Making the Most of Our Little House in the Big Woods

How we successfully transformed what we thought would be a small, temporary cabin into our little house in the big woods.
By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
December 2009/January 2010
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Kerri and Dale’s small summer cabin turned out to be a perfect full-time residence. It has become their little house in the big woods.
PHOTO: KEVIN PIEPER
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Remember the game of Twister? You put your feet and hands on different colored circles, which sometimes ties the players up in knots, and if you fall off of the space, you lose.

Often when I’m getting up for a bowl of ice cream in the evening, or especially when I get up in the middle of the night, I feel as though I’m playing Twister. Place my foot on the wrong spot, and I’m stubbing a toe on the dresser, tripping over a pair of shoes left in the wrong spot, or — worse yet — stepping on a dog’s paw or tail.

Still, I wouldn’t trade our 480-square-foot house in the country for the largest of McMansions in the suburbs.

Our “Little House in the Big Woods” — the moniker my sister-in-law has given our tiny dwelling in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains on Bull Shoals Lake — wasn’t originally intended to be a full-time residence. Sometimes, though, some of the best things that happen in life aren’t planned. Our little house was intended, and used for four years, as a getaway for me, my husband, and our four dogs to escape our lives in the city.

Our original dream of living in the Big Woods involved a second house on our nearly 10 acres — not a mansion by any means, but large enough for us and my elderly mother. The Little House was to be a guesthouse and my writing studio.

On New Year’s Eve heading into 2007, we made the resolution to make our dream a reality. We began ridding our lives of unnecessary clutter. Our plans changed, however, when my mother passed away. Now, instead of my mother, I had only her antiques and heirlooms to take to the Big Woods.

After our bills were settled, our plans for another house had to be downsized. Building costs had skyrocketed in the time since we’d finished the Little House, and even an addition to the small dwelling might have been outside of our financial comfort zone. Two builders told us we couldn’t build up, or onto, the house on three of the most desirable sides because of the roofline. We felt an addition to the remaining side would take away from the place’s charm, so we scrubbed the entire plan of having a larger house.

The rest, as they say, is history. We decided to take a shot at living in the 480-square-foot Little House.

Adjusting to Life in 480 Square Feet

Life in the Little House was stressful at first, to put it mildly. I work from home, so our 10-by-10-foot bedroom suddenly had to double as my office. We had no room for a bed, so the futon we had bought to sleep on for short weekend stays had to do. Working in the bedroom was akin to working while sitting in an airplane seat, and notes and papers needed for my stories usually fell from my lap and became a jumbled heap on the floor.

It took us more than a year to come up with an alternative plan to building a new house or building on, but we finally decided to construct a large metal garage to house my mother’s heirlooms and other items I couldn’t bear to part with just yet. We also built a separate 320-square-foot office with a basement that doubles as a storage space and a tornado shelter, something we thought very important after a tornado in 2008 cut a wide swath through a town less than 20 miles away. We did it all for less than what it would have cost for the addition to the Little House.

An Unintended Downsize Makes the Perfect Fit

There were days (and admittedly, we still have some) when we didn’t think we did anything right in planning our move, but there were decisions we made that — by sheer good luck — ended up working to our advantage.

When we built the Little House, we knew we would use it primarily in the summer months, and we didn’t want to install a furnace system, which would add significant costs to building our retreat. We did install a small woodburning stove, which was sufficient to heat the entire building. We built the house with the best insulation we could manage, as well as with 2-by-6 walls, instead of the code’s required 2-by-4. By heating the house using only the woodburning stove, we significantly reduced our utility bill for the remainder of winter.

We also had the foresight to allow for as much closet space as possible and put in the kitchen cabinets I wanted, as well as heavy-duty laminate flooring that would withstand a few years of trampling by large dog paws and boots stained with the red clay and rock from this part of the country. Even while on vacation, I didn’t want to worry about dragging our clothes back and forth from the city, so I insisted that the house have space for a washer and dryer.

Quite by accident, we ended up with a fully-equipped and beautiful (albeit tiny) dream house. In addition, I have a spacious writing studio that gets me out of the house, making me feel like I work away from home — only without the commute and with my dogs by my side and a beautiful view of the woods, mountains, and wildlife on our property.

A Trend Toward Small Houses

We’ve never been what would be called “trendy.” In this instance, though, it seems small houses are becoming more popular, so I don’t mind being part of that trend.

Gregory Paul Johnson, president of the Small House Society based in Iowa City, Iowa, says there are many people interested in living in smaller dwellings. While his organization claims about 1,000 members, he says his website, ResourcesForLife.com, received 70,000 hits after he did an interview on National Public Radio. Kent Griswold, a blogger in Heldsburg, Calif., who runs the site Tiny House Blog, says his site gets an average of 2,500 hits per day.

For some people, the interest in small homes may be primarily financial; for others, environmental; or for some, it may be mobility, as many people use RVs as their primary residence.

