Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Small Space, Good Space

No 30-year mortgage for me, please
For the past few days I have buried myself in house research. It's not that we can afford to purchase one anytime soon, but I've suddenly grown a deep interest in matters of house design and mortgages. Probably has to do with the fact that some of our friends recently purchased new houses, which got me thinking about the financial aspect of it. I'm certain that I do not want to go the route of a $150,000+ 2/1 or 2/2 house, standard 30-year mortgage, sizable down payment. We'd also have to work our butts off to make sure our credit is good enough for a decent interest rate. Sure, it's part of the American Dream to own your own spacious house, but I don't like the idea of being in such great debt for most of my adult life. Even if it means not being able to amass a collection of mid-century modern furniture, limited run prints, a solid set of All-Clad pots/pans, a Kitchenaid stand mixer, fancy lighting, and all that DWR/CB2/IKEA jazz. Basically, trying to convince myself and visitors that I am cultured and have good taste. Apartment Therapy? Did you know that with interest factored in, you end up paying 2-3x the original amount after all is said and done? What could be done with all that extra money? I can think of a few things: traveling, saving up for future kids' college funds, investing, working less, retiring early. But is there a way out? I've been googling "house cheaper alternative," but haven't gotten many good results. Houseboats looked promising, but after looking at some real estate prices in Portland and Marin County, it looks as though houseboats are not a cheaper alternative, at least in America. Trailers definitely are, but there's still a trashy element to them (only by stereotype), not to mention that they would be unsafe in very inclement weather. As much as I love (receiving doughnuts and other desserts from) shiny Airstreams, I couldn't see us and our two cats residing in one. And then renting for our whole lives wouldn't make that much sense either, as we would own nothing in the end.

Austin homes
There are about four types of houses you can get in these parts, from observation: old (pre-1950's), cookie-cutter suburban, new-ish bland (1950-2000), and new modern (2000-present). I'm sure there are more official terms, but whatever. I definitely prefer old and new modern the most, but as I have lived in old front-porched houses for the past few years, I can attest to their poor insulation and general dilapidation. And it's nearly impossible to make a house that old look really clean with their aged stains and worn surfaces, short of remodeling. They've got a laid-back, dirty charm, which I've had more than my fill of. So then there's new modern. Those boxy, slanted, multi-paneled, giant-windowed, and sometimes moody structures. They really give off the sense of the faraway future. I think people are drawn towards them because they are such a radical departure from what we as a culture are used to categorizing as a house- closed rooms, aligned windows, brick, wood, 3d rectangle convention. If aliens studied Earth buildings and then looked at an array of modern homes, they might get a little confused, right? Anyway, as dashing as these are, they are also a pretty penny. At more than $200 per square foot, only the wealthy could afford them, while poorer admirers and experts adore or criticize. After all, it's a look, and there doesn't have to be any practical design anywhere. They may also have a tendency towards gloomy, anti-human feeling. Definite risk. On a side note, I think there should be more modern public buildings built, so that everyone can experience non-humdrum architecture and design. Spaces really do affect the way we feel.

Another take
One house trend that has really caught my eye is tiny houses. As I tend towards minimalism and am a believer in owning less stuff, this concept is still a challenge to wrap my head around. One company at the movement's forefront, Tumbleweed Houses, makes houses that range from 65-140 square feet, in the "teeny house" category. That is really small. Most homeowners' master bedroom closets or bathrooms engulf that space. What intrigues me about this is the efficient design of such a small space. The largest model in that category, the Fencl, at 130 square feet, has a loft bedroom, bathroom, full-size shower, sitting room, kitchen, and plenty of shelving. That's not to say that you can own the same amount of stuff as the next American. But it is the definition of frugal living, as utility bills are next to zero, and maintenance costs are low, which makes it very green. Another argument for tiny home living is that it encourages you to go outside and build a community and do other things that really matter. Personally, I have always been the type to hole up in my room out of comfort, but that doesn't allow me to accomplish much. And in such a small place, you won't have to worry much about how to arrange the furniture, and what looks good where, because you won't even really have movable furniture. It might just be me, but I abhor that task when moving in to a new place, since I'd rather there just be an obvious place for everything. But in general, you must change the way you think about house design and day to day living. Here's an article about a Portlander who downsized to a Tumbleweed tiny house. Of course, there are a few major drawbacks to this sort of tiny house. Mainly, that we wouldn't go for woodsy Americana architecture in a house. Here's a beach version that I adore. And we probably would not want to live in a portable trailer, since we don't have a desire to tow it around different places. And the pricing is somewhat skewed at $400+ per square foot. And, if/when we want to have kids in the far future, what then? It would definitely get crowded. And really, is it simply too small? To be honest, this is the house I would live in if I was sure I was never going to have a family, and if I was more serious about having less of an impact on the Earth's resources.

