All my life, I’ve taken shelter when needed and where available, without giving it much of a second thought. But when I started designing my own “tiny home” in the woods, I wondered how much shelter I really needed. Does a robin need a roof over his head? Does a deer need a parlor window?
The snail’s got it made—for shelter, at least. The house he’s born with, soft as a baby’s skull, grows as he does and stays in step. Hard to lug around, for sure, if you only have one slimy, prehensile foot at your disposal, but worth doing: Take one step backwards from any point on Earth, and home sweet home, you’re safe in bed. Dorothy needed ruby slippers and three clicks of her heels to do that.
Photo credit: Dylan O’Donnell
Though I have no trouble distinguishing inside from outside, I sometimes wonder: Shouldn’t the student of Nature be able to take his rest wherever he finds himself, beside the river, under the greenwood tree?
And yet many animals do make some distinction between what’s inside and what’s out. The difference between the two, after all, is life and death. Shelter is not just comfort, but shield. Consider the gleeful chatter the squirrel performs, having outwitted the hawk and reached his red-oak nest. He doesn’t go inside straightway; he taunts her from the den-mouth, his house at his back. Having one is license to stay out of it.
Designing a Tiny House
When I first put pencil to graph paper, I had no idea what sort of house I wanted to build or what I was sheltering myself from. What predator was I trying to outwit? The wind and weather, certainly, but something more, too: the slowly closing blinds of my own perspective. Solid houses are, by nature, sedentary beings. What’s sedentary is sleepy, boring, and doesn’t move. And lack of movement is an enemy to observation and insight, the naturalist’s great pleasures. Was it possible to construct a dwelling that could help a person see, feel, think?
Despite having no very clear picture of it, I liked the sound of a woodsy lookout to taunt the hawks from. I knew it had to be small, because I would be its inexperienced carpenter, and I knew it had to have plenty of windows, because it wouldn’t have much in the way of electric light—and anyway, what’s a house for if not to peek back out of?
Tiny houses—some much tinier than others—are all the rage. Why pay for 3,000 square feet, the logic goes, let alone keep them all clean, when you could be thoroughly happy in 300? Tiny houses come in many shapes and sizes. Some sit on stilts, some perch in trees, and some can be plopped on a trailer and moved. Some are no more than glorified sheds or reinforced tents. Others are gems of design and engineering, like architectural bonsai. Most have the feel of intricate, ingenious cupboards, a sleeping loft up in the rafters, with hidden shelves secreted under every surface, and each element serving multiple functions. If your salad spinner can’t also be used as a sock drawer and a stepstool, well, you’re wasting space.
But forget preparing for every eventuality—that’s how you build a bunker, not a house. Who needs survival gear stuffed into every last nook and cranny? And don’t worry about covering all the creature comforts—most creatures do just fine without them. In fact, a little discomfort can be downright pleasant. Heed the good advice of Ishmael, who left hearth and home to take to sea in that great salad-spinner of a novel, Moby Dick:
“If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if…the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. …Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”
What does your ideal home—your home Idea—look like? Does it have an extra chair for visitors? Can you eat and dress and dream within it, or is it a foyer that spills you out into that larger and more capacious room, the world? Can you feel your own warm spark inside of it, and feel yourself feeding it?
Tiny House Photographs by Henry Walters
My house came out charmingly crooked, round, and lofty enough to reverberate a bit when the north wind’s up or the piano’s being played, like a big wine barrel. Hairy woodpeckers are already tattooing the rough pine siding, and when the rain comes pounding down, you feel like you’re running with the bulls in Pamplona. Paradoxically, what I want most in an enclosure is a sense of space opening up. Just as Pippi Longstocking enrolled in school for the sole purpose of enjoying a Christmas vacation, perhaps the point of building a house is to let the light pour in.