The house sits on 10 acres of Vermont forest. A stream runs next to the horse’s pasture, and my friend Melinda and her partner Stefan hauled water from it for their own drinking before their well was finished.
Finding the right piece of land was the first challenge. On a small budget, they needed to find a piece of land zoned for residential living, in a setting where they would be comfortable. They found it.
Zoning requirements were the next bit for consideration. All towns are a little different, so the lesson I took away from this is to check the town’s zoning laws before you even start looking at land. In Melinda’s case, she only had to put the house on a foundation and hook it up to a septic system to call it home.
The foundation gave me pause. As I have not yet decided whether a tiny house on wheels might be right for me, I need to consider whether I will legally be able to set it down on a piece of land and call it a house. I will need to consider whether homeowners insurance is available for such dwellings without foundations. These are serious challenges that full-time van dwellers and tiny house owners face. The country is not yet set up for the nomadic nature of the Millennial generation.
But Melinda and Stefan were ready to stay put for a bit, so they were comfortable building on a foundation. Then, from the ground up, they build a house. Just like that.
Well, sort of. They had to decide on a style of construction. Neither had any construction experience. They had no road to the site of their future house. They had to carry all construction materials across a boggy field to reach the site. In other words, there were some serious barriers from Go!
Their solution came in the form of a construction style called cordwood masonry, which entails mixing blocks of wood into mortar to form the walls. The rest of the house went up piece by piece, and they learned as they went. My favorite part of the house is the space-efficient spiral staircase built out of plywood nailed to a tree trunk. Its design is functional and without frills. It speaks of a need met by simple ingenuity.
The staircase leads to a loft. Originally the plan was for the loft to be more like a second story, but during the first winter of construction part of the roof caved in under the heavy New England snow. But as Melinda says, “It worked out better this way, because now the loft gets all this lovely daylight.”
The house shows signs of being a learning experience. Nothing is perfect, though everything is beautiful. It has the charm of something that just works. It looks nothing like a house I’d ever been in. Looking at Melinda’s house, I can see, more or less, how it was built. Nothing is hidden. Nothing looks too perfect. It looks like a house that my friends built. It looks like a house I could build.
The house is about 550 square feet including the loft. To do it again, they’d build smaller. Powered by solar panels, heated by a woodstove, with water from a not-quite-gravity-fed well and a generator for backup, the house is off the grid and in tune with the elements. It’s cold when they get home in the evenings in the winter. When the sun sets, it gets dark, as they have few light bulbs.
These things suit Melinda. She was the one that inspired my habit of walking barefoot, in order to help me stay mindful. She’s the type to rise and set with the sun. Herbs that she grew herself hang from the kitchen ceiling, and the vegetable garden is full of leafy green things. I might want another lamp in my house, but then again I might not. I also feel healthiest when I rise and set with the sun.
The point is, you can make the space suit whatever your priorities are. In the corner of their tiny, super space-efficient home sits a piano. An exorbitant waste of space to me, given that I’ve never played, but to Melinda a well-worth-it source of joy. My home will boast a large stretch of empty floor space. For my daily foam-rolling habit. Really. Build to suit your quirks.
I asked Melinda and Stefan how they were so confident that this is the place they want to live for a long time. They looked at each other, confused.
“I don’t think we are,” Melinda said. “Everything here is surprisingly easy to transport, even the horses.” She gestured behind the house.
“But the time and effort and money you put into building this place!” I said, astounded. “You would just leave it?”
Yeah, they would. Nothing is permanent in Melinda’s mind. She has that Zen-like state of an enlightened Buddha, and she knows the barriers and limitations we live by are constructed in our own minds.
“We wanted to see if we could do it,” said Stefan, referring to building the house. “We wanted to know what the process would be like.”
That doesn’t tie them to this place. It doesn’t tie them to their house. When they’re ready, they’ll sell it and move on, with a little more experience, a little more know-how, as open-minded as ever.
Thanks for tuning in for my series on intentional spaces. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first two posts, Marriage, Kids, and Houses, Oh My! and Intentional Spaces. You can receive the latest blog posts by joining my email list.