House that Dee built is home sweet, tiny home

Downsizing to an 84 sq ft home she built herself was part of a radical lifestyle change for sustainability advocate Dee Williams

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 1:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 1:31am

It's not quite the little house on the prairie: in fact, it stands in a friend's garden. But it is the house that Dee built ... every square inch of its 84 square feet.

Having heard Dee Williams' downsizing story, Hong Kong householders who believe their living quarters cramp their style - and their ability to store box after redundant box of neglected consumer baubles - might just abandon their expansionist dreams and agree that small really is beautiful.

But first, the house: a mobile, timber, A-frame dwelling parked in Olympia, Washington, in the United States, when not on show at an occasional Earth Day event. "It's 84 square feet because that's the size of the trailer it sits on," says sustainability advocate Williams from her dining table-sized "great room". "I have a kitchenette with a one-burner stove and a sleeping loft. I have an icebox instead of a fridge and a dry bathroom with a compost toilet, and I shower at work or in my neighbour's house," she adds. "There's an 11-foot ceiling, so it's not claustrophobic. To create a sense of space it's all in earth tones, with no super-bright colours. But it's less about square footage and more about what you're trying to bring into play. And I guess I just have excellent taste!"

Downsizing is rarely undertaken in such literal fashion, so Williams, 50, reveals the reasons behind her radical lifestyle change in recently published memoir The Big Tiny. The house began to take shape after she collapsed in her local grocery store and almost died. "Someone started CPR, an ambulance came and I woke up a couple of days later. Something fundamentally changes when you start to recognise your own mortality."

Williams' way of dealing with the subsequent diagnosis of congestive heart failure was to shrink her life to what was dearest and devote more time to the people closest to her. The means presented itself when she came across a magazine photograph of a small house on wheels. "I had a three-bedroom house built in 1927," she says. "It had great bones and I loved it. But I didn't love the mortgage; I was going to be 9,000 years old before I'd paid it off." The house, whose upkeep made unremitting demands on Williams' time, was sold and she gave away most of her possessions; also into the out tray went her relationship. "My sweetheart and I broke up when the heart problems started - we were both overwhelmed. But we're still friends," she says. And into her new life and new digs went all her energy, faith, doubt and dog Rooodeee. "Even now, 15 per cent of the time, I'm wondering, what was I thinking? The rest of the time I'm reminded how blessed life is.

"Being unencumbered and living with less has made me happier. My friends and family get it, they roll with it, although they were concerned and curious at first. It's like camping; and if folks come over for dinner it makes passing the dishes quite easy."

Before Williams could send out any dinner invitations came the job of turning her vision into reality by building it. As she recalls in The Big Tiny: "Now I had my trailer on order I needed to flesh out the design. I took the plans and manipulated them, switching the kitchen and bathroom, the sleeping loft and living room ... I wanted to design the house around my body and my needs, instead of following the pattern I'd fallen into in my big house: picking paint colours and finishing the woodwork with some future owner and saleability in mind. This was going to be my house."

To the fore came her woodworking prowess as she remodelled old-growth cedar and knotty pine, much of it salvaged. "I did take a shop class in high school," she reveals. "I actually liked it. And I picked up other skills later, building houses while doing volunteer work in Mexico and the US." The result was her diminutive home for the past decade, "a sturdy, well-built house that hasn't turned into a soggy bag of bones" that takes her eight minutes to clean and whose running costs are negligible.

"I work part-time for the state of Washington's environmental agency, inspecting factories for hazardous waste," she says. "I have the luxury of leisure; and with my business partners in Portland Alternative Dwellings [PAD] we run four or five workshops a year, concentrating on who you are and what works for you. Downsizing doesn't have to mean resizing into a house the size of a cuckoo clock."

Oregon-based PAD sells its tiny-house plans "to help people retool their lives into what they'd like them to be", says Williams. And all log-cabin overtones aside, although her house is off the grid and without plumbing, one lifestyle it does not represent is that favoured by the backwoodsman. "It's in an urban neighbourhood, so it's not like going into the wilds," she says.