Ten years ago, Dee Williams had a charming older house in Portland with "the beautiful gardens and the accommodating floor plan, along with the mortgage, utility bills, the hours spent laboring to keep things from falling under the weight of time and the elements." To pay for it all, she had an hours-long interstate commute and a job that brought her face-to-face with industry's nasty impact on the natural world. Then she had a heart attack in the grocery store.
With a pacemaker that made her feel her mortality as strongly as her vitality, Dee fixated on an article in a doctor's office magazine about Jay Shafer, a man who'd built his own tiny house. "I just stared at it, mulled it over, daydreamed, and then I thought: What would happen if I just... sort of... did that?" She rang Shafer up through Directory Assistance, and then she bought a plane ticket to visit him in Iowa City.
So opens The Big Tiny, Dee's wholehearted memoir of trading in the time and money suck of the house she thought she'd wanted and building her own tiny home on wheels, eventually parked semi-permanently in the backyard of dear friends.
Dee and her story are immensely likeable—she can laugh at and cheer for herself, and we're right there with her. The shift she made is also immensely inspiring, even to this inveterate collector of things. She makes me remember that I too am a "girl who loved sleeping in her tree house and who preferred staying outside, who still thinks reading by headlamp is romantic." Maybe trading most of my beloved stuff for more time and freedom would feel genuinely awesome.
Shelf space is scarce in Dee's tiny house, so I was curious about which books (if any) had earned the privilege of staying. Her essentials cover the how and why of tiny house building and living. — Mari
My friend Logan and I got into a discussion about what we’d want to wash up on shore if we were trapped on a desert island. Logan wanted an axe—a bad choice because it wouldn’t ever happen, because an axe would sink. I wanted a book. A good book. My point is... I love books!
Over the years, many books have rotated in and out of my little house—novels, memoirs, how-to manuals and more—and these seven have taken up permanent residence.
1. I first purchased Francis D.K. Ching’s Building Construction Illustrated when I was in college. I then proceeded to drag that book over mountain passes and halfway across the country, packing and unpacking it at least a dozen times before building my little house. It saved me a thousand times during the construction process; it has it all, from the basics of platform framing to the nuances of passive solar design. It even provides the common dimension of kitchen counters, tables and couches… super helpful information while designing a little house.
2. My brother gave me a copy of Lloyd Kahn’s Home Work a year or so before I decided to build my little house. It became one of my greatest sources of inspiration and information with thousands of photos... snapshots of beach houses, rolling homes, adobe huts, stick-built houses and stone-built barns. This book inspired me to rethink form, function and materials, and also made me want to be more like the quirky, cool people that Lloyd interviewed for his book.
3. Almost a decade before I built my little house, I sat on the floor at the local bookstore, pouring over Peter Menzel’s Material World. I was thunderstruck by the photos taken in thirty different countries, showing a typical family staged in front of their house with all their worldly possessions – goats, chickens, rugs, a soup pot or (less often) a car and a small sea of furniture. It was humbling to see the comparisons, but also incredibly beautiful in the way it showed that kids in Mongolia prank in front of a camera just like the kids in Texas. Thumbing through that book became a regular habit, and I still find myself jaw-dropped as I meander through the pages while sipping coffee on my front porch.
4. Over the past couple years, I’ve come close to peeing my pants laughing as I’ve read and then reread Deek Diedricksen’s Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here. It’s not just funny, but educational—I’ve learned something new every time I’ve thumbed through this hilarious, well-informed encyclopedia of funky smallness.
5. I received Tammy Strobels’s new photography book, My Morning View, in the mail the other day, and man-o-man it blew me away. It chronicles Tammy’s journey of living in a tiny house on a ranch outside Mt. Shasta (effing beautiful!!!), and also of working through her grief after losing her dad to a stroke. Her iPhone photography project is absolutely beautiful, and full of helpful advice for would-be photographers like me.
6. Jay Shafer’s Small House Book has been called “the book that started a movement,” and I believe it. I wish this book had existed before I built my house; it’s full of inspiring photos, as well as information about community development, small house design and the need for better urban infill.
7. Along with Ching’s book, Joseph Truini’s Building a Shed was practically my building bible during construction of my little house. It provides alternative ways of framing out the overhangs, windows, doors and roof. It also provided a lot of great advice for pouring footings and building a foundation if you’re building a “ground-bound” house instead of a tiny house on a trailer.
Dee Williams is a teacher and sustainability advocate. She is the co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings, where she leads workshops focused on tiny houses, green building, and community design. Williams lives in Olympia, Washington, with an overly ambitious Australian shepherd, in the shadow of the house of dear friends.