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Say Hello to My Little House

Joshua McNichols

Julia Barton

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Tiny Palace
(Joshua McNichols)
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Dee Williams' house is very, very small. It's eight by 15 feet, and 13 feet tall. She can stretch out on the floor and touch one side with her hands, the other with her feet. There's just one room below, and loft for sleeping. It's a beautiful house, made with natural wood and full of light But Williams says it gets tricky when relatives come to stay.

One time her brother came to visit. "And he brought, like, a piece of luggage," she recalls. "I had a lot of anxiety around his luggage. [I said] that's almost the size of my house. Where's that going to go, you know? I guess he could keep it in the yard."

Dee hasn't always lived in a small house. In Portland, Ore., she lived in a 1500 square-foot bungalow.

"Like everyone else in Portland, I decided to remodel it," she says. "And I loved that house. You know, I spent a lot of time working in order to afford to fix my house up." Williams often found herself at Home Depot buying construction materials. But she eventually grew uncomfortable with how much she was consuming, and how much remodeling consumed her.

In the middle of this, she went up to Olympia to help a close friend who was dying of cancer, and she found people helping each other, not worrying about their houses. It made her take a look at her own priorities.

"I have a heart problem, and I have an implanted defibrillator, and my prognosis at different times has not been very good," she explains. "And at some level, I watched this community outpouring for Mark and his family, and I was like, you know, that's what I want. I want to be a part of a community that's gonna take care of me, when I get too sick to take care of myself."

So Dee sold her big house in Portland. She ordered plans from the Tumbleweed Tiny House company and built herself a little house on wheels.

Annie McManus and Hugh O'Neill are among Williams's friends in Olympia. Around the time Williams was building her house, she came up and joined Annie for a walk. Annie recalls asking, "'Dee, where do you planning on moving the little house when you move up?' And she says 'Well, I was kind of hoping to put it in your backyard.' And we kind of laughed as we both realized that's really what we all wanted."

Dee moved into a new, pared-down life in Olympia. Her wardrobe now includes three outfits and a couple of pairs of shoes. She's given up refrigeration and running water. But on the other hand, she only works 3 days a week and her utility bills are next to nothing. It's hard sometimes to explain.

"I'd run into people and they'd say, 'Hey, where you living?'" she recalls. "And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm in Hugh and Annie's backyard.' You know, which just kind of sounds not quite right. And they'd say, 'Huh, really... well, that's great...'"

Williams didn't want to feel like a burden on her friends. She did jobs around the house and helped out with their family. Still, she worried about being a mooch.

When your house is on wheels, it's easy to leave. One day, Dee towed her house to a different spot. She told Annie she wasn't coming back. The two of them had a good cry. Then Annie responded, "I really want you to do what you need to do. But I really want you to come back here."

That's when Dee realized she'd become family. She had to think that through and then she decided that this was OK. She's been living in Hugh and Annie's backyard for three years now.

Dee climbs up to the tiny loft where she sleeps. From here, she can look out over her garden or lie in bed listening to the birds. "This skylight over the bed is beautiful. I really love it. And there's a window behind my head, too, that opens up to the front of the house. I love feeling like nature is right there."

For many of us, home is our fortress, where all our needs are met. Dee's house can't fill all those needs. She's forced to depend on her neighbors for things like eggs and fresh water. But she doesn't want an independent life in a bigger house.

"I think there are a lot of people that live in these houses but don't feel at home, they don't feel at home in the world," she says. "And all of a sudden, I feel so very blessed, and so very much at home. And maybe for the first time ever."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Steve Johnson

    From Waynesville, NC, 01/22/2013

    I think, when people come out of the theater after seeing the hobbit, they're like "that is so cuuuute!" Then they live in it for a year or two, then realize "I'm not a Hobbit!" Then they wake up.

    By Steve Johnson


    I think, when people come out of the theater after seeing the hobbit, they're like "that is so cuuuute!" Then they live in it for a year or two, then realize "I'm not a Hobbit!" Then they wake up.

    By Steve Johnson


    I think, when people come out of the theater after seeing the hobbit, they're like "that is so cuuuute!" Then they live in it for a year or two, then realize "I'm not a Hobbit!" Then they wake up.

    By Steve Johnson


    I think, when people come out of the theater after seeing the hobbit, they're like "that is so cuuuute!" Then they live in it for a year or two, then realize "I'm not a Hobbit!" Then they wake up.