Regardless of why you may be considering a small house, there’s a lot we’ve learned that you may find helpful. Here are a few tips based on our experiences that may help your move go more smoothly.

If you can, try out a small house for as long as possible. We rented cabins of different sizes in order to decide how much space we would need. As we found out, though, spending one to two weeks on vacation is much different from actually living somewhere. We wish now that we had extended the living room and bedroom as far as our covered front porch. While it’s only 6 more feet, it would have made a huge difference when placing furniture.

Can’t decide what to get rid of, or have sentimental items you can’t bear to part with? Rent a storage locker, set a deadline for yourself, and then decide what you really need to keep.

Utilize outdoor spaces such as decks, patios, and porches to provide space for entertaining or to create a quiet space. Our deck is about half the size of the house, and the covered front porch allows us to enjoy the outdoors even when it’s raining.

Have a place for everything and everything in its place. This is most important in small spaces. Add as many shelves, cubby holes, and built-ins as possible to conserve space and preserve your sanity.

I’m not that into fashion or home decor, but I do have a fall/winter bedspread and shower curtains and a different set of each for spring/summer. These truly transform the house with a new look each season, and make it seem less confined.

Build the house using the most sustainable materials and with the most advanced energy conservation methods possible. The idea is to live better and smarter — not just for yourself, but also for the planet. That’s why we built a well-insulated home and bought energy-efficient appliances. Many also opt to build so they can live independent of utility companies. I have nearby friends who use solar power or have no electricity at all. Again, find your comfort level and what you can afford to do.

Purge your mail, paperwork, and other clutter regularly and ruthlessly. Keeping a small house tidy does wonders to make it feel less cramped and more homey. Cancel all unwanted catalogs by calling the companies or going to Catalog Choice. Sign up for online statements and bill paying. You’ll eventually see a great reduction in mail. The two other added benefits: You’ll help protect the environment, and you’ll save money in postage!

You can find even more ideas for successfully living in a small home and learn more about our Little House in the Big Woods at Living Large In Our Little House.


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Post a comment below.

 

Bradson
5/20/2014 1:01:04 AM
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HELENE WALLIS
1/19/2012 6:07:15 PM
The people who are quibbling about the size of the author's added buildings might remember that in past times, it was common to have basements, plus sheds, barns and other outbuildings to store equipment and things that were not regularly used. The only way to live in that small a space without added storage areas is to buy your food from supermarkets instead of growing it yourself (and canning or freezing it), and to buy your clothing from department stores instead of making it yourself. Being even remotely self-sufficient requires space for equipment and materials, and it requires space for storing food. In addition, most people work in spaces that are far larger and more energy consuming than the author's 320 square foot office

MONICA BLANEY
1/18/2012 6:35:12 PM
Thanks

victorian1111
5/18/2011 7:23:30 AM
I was a bit disappointed in this article as some others mentioned they added on additional buildings and a basement. I live in a 460 square foot house. I've lived here for 12 years. No add ons. I have a washer(no dryer), electric space heaters to heat in Northeast Ohio winters. One bedroom 7 x10 feet. No office or basement or attic. 3 pets, had 4 for the first 11 years. I have people say "I don't know how you could live like that" and I think, I don't know how you can live like you do with all the bills and stress. I love my home. The neighbors have the same size house and have 5 people and 2 pets living in it and they are happy as well. I'm so disappointed when I read about "small" homes that are 2000 sq. feet. I found an article once on a small home about 400 sq feet then they went on to say how they reduced the footprint and then added they use it as a guest house. How is that reducing anything? That just added on to what they had.

Diana_25
5/18/2011 12:49:24 AM
I feel like I'm reading the story about what my husband and I are doing right now. We're building a 640 sq ft house (no storage units) on 9 acres in the Ouachita Mountains in Southeast Oklahoma. We decided to leave the Dallas area and downsize. We're doing all the building ourselves and I'm taking a reading break now from decluttering and packing so we can officially move this weekend. I always get so excited and even emotional when I read of others who are successfully doing the same thing and loving it. Thanks for sharing!

Marcijoe
5/17/2011 7:31:36 PM
Ive been living in my 488 sq. ft. home since 1983. It sits on 1.25 acres. I wanted a little land and a small house. It's been a perfect fit. Now that I retired I can spend my days outside in the gardens and have a minimum of house work. Utility bills and taxes (I live in New Jersey) are kept pretty much to a minimum. I live 20 min. from Philadelphia if I wish to go into the city. I'm close to the Jersey shore or the Pocono mountains. I feel that I pretty much have the best location in the country. I love my little house and its location.

Victoria Gazeley
5/17/2011 1:37:16 PM
I think this is a realistic amount of space for 'downsizing'. Sure, there are more extreme examples, but most people aren't going to attempt the 'extreme' (like 2 people living in 300 square feet). We live in 580 square feet (see our little house at modernhomesteading.ca) and have had to be be pretty brutal with not collecting things. That said, I have a child and with a child comes a certain amount of stuff. But we're comfortable. What I can't imagine is 6 people living in a house this size, which wasn't all that uncommon back in the day. By North American standards, the house in this article is TINY - in our part of the world, 3500 square feet and up is pretty standard... So kudos to anyone who makes a serious attempt to live a smaller footprint - IMHO, this shouldn't be a competition, but an encouraging place to share ideas...

