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4 Lessons Learned While Building Smalltopia

{Every Tuesday, I post a short essay about the little house we’re building. Enjoy!}

Logan slowly drove around the curve in the road and I listened to the gravel make crunching noises under the car tires. I could barely see the little house through the trees of a small apple orchard and when we made it around the corner I squealed and flailed my arms, upward and downward. I probably looked like a bird, but Logan said I sounded like a little girl who had just gotten a new toy for Christmas.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The house looked incredibly cute in front of Katy’s big red barn. When I stepped on to the tiny porch and walked through the front door, tears formed in my eyes. I looked at Katy and said, “I’m going to start crying. The house looks so incredible. Thank you!”

The interior of our little house is lined with pine paneling and smells woodsy, like a small forest. Our tiny range is snugly mounted into the counter and we’ll have plenty of storage space below. We spent about 4 hours hanging out with Katy on Saturday afternoon and finalizing the last design details. We talked about lights, whether or not we wanted a bathroom door and the design of our tiny folding table.

Logan and I have learned a lot during this process. And it’s not over yet. The lessons below focus on what we’ve learned during the building process, but I believe they can be integrated into any segment of your life.

1. Follow your instinct. My instinct always points me in the right direction; it’s just a matter of listening to it. For example, after we attended Dee and Katy’s tiny house construction workshop a few years ago my gut told me that I wouldn’t enjoy building a house. I admire the do-it-yourself crowd and the romantic aspects of constructing your own shelter, but I also know where my skill sets lie and I have strong feelings about how I want to spend my time. Constructing a small house isn’t something I would enjoy. Even though people said, we should do it ourselves we opted to hire professionals and follow our instinct.

2. Don’t buy stuff on impulse. Buying so much stuff for the little house makes me feel like we’ve been sucked into consumer culture again. Door knobs, glue for the cork flooring, lights for the interior of the home, an electric heater, a porch light, and wall sconces are a few of things we’ve been shopping for recently. Even when the stuff is reused, high-quality, and environmentally friendly its still stuff.

When we rented apartments, all those door-handles and light fixtures were the landlords stuff, not ours. Its emotionally difficult to take ownership of all of these things at once. Since the space is so small we can afford materials that would be out of budget in a big house and it’s given us the feeling that almost any gadget, fixture, counter, and so on is within reach. So we are doing our best to buy nothing on impulse and to acquire new tools according to our our values.

3. Don’t let little details overwhelm you. And if they do, ask for help. Logan has taken over researching and purchasing the little things we need for the house because I’ve been overwhelmed by the vast array of choices. It’s hard enough to pick out the type of ice cream I want, much less wall sconces and door handles. I can’t imagine building a big house and all the decisions that go with a larger abode. I’m grateful for Logan’s help. I can’t imagine doing all of this by myself.

4. Be patient. Like all good things in life, it’s essential to be patient. Rather than taking out a bank loan or putting the house on a credit card, we waited, paid off our debt, and saved for four years to make this project a reality.

Last Words . . . 

The weekend was a whirlwind of tiny house awesomeness. Seeing our little house was thrilling and then we spent Saturday night with Dee and talked about all kinds of topics over Thai food. We closed off the weekend by celebrating the one year anniversary of my friend Michelle’s little house. The best thing about living small is that it has propelled me outward into the world. I’m not at home sitting in front of the TV. Instead, I’m spending time with friends and engaging in new and unexpected experiences.

P.S. Don’t forget to look at the new photos on the tiny house page

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex September 27, 2011, 2:32 pm

    I like what you said about being patient. Pretty much all great things take time. That’s cool how you guys saved up and waited. Looking forward to more of these Tuesday updates. Mmm, I love Thai.

  • Alicia September 27, 2011, 3:52 pm

    I remember hearing, as a child, that patience is a virtue. Waiting is part of the journey. That is something I discovered after college. I am far from perfect, but it is an intention that I cultivate whenever possible.

    P.S. The library called me. A few weeks ago, I requested Little House on a Small Planet via ILL. It arrived this afternoon.

  • SavvyChristine September 27, 2011, 3:56 pm

    Wow, congratulations on your tiny house! I know exactly what you mean when you say you admire the DIY but don’t want to do it yourself. Way to make that choice and stick to it.

