Small Space, Big Life: A family shows how large love fits in a tiny home

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Illustration by Mike L. Perry

by Natasha Alvarez

My love affair with tiny houses started when I was tiny myself. Delighted by all things small, I spent hours playing with my dollhouse as a achild, imagining whole lives for the Lilliputian family that lived inside. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I could just shrink myself to fit inside that itty-bitty home.

Later, forts and tents were my specialty. A broomstick, a mop and a sheet were the makings of my own personal world. But by far, my favorite makeshift dwelling was an old forsythia bush in the backyard, its tangle of branches perfectly arranged to leave a hollow room in the center, just big enough for me and my little sister to create an entire universe for ourselves. Small spaces offered my shy young self shelter from a sometimes harsh world. 

In college, I met my husband. We fell in love over tattered copies of On the Roadand The Dharma Bums, and left school seeking a more “shack simple” kind of existence. For awhile our home was an ancient Subaru station wagon with a mattress in the back. Those four tires carried us across the country, and we spent many nights watching through the car window as the full moon moved across the sky against the backdrop of a million stars. So, when we moved into an 8’ by 10’ wall tent in upstate New York a few months after our wedding, it felt like a mansion with its tiny, toasty woodstove and its cozy loft bed. When we stepped outside for more firewood at night, the walls glowed with a warm, inviting light.

And all the while, through those years of travels and tiny houses, we were learning. About nature and ecology, about gardening and farming, about living in a way that was more sustainable and less harmful to an already overtaxed earth.

But we missed our families, so when we had the chance to move back to our hometown and turn my parents’ one-car garage into a new tiny home, we jumped at the chance. We collected materials from auctions and second-hand shops, scoured junkyards and dumps. We designed and built it with our own hands, of almost entirely second hand materials. A beautiful space fashioned from the cast-offs of other, larger homes.

In 180 square feet, my husband and I have thrown parties and hosted dinners, completed projects and created art, fought, made up, made love. Our son was born here, right at the foot of our queen-sized bed. All the life that plays out inside a larger house happens here, just in a more intimate way.

It can be a challenge to fit family life into a space this small. Living in a tiny house with a child is nothing like it was when my husband and I were alone. It’s messy and noisy, there are always toys underfoot and near constant clean-up is required to make it through the day.

Many people think we’re crazy to live the way we do, all bunched up under this little roof. And I don’t blame them for wondering how we do it. The average size home built last year in the U.S. was a whopping 2,600 square feet, a record even by American standards, behemoth McMansions requiring massive amounts of resources to heat, cool, light and maintain.

When I get irritated with our cramped quarters, or fed up with a lack of personal space, I remember that most of the people in the world live in spaces even smaller than mine, and certainly many are not as nice, or as dry, or as cozy. I remind myself how little we need to work to pay our bills, which allows us more time to do what we love, and gives us more precious moments to spend with our son. I think about the resources we’re not using here, how little heat is required to warm our one room, how a candle lights it right up, and I feel rich in ways even a mansion could never make me feel.

We may be small on space, but that allows us to be big on life. And for that I am thankful.

Natasha Alvarez is a head instructor at The Susquehanna Forest School, a project dedicated to helping kids fall in love with the natural world. You can read more of her work at theyearofblackclothing.wordpress.com