectly with the blue green of my couch. As I dusted all the cell parts remembering my high school biology I realized the base was hollow all the way into the cell body. Perhaps I could get a light into it I thought. No bulb would fit so I retrieved a string of Christmas lights from storage, stuffed the lights into the body of the cell, plugged it in and there I had a giant Christmas ornament. What a beauty. 

At nightfall my lit up cell was so beautiful and full of little lights it was all the holiday decoration I needed. It would be my pagan tiny house Christmas tree I decided.

How appropriate I thought. For some years now when asked what was my religion, I would put down that I believed in the divinity of cell division for that was as distilled as I could sum up my awe at life forcing itself into being with every seed and unfurling leaf. No matter what the conditions or circumstance, these intrepid cells of living beings of all forms still insisted on being born and carrying on. And so would I. And would we all whatever might befall us.

Wishing you all a joyful holiday and a proactive new year.

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At 5:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Happy Solstice!
Let there be light and warmth and wheels on waste water containers!

At 7:39 PM, Blogger sandy mckay said...

So interesting. I live in a tiny condo, and I have had to downsize enormously to get here. I really related to your descriptions. My truck has my golf clubs, storage boxes and anything I can't fit in my condo in the back. Here is to tiny steps forward. Thanks for sharing this, Sheilagh! And thanks for an enjoyable read, Amanda! Sandy


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