  • Charitie Nicholas September 27, 2011, 4:04 pm

    I have to say I love the idea of a tiny house. I fully intend to build one or hire a contractor to build one. My worry is that how do I accommodate for my son and husband. My son is your typical rambunctious almost 5 year old, and my husband is a big hefty.
    I see it as an nice incentive to try and get my hubby to be less likely to stay at home and the portability works, because I travel a lot for work. Any Ideas?

    I definitely love the comment on impulse buying. My hubby is type that sees a new “toy” and has to have it. I think even if we life in it for a short time, it will make a positive learning experience for him. I love living small and traveling light. My bedroom when I was a kid was 5×7, until my parents decided it was a better office.

  • Joe3 September 27, 2011, 4:16 pm

    I’m loving your little house, Katy is a fine craftsman. It will be interesting to see how you and Logan furnish it.

  • anotherkindofdrew September 27, 2011, 4:21 pm

    Let’s be honest. I for one initially thought, “Why aren’t they building their own house?” And you just wrote the answer that makes all the sense in the world.

    “I wouldn’t enjoy building a house.”

    Why be part of anything – let alone the construction of your future – if you won’t/don’t enjoy it. So well put!

    And lastly? You advice on being patient. It couldn’t be more true. I try and preach, teach, and live that every day. Be patient! Thank you for this post. Wonderful as always.

  • Sheila September 27, 2011, 4:50 pm

    I have had small panic attacks over the amount of stuff we had to purchase for our tiny house. It’s so much money spent in such a short time so it’s easy to lose perspective of how little money it is, relative to a traditional home with a 30-year mortgage, over the long-term.

    I teared up myself reading about your joy and emotional reaction to stepping into your soon-to-be oasis. My heart understands, and you’re definately right, it IS BEAUTIFUL, and just right for you & Logan.

  • Sunday September 27, 2011, 4:56 pm

    i’m as excited for you as i would be for me if it were my house 🙂 this is such an inspiration!!!

  • Trudi September 27, 2011, 9:58 pm

    Tammy, congratulations on this house! It is so cute and looks nice and warm already.

  • sigrid schirdewahn September 28, 2011, 2:44 am

    I’ve been enjoying and benefiting from your thinking process. Although we’re not moving into a tiny home, I find that I can learn from you. We are currently clearing clutter and looking to right-size, while ensuring that our kids, large dog and budgies have room to enjoy as well! Congrats and keep it coming. I look forward to Tuesdays…

  • Mariah September 28, 2011, 3:31 am

    These are great pictures. It is great to see some of the process so well documented.

    It has been my dream to build a tiny house to live in when I retire. (Still a few years away.) I too am not interested in building my own. My children live in Oregon and I have thought about relocating there eventually , so I am glad to see there is a local option for having one built.

    Thanks for the inspiration to make my future dream come true.

  • ann September 28, 2011, 5:29 am

    wow, this is amazing, i know you must be so excited! loving all the photos…i am just beginning to realize the power in minimalism, and i found your blog through others. will be reading and watching for your tiny house photos. thank you for sharing with us.

  • Cheryl September 28, 2011, 5:42 am

    I love it … are the french doors on the side just off the living room area? And I vote yes on the bathroom door! The stove looks fantastic and you appear to have tons of storage as well. And the skylight in the sleeping loft … absolutely perfect! You must be thrilled with the progress and how beautiful your tiny house is!

    • Logan September 28, 2011, 11:07 am

      Hi Cheryl, Thanks for the interest! Yes the french doors are just off of the “living” room area. 🙂 We need to get the updated layout on the blog soon.

  • TamV September 28, 2011, 6:19 am

    Your house looks awesome!

  • Tess The Bold Life September 28, 2011, 7:08 am

    Hi Tammy,
    Hubs asked me this morning what was new with the tiny house woman. I sent him to your blog and he read it out loud to me. What joy! Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Timaree September 28, 2011, 10:49 am

    Your statement about not being able to choose what flavor ice cream you want fits me to a T which is why I want a tiny house someday when I am alone. When I get to do a whole house the way I want it – well, I kind of freeze right there as the possibilities are tremendous and I like so much!

