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Finding Sustainability in a Tiny House

By Nick Lioudis

In the summer of 2017, I drove north to Waterford, Maine in search of seclusion away from the claustrophobia of New York. As my compact rental car took a sharp left down a dark, winding dirt road, I began to consider the horror movie implications of my decision until I reached my destination – no more than 400 square feet of structural sanctuary. It was a tiny house, a marvel of architecture adapted over centuries, yet has only recently infiltrated television, Instagram and evidently, my perspective on what it means to be sustainable.

The qualifications for being considered a “tiny house” are fairly uncomplicated. It should be a fully functional home, only significantly smaller, and as a product of its limited space, built more efficiently than its traditional counterparts. Some have electricity and plumbing, but purists may scoff at that luxury. My air conditioning came in the form of free shade offered by the surrounding forest and misty breezes coming off the nearby Crooked River.

Arguably the greatest feature was that which could not be seen. In my home, there was no wasted space. I could stand in the living room, kitchen and bedroom all at once. Stairs that led up to a loft bed doubled as shelves for storing books or small appliances. The bed lifted to reveal a compartment for clothing and linens.

It was three days of solitary bliss, and ultimately gave me the higher level of emotional grounding I needed. Yet, it also made me question the prevailing concept of sustainability as not only a focus on energy usage ratings and carbon emissions, each of which matter tremendously, but its greater ties to our humanity, a “Reiki soup for the soul” ideology.

At first, the idea of finding any deeper meaning in the form of a wood-planked box felt irrational, but it became more logical the longer I stayed. Being there, I could somehow transcend time; work, current events and politics didn’t matter and I was able to find stability by stripping away its perceived conventions.

Ryan Gosling proved in Lars and the Real Girl that nothing good can come of loving an inanimate object, but I was enamored with this house, its gray roof and green door surrounded by accents of yellow-orange trim, all because of what it represented – an elusive, sustained feeling of solace.

Love makes you do crazy things, like venture down an Internet rabbit hole uncovering the origins of the tiny house phenomenon and its roots in emotional sustainability. Tiny houses are not only the social media-fueled trend we know them as today, but rather a multi-decade movement.

A ridiculously abbreviated history is that during the 1980s people of all backgrounds, arguably inspired by the re-emergence of Henry David Thoreau’s poignant Walden, fled to nature to build their own version of off-the-grid serenity. Their motivations were no different than mine – a nagging sense of static that only abrupt change could remedy. Lester Walker’s 1987 book, Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All, captured those emotions through its author’s relationship with these structures.

The U.S. housing crisis of the late 2000s only strengthened Walker’s views, as those who lost everything were suddenly asked to recalibrate their definition of “home.” An energy-consuming status symbol was no longer the endgame; it was an about-face with the significant reality that materialism can be both fragile and fleeting. Instead, people wanted a space where they could reconnect internally and with nature. 

Through the publication of the Tiny House Blog, founded by Kent Griswold, followed by scores of other true believers, a theme emerged: Tiny houses meant that we didn’t have to imagine an unaffordable escape “down the line,” that we could create our own wherever and whenever we wanted.

Yes, I may have only spent a few nights at Crooked River, but I don’t think I’m overstating its significance for me and others as a spiritual awakening. It also made me appreciate Thoreau and Walker’s rationale for the self-realizations that can be found by reconnecting with nature. 

Another way to describe it is that my tiny house experience offered the less talked about form of sustainability — inner peace. It gave me the emotional freedom I knew I always needed, but could not clearly grasp, and the best part was that it didn’t have to come as the expense of overextending my environment, or myself.

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