Almost two years ago one of the gyros that kept my life on track suddenly malfunctioned, and for a while my life was spinning out of control. Luckily I had a lot of friends and family to serve as a trouble-shooting ground control, and I’ve steadied. It’s been a very hard year. My daughter Zora moved with her Mom to Slovakia in July, and I’m in a position I have not been in for a long time, with the road ahead uncertain and open. Such transition!
Early on in the spinning times, I knew my living situation would have to change. Zora’s Mom and I rented a house to “bird-nest” in, swapping in and out, until they moved. It allowed Zora some consistency, and it worked out that we all had some space to regroup. I spent a lot of time on friend’s couches or in guest rooms. While probably a burden on them, I valued the casual time we got to spend together. I like living with people!
Our lease ran a year, and then they would move and after that I had no place to go. I didn’t really want to rent again, but I also left home-ownership a year earlier with some ambivalence…it’s great unless you value your free time! I wanted something in-between. I wanted to downsize. I wasn’t afraid of a little debt, as long as it was manageable and would be paid off sometime before my student loans (which are set to finish around the time the Sun expands into a Red Giant, some million years hence). I wanted to live smaller, one because I imagined it would be simpler and easier and two because I always felt that what Americans considered small houses were still mansions compared to many other places in the world, and thus unnecessary for sheltering a good, examined life.
I had been interested in alternative house construction for a while, ever since I stumbled on a book about straw-bale houses back in 2002. I’d still love to live in a straw-bale house. Such a nice antidote to the right angles of drywall, and very energy efficient. But building a stationary house now, at a time when my future direction was uncertain, was not going to happen. And I wanted to go smaller. Much smaller. Like 200 square feet. And I needed to preserve some mobility. I started looking into Tiny Houses, those little cabins built on trailer beds, but the cost was prohibitive. Then I stumbled on a website (I can’t remember which one) about a renovated airstream. Thus the idea was born. I’d get an old travel trailer and have it renovated, modestly, into a tiny home.
But where would I put it? At the time, my friend Jeff was organizing an egg co-op on a parcel of land in the city zoned for industrial use. I talked to him about it, and he loved the idea of someone living on-site to keep watch over the hens, solar panels, and other parts of the community project. That didn’t end up working out, mostly because of a few lines of city code we never found in our initial search, but at the time it seemed like a good idea and I went ahead with the planning.
After a few months of searching I found a 1947 Spartan Manor shell in Utah, and an outfit near Salt Lake City willing to build it up into a nice off-the-grid homestead-on-wheels. When it was done, it would have a birch and alder interior with real linoleum floors (in a fab chartreuse color), a solar-electric system for power needs, a small propane range and oven, a super-efficient fridge and freezer under the counter…all the comforts of home, really, just in a smaller space.
I got the measurements from the renovator and drew it to scale on some graph paper. Then I copied that, and started sketching. I wanted an open floorplan as much as possible. The interior space was only 23 by eight feet. With funds somewhat limited, I wanted to use some off-the shelf furnishings from Ikea, especially their Kallax storage units. Since Zora will join me on her summer vacations, I wanted her to have a small private room…it made sense to do that in the back. The other enclosed space was the bathroom, which would have a composting toilet and a camping shower until phase two, somewhere down the line, when I’d add an on-demand hot-water heater and pressurized water. Heat would be provided by a wood stove over the wheel well. Only two pieces of furniture would come with me: an antique chest we used to use as a hearth bench by our old wood stove, and an Ikea chair. Everything else would have to go. Here is my blueprint:
Surprisingly, I managed to get an RV loan for the project from the great folks at a local bank. Work began. I had to research every aspect of how I would live. I didn’t realize or fully appreciate, however, how much I would have to relearn. Here is a photo of the interior restoration as it progressed:
This was months ago now. It was delivered in September, and then I spent a few months, and thousands more dollars, to finish it. Work is ongoing. It’s an adventure. I’m learning a lot. This blog is about the Spartan Manor and my project to live more lightly, and by my own wits.
My goal: live with less, more lightly on the earth, and more cheaply. And have a house on wheels that I can move out of the way when the oceans rise and cities fall. (That was a joke. Kinda.)
Welcome to #trailerlife!