  • Jennie Walker September 28, 2011, 11:04 am

    Hi Tammy, I’m following your Tiny House construction. My boyfriend and I are selling my house and plan to build our own Tiny House. I noticed you have a nice skylight in your loft! I want one of those and don’t see them included in Jay Schafer’s plans, so I was wondering how difficult that was to add into your own design… Was that relatively easy for Dee and Katy to put in? Do they leak often? Also… I’m very interested in the wool insulation. I’m very skeptical about the foam insulation and the typical polystyrene used in the houses. What company makes the wool insulation? We’re in Alabama, wondering if it would be easy to get our hands on some… And does it work just as well as the regular kind?

    • Logan September 28, 2011, 1:38 pm

      Hi Jennie,

      Tammy can also follow up with your question but I thought I would chime in. Great to hear you are considering a tiny house! 🙂 Your comment reminds me that I’ve been thinking of publishing a brief materials list from the tiny house to answer a number of questions we get in the comments. The wool insulation is from Oregon Shepherd located about 50 miles NW of Portland, OR. Evan and Gabby, another couple buidling a tiny house, located in Illinois, have a great blog post regarding wool insulation.

      Regarding the skylight, Jay does have two skylights in his new “Gifford” house, and we like to think Dee helped inspire him that way. 😉 We obviously haven’t tested our skylight yet, but we expect it not to leak. We chose a fixed or non-opening skylight because we were concerned not about leakage but that we would unintentionally leave the window open and expose it to a leak in a surprise rain shower (common in Portland). If you are interested, Dee is planning on selling the plans to our tiny house soon on the Portland Alternative Dwellings website. 🙂 Cheers!

      • Chandra September 28, 2011, 3:38 pm

        I’d love to see those plans that are being used for your, may I say ADORABLE!!!, home. Has Dee mentioned when she will be putting them up on her website? I was looking through all the pictures and its looking like it will be my new favorite tiny house. 🙂 The floor plan looks very well thought out.

        And the stove looks perfect! What kind of stove is that anyways? I look at my (normal sized) 30″ stove and it aggravates me because it’s such a waste! I never use the whole oven (heck, I rarely even use an oven! 😀 ) so when I do I am heating up a bunch of space for one little pan.

        Anyway, I’m loving your little home and thanks for allowing us all to share the excitement with you!

        • Logan September 28, 2011, 6:23 pm

          Hi Chandra,

          Thanks for the complement as there are many beautiful tiny homes out there. 🙂 All Dee said was “soon”. The plans are done of course, since they were finished for our house, but it takes some formating to get everything digital. I’m sure we will be referring a lot of people to PAD for the overhead layout preview and plans as soon as they are posted.

          The stove/oven is an Origo 6000 and its used predominately on boats. It uses alcohol as fuel so its safe to burn indoors with minimal ventilation and its free standing (no pipes or wires it just sits in the counter). We watched a documentary recently called “Gas Land” that discussed the horrible implications of natural gas fracking. After watching the film we wanted nothing in our home that ran directly on natural gas. The inspiration to get this stove/oven came from Sheila and Kai who are also building a tiny house and write at a blog called 2cycle2gether. As Kai as noted previously, we are looking forward to building a “solar-still” to make our own cooking fuel! 🙂

    • Tammy Strobel September 28, 2011, 1:42 pm

      Hey Jennie, The skylight was easy to add. 🙂 I would highly recommend it because it doesn’t make the loft feel so claustrophobic. I don’t think I could sleep up there without a big window. My friend Michelle has a similar skylight and so does Dee. They haven’t had any leaking issues.

      Also, take a look at my prior post about the wool. It’s really good stuff and some folks say it works better than the “normal” insulation.

  • Sandra / Always Well Within September 28, 2011, 1:27 pm

    Congratulations, Tammy. I’ve just joined into the process of watching the evolution of your house. I confess, I felt totally stunned seeing this full view of it and how small it is. “Are you really going to live there?” I thought. It gave me a sense of exactly how simple you mean by “simple.”

    Very adorable, cute, and well done, of course. I hope and Logan find tons of happiness living there.

    • Tammy Strobel September 28, 2011, 1:38 pm

      @Sandra – LOL! Everyone seems to have that reaction. Although when you’re in the space it feels a lot bigger. When you visit Portland, I’ll have to give you a tour. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      • Sandra / Always Well Within September 30, 2011, 11:15 pm

        That would be terrific! I’ll let you know if I’m every up Portland way. At the moment, I’m quite stationary in Hawai’i, but then again, everything changes.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear September 28, 2011, 3:03 pm

    Congratulations on being so close, Tammy! I appreciate how mindful you & Logan have been during this process, and I can’t wait to see what the place looks like once you’re all moved in. 🙂

  • Lindsay September 28, 2011, 5:40 pm

    Just wondering – how safe are tiny houses (during severe weather, etc)? I LOVE the idea (and your house is so cute!!!!), but I live in an area that has severe weather/tornado warnings on a fairly regular basis.