    By Lilly Mollicone

    From Crawfordville, FL, 07/26/2010

    I love this idea. Just simple living.I want a tiny little house where and how can I get one? I cant wait to hear from you.

    By Linda Ericson-Ebel

    From West Hartford, CT, 07/21/2009

    For those of you interested in building a slightly larger house for a family I recommend Don Metz's The Compact House Book comprized of 33 award winning house plans under 1000 square feet. It was published in 1983 by Garden Way Publishers. Four hundred thirty=four architects and contractors entered a contest to build energy efficient houses with a small footprint. Includes cost estimates (a little out of date now) energy estimates and Very interesting designs.

    By Paul Kealy

    From CA, 08/08/2008

    Loved Joshua McNichols' style. Need more of this interesting journalism these days!

    By Walter Freeman

    From Loganville, GA, 07/25/2008

    Interesting. The simple life has its virtues. Dee has found her Walden Pond in a friend's backyard. Her handywork and skills are very apparent in the pictures. However, as a senior, I was instantly reminded of the Humphreymobile and Humphrey Pennyworth, sometime friend of Joe Palooka, in the comic strip originated by Ham Fischer in the 1940s, which was popular for many years. You have to be of a certain age, I suppose, to fully understand this connection. But for those who are unfamiliar with the Humphreymobile, see www.hakes.com/item.asp?Auction=185&ItemNo=32469 I remember this toy from back in the 50s, but had no idea that it would be worth $600 to someone today. You can also Google "Joe Palooka" and/or "Humphrey Pennyworth" to learn more.

    By Scott Gross

    From Wooster, OH, 07/23/2008

    i heard about this before today
    i saw the house in the Oregon 24/7 series.

    soo cool.

    By marian spadone

    From Portland, OR, 07/23/2008

    I loved listening to this and it struck a chord in my heart as I was just this week revisiting the issue of 'why don't I live in community?'. I was touched by this story and though I have lived in a space almost as small as Dee's tiny house,on land with others in an intentional community, I don't know if I could do it again. It would depend on how much other kinds of 'common space' I might be sharing with others.
    What is interesting to me is that I just spent 4 days working at the Oregon Country Faire where I was SURROUNDED by THOUSANDS of people...who were singing talking laughing yelling running acting dancing eating drinking and naked-shower-taking --and more...NON STOP the whole time. It was overwhelming to the mind, but on a 'monkey' kind of level, it was deeply reassuring. Just to be exchanging pheromones with all those people somehow counteracted a deep sense of isolation in a non-verbal way. It was magical.
    On a second note...when I came to this site to look at the pictures, and read the whole article ( I'd missed some of it) I was so startled to read that the woman with whom Dee had that good cry a was Annie McManus. Is that you? Annie? Who took JerriGrace's Death Midwifery Training with me, Marian, in Seattle those years ago? If it's really you, drop me a line! I'm at afinefarewell@yahoo.com. I'd love to connect and talk about this community thing!
    I hope that was ok to post....it's all about community anyway!
    Thanks for this story. It came at a perfect time for me, and brought some hopefulness into this period where the news is full of doom and gloom and 'economic downturns'and 'tightening our belts. You shared a key to real abundance. Thanks.

    By dee Williams

    From Olympia, WA, 07/20/2008

    Years ago, I bought a set of plans from Tumbleweedhouses.com. Then I re-tooled them to fit my needs. I made the house myself (with the help of friends) over a three month period. I used a bunch of 'green' building materials including cotton batt insulation, Marmoleum, salvaged and second-use materials, and low-e argon insulated windows. The house includes a kitchen, 1/2bath, livingroom and sleeping loft. It cost me about $10,000 to build (the solar electric system represents a good chunk of that). Please feel free to e-mail me (dee.boxcar@yahoo.com) if I can offer more information about the house. There are a couple of articles about my house on the web. And the tumbleweed website has a bunch of other links for more information about small living and tiny things. Be well!!! Have fun. Dee

    By Jane Cooper

    From La Jolla, CA, 07/20/2008

    Where can I find one of these houses? Is
    Is there a kit or do you build it?

    By Dave Sailer

    From Olympia, WA, 07/19/2008

    From the February 16, 2007 New York Times, an article titled "Think Small". The opening photo is of "Matthew Adams outside his 120-square-foot house by Modern Cabana on his 160 acres near Red Bluff, Calif. He wanted a well-designed dwelling that would have the least effect on his land."