What if we made this lifestyle change to live in a small space? Could I part with most of my belongings? Last weekend I devoted an afternoon to decluttering our shelves and closets. The result was a bag of clothing headed for Goodwill, and several bags of trash. In general, we try to keep the stuff level down, as we are prepared to move each year. I started thinking, what is the shortest list I could make for personal belongings I could pare down to...

- Personal diaries, from 2002-2010
- Wedding photo albums (2)
- Small file cabinet of personal documents
- Pilot and Uni-ball rolling ball ink pens
- 2 cameras: Canon Rebel G, Fujifilm Instax; and a box of film
- My hand-sewn pillow
- Mandolin
- Nalgene (Screw that! Klean Kanteen!)
- iMac
- Backup hard drive
- 10 favorite books: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, Persepolis, His Dark Materials Trilogy, In Cold Blood, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Les Miserables, Slaughterhouse-Five
- Furminator
- Kitchen stuffs (I need a lot here): New West Knifeworks chef knife, small cutting board, 2 baking sheets, Silpat, rice cooker, shears, set of 4 Corningware dishes and plates, 9" nonstick square baking pan, 15" Pyrex pan, pie pan, silicone spatula, bamboo spatula, 12" nonstick pan, 2 Cuisinart stainless steel pots with lids (1.5 and 3.5 quart), medium IKEA stainless steel mixing bowl, large IKEA stainless steel mixing bowl, plastic colander, a few favorite mugs, recipe folder
- Camping equipment: backpacking tent, down sleeping bag, head lamp, camp towel, MSR stove, pot/pan set, Golite backpack
- Clothing: 10 shirts, 2 jeans, 2 shorts, black leggings, 10 socks, 10 undies, 2 wool sweaters, a few dresses, wool jacket, Patagonia rain jacket, Marmot wind jacket, Vibram Five Fingers, Vans Authentic
- Bags: a few cotton totes for groceries, Beckel Canvas duffle, Domke camera bag
- Bike
That's it! I think B would not like the idea of even making such a list, as he loves his books. But I have promised him walls of shelves.

In short, I love the idea of a tiny house, but I am looking for slightly larger, more modern options with a foundation. It might also be a problem of zoning laws/ building permits, and how rooms have to be above a certain size. The solution is a trade-off between size and privacy. Would you live in a place without closed-off rooms? Currently, we live in an upstairs duplex at around 800 square feet, built circa 1920. Any larger and I would get fed up with cleaning, but I could see us going smaller, albeit it would mean letting go of our newly acquired IKEA furniture. We could do it, though. I am an amateur in house design, and the more I tool around in Google SketchUp, the more I see why people go to school to study this field. I am eager to see the development and direction of home ownership in the next few years, as more and more people downsize and think outside of the American Dream, taking hints from European housing. It's a huge step in simplifying your life so you can do the things you love to do.


Rachel B said...

I would love a small house with a full-size kitchen and a place to put a piano.

Rachel B said...

My cousin, the one that reminds me of you, just moved into one of these houses: http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2008/10/found_materials_give_these_new.html

a link to her blog: http://refreshrenewexplore.com/blog/

I am presently enamored with the idea...just imagine how little you'd have to clean!

Rachel B said...

Also, an article about how happiness is related to the way you spend your money (rather than the amount of money you make): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

Fern said...

Oh, I'm so jealous of Rachel in PDX! Their housing situation looks awesome! I really doubt B would live in a house under 200 sq ft (think of the poor cats!), but nearer to 400 sounds absolutely doable.

Yeah, I saw that article circulating around the tiny house blog. It's so true that experiences are so much more valuable and enjoyable to reflect back on than things. Also, Tammy and her husband look like they don't like furniture, huh, as that photo shows so much floor space...