    • anotherkindofdrew September 28, 2011, 6:49 pm

      If I may be so bold as to reply Lindsay. Tiny houses are as safe as any vehicle on wheels would be in the case of a severe weather front. If a hurricane comes you are faced with high winds, downed trees, and flying debris. If a flood is approaching you have to think about rising tides. If a tornado is headed your direction you have to just take cover and hope for the best. However, there are ways to protect your tiny house more in the event of an emergency as well as to protect your family.

      1) I wrote a post on Tiny r(E)volution about anchoring down a house.

      2) Create a natural windbreak or something in the way of fender skirting to keep air from building up underneath your trailer and possibly blowing it around or away.

      3) Find more secure ground or a shelter in the case of a tornado.

      4) Remember your tiny house is mobile. If you have enough advance notice, hitch up, and roll out!

      • Logan September 28, 2011, 7:03 pm

        Thanks for the heads up Drew! I’ll check out your post on this topic! 🙂

    • Logan September 28, 2011, 6:58 pm

      Hi Lindsay,

      No shelter is safe in the face of a force of nature like a tornado except maybe an underground bunker. With that caveat aside, tiny houses are over-built and very safe in many respects. Portland Alternative Dwellings builds to international building codes and uses high-tension ties (“hurricane-straps”) to secure the framing so that these tiny houses can endure towing down the road at 60+ mph and handle all of the vibrations and stressors that come with roadway travel. Our primary worry in this area are earthquakes and the tiny house would endure that very well since its already on wheels. Similarly, with advanced notice of something like a hurricane or a wildfire, one could hitch up the house and evacuate.

      I do remember reading that Katrina Cottages were built with some cement siding material in the Gulf region and could withstand 140 mph wind, but I’m not sure how that data was acquired. Also, Katrina Cottages are not built on wheels but instead are on a foundation.

  • Delores September 28, 2011, 7:46 pm

    Those pictures are yummy. I can smell the fresh wood and excitement.

  • Yan | Towards simplicity September 29, 2011, 2:20 am

    This was a great post. A tiny house would not work for my family but the lessons you’ve laid out are universally applicable. Thank you for the reminder about patience.

  • Mike Simmons September 29, 2011, 1:19 pm

    OK I’ll ask the question that no one else has asked. Probably due to the fact they have for more manners and proper etiquette than myself. With that in mind here it is. With the changes in plans, construction and the purchase of your final nick knacks, what would you estimate the final costs off your tiny house?

    • Tammy Strobel September 29, 2011, 1:32 pm

      @Mike – Approximately $30,000. Maybe a little bit more. 🙂

      • Mike Simmons September 29, 2011, 1:42 pm

        That is awesome! Congrats!

      • Joe3 October 10, 2011, 12:19 am


  • Victoria September 29, 2011, 6:57 pm

    “Even though people said we should…”

    Isn’t it funny how everyone is an expert on how we “should” do whatever it is we’re trying to do? Good for you to recognize your instincts and follow them! A good lesson for us all.

  • Kane September 30, 2011, 1:15 am


    The house looks gorgeous I bet you are both desperate to move into your new home, I know I would be. Congratulations and well done you two.

    Now at the risk of being a little flippant, your correspondent adopts a cheeky grin and hopes he doesn’t get barred, the other week Logan said you sounded like a Chipmunk, this week it was bird impressions. I was just wondering if you had plans to mimmic any other species before the build finishes? 😉

    OK I’ll get my coat then.

  • Mike | Homeless On Wheels October 2, 2011, 12:38 pm

    Have you settled on a site for it yet? When’s moving day (for the house) and better yet, when do you get to start living in it?

    • Tammy Strobel October 3, 2011, 7:47 am

      @Mike – We’re moving to a spot in North Portland and the house should be ready in mid-October. I don’t have a specific move in date. But we’ll be in the home by the end of the month! I’m so excited.