    There is a good photo essay (really good) to accompany this. Made me want to go out and buy a dozen of these. Just need cash. Note: To see the story you may have to register for a free account. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/16/realestate/greathomes/16tiny.html)

    "UltraLight Living" has a page of links to info on "UltraLight Homes", plus a bunch of news articles on small houses. (http://www.ultralightliving.com/linkmachine/resources/resources_ultralight_homes.html)

    Everyone is different, and needs vary, but this should at least give people some ideas, and is another resource to creative solutions.

    Also, at Nicaragua Living: "How Big a House?" (http://www.nicaliving.com/node/11841)

    One last word for those who have more than one thumb but fewer than three: ferrocement. You can make anything out of this, even sailboats. With two hands and some simple tools. High tech but approachable.

    For a simple but very crude example, see the "Thousand Year Doghouse" at Instructables: http://www.instructables.com/id/1%2c000-Year-Doghouse/

    Wikipedia also has some thoughts. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferrocement)

    By Sam Patel

    From Redondo Beach, CA, 07/19/2008

    Great topic for the show and I really like the idea of downsizing, using less resources, and sense of community. However, I'm wondering how the tiny house concept can be adapted to fit the needs of larger families? Are there thoughts on the "tiny house for the mid-sized family"? Obviously it maybe a bit bigger than the one mentioned in the segment, but it seems like in todays world, a 2000 or 3000 sq foot house is excessive for families with 2 or 3 children. They could get by with a lot less, I think. Maybe there's room for a slightly bigger Tiny House?

    By Diane Jhueck

    From Langley, WA, 07/19/2008

    I love tiny houses - so this story caught my attention. And then, Annie was a part of the story. And it was SUCH an Annie story too. You GO GIRL! :D

    By Helen Shultz-Kamadulski

    From Auburn, WA, 07/19/2008

    I love your show and find ways to make sure i'm doing something that will enable me to listen on Saturdays.

    I really enjoyed the story that "Say Hello to My Little House" was a part of. I enjoyed hearing Ms. Williams'story and that of her friends as her values shifted and she acted on that shift. I also enjoyed hearing about the two families who joined forces under one roof and the creative way they have combined their households.

    I like the question the story was looking to explore but was very disappointed with your "expert's" input. I found that his input lacked any real insight into the issue. It's one thing to live w/inlaws for a year,as your expert shared from his experience, a choice that came out of financial need rather than a desire to create more community. It's quite another to do what Ms. Williams and the other two families have done. A sense of autonomy has to be built into such arrangements for there to be any real success, enabling these people to find ways to live cooperatively forming a larger "family" or community. We, as Americans, are kidding ourselves if we think we can identify ourselves as rugged individualists. The time of rugged individualism in this country is long gone for the vast majority of us. Only folks who are living totally off grid and growing or hunting their own foods and making their own clothing, etc, can claim any real sense of self-sufficiency and independance. We, as a society and world, are so interwoven and interdependant. We just don't want to acknowledge it. And that is why our determination, here in the U. S. especially, to live so "individualistically" is so damaging to our environment, the most vulnerable peoples of the world and the planet as a whole. Your story made a dent in this question of whether we might be heading toward a shift in our value of individualism toward lifestyles that are more community oriented but didn't go far enough, in my opinion.

    If you desired to go deeper with this idea I would recommend a couple books by Sallie McFague: "A New Climate for Theology;"God, The World, and Global Warming" and "Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril." Sallie McFague is Distinguished Theologian in Residence at Vancouver School of Theology.

    Thanks for considering my comments and keep up the good work.

    By Anne Lupton

    From Appleton, WI, 07/19/2008

    Dee, I admire your willingness to "buck the system" in terms of eschewing the way of the Joneses'. I agree that when you go through an event in your life that really causes you to question the values of the larger culture some profound changes can take place. You go, girl!!!

    By Emma Binderup

    From Lancaster, PA, 07/19/2008

    I'm curious about the plumbing situation this puts the inhabitants of these houses in!

    By James McConnell

    From Abiquiu, NM, 07/19/2008

    A unique program that stresses a strong spiritual community (not to be confused with religious) is at: http://www.brokenearth.org/ecovillage
    It offers Beehive Mud Homes that are both affordable and beautiful.

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