~Melody
5/17/2011 12:52:21 PM
I have to agree with jodi_8 on this... I do not feel that their living space qualifies them to be living in a "small home". Just because the main part of their living area is 420 sq ft, that is NOT the only living space they have... If you were to tell someone in New York City, or most other large cities for that matter, that they can have 800 sq ft of space for living and office space PLUS a basement AND a storage building, they would jump on it!

Bill Goodrich
5/17/2011 10:52:04 AM
For very reasonable additional storage, consider a sea container. These come in 8'X 20'or 40'long X 8'high and 9'-6" high. Mobile storage sellers will deliver to your location. You should be able to obtain one in the 3K range. They are sturdy and you have just recyled a hunk of metal. They will also modify them for you; repaint, add doors, insulate, wire them, or pretty much anything you can think of.

Maine Blueberries
3/31/2010 3:20:40 PM
I too live in a 480 sq ft (off grid) house on the coast of Maine. It is so encouraging to hear of others living everyday lives in efficient spaces. Let's keep getting the word out there that this IS doable and so beneficial. One incredulous banker looked at the plans and photos and asked, "where will you put the new things you buy?" Well isn't that kind of the point? Don't buy things you don't need!

Jerry N_1
3/31/2010 12:39:55 PM
Ok, this has been driving me nuts since I read the article in the magazine (which I really enjoyed). It seems to me that the house shwon in photo 1 of the picture gallery and the one in photo 5 can't possibly be the same house. The fascia seem different, and the orientation of the porch's/roofs, etc. can't be different angles of the same house. I thought, well, maybe one is Kerri's office, but neither of the exterior photos seem like they'd match up with the way the windows appear in the interior shot of the office. Am I nuts? Are the pictures from different times (before/after mods)? Is one a completely different building not mentioned? If Kerri or anyone else has an answer, it'll save me from staring at the pictures night after night!! Thanks, and again, very enjoyable article -- made me dream of trying it myself. Cheers, Jerry N

Jodi_8
2/12/2010 11:14:08 AM
While this is an admirable effort, I'm not really that impressed. 480 square feet plus a 320 square foot office equals 800 square feet: not really that small for two people, just a little under what the average FAMILY home in the US used to be. Plus they've built a storage shed of unspecified square footage for possessions that they can't get rid of. Part of the deal of living in a really small space is getting rid of the extraneous. That requires real effort. There are a lot of other much more compelling stories out there about living in REALLY small spaces. I'd encourage MEN to feature them instead.

Sheila_21
2/6/2010 8:18:06 AM
I'm so thrilled to find someone that is doing exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm encouraged by what has been written here, and the questions I had about exterior buildings, maybe being an answer to some of my problems, really helped me a lot. I'm much more confident now about adding the buildings I had considered, and the information here took all of the stress of the situation and tossed it right out the window. Since this will be our home for the rest of our lives, it was important for us to be sure of our decisions right up front. I couldn't agree more, with you suggestion to use the best materials, when it comes to insulation and things of that nature, because once done, you never have to worry about it again. What a releif. My home is quite small, 12 x 32, however it meets all of our needs, and with the small additional building 12 x 12 we are adding in the back of our home later this fall, it will be more than perfect for us, while maintaining it's small stature. You have answered ALL of my concerns about my new small home, and I just wanted to say THANK YOU so very much for sharing your experiences with us.

Chris_62
1/6/2010 7:16:59 PM
For anyone wondering if they can liuve with 400 sq ft or less, may I recommend visiting an rv show and checking out the large 5th wheel, motoirhomes and trailers, all by law are 400 sq ft or less. Every convenience that is in my 2200 sq ft home can be found in one of these. I priced a 36ft Americana 5th wheel, fully equipped, 2 tv's washer dryer, fireplace, king size bed, even a small freezer for less than 55K. With "park models" the cost is even less. The living room due to multiple slide outs measured 12 x 14 ft and park modeels have residential appliances, but require a/c power. Trailers can be rented quite cheaply (in ploace) for the cost of a ticket (under $10) you'll get a lot of good ideas. You'll be quite surprised what you can do with $40K and 400 sq ft. I was. Lots of used units available too.

Trish_4
1/6/2010 2:39:43 PM
I would like to help Sherry Sabine and others.. The article has the small words IMAGE that when you click on it, there are ample ohotos for your viewing pleasure... This feature will usually be present in most articles... Huggss!!!

Diane_46
1/6/2010 11:16:09 AM
We also live in a small house on the coast of Maine. Little did we know we were part of a trend when we downsized 4 years ago from our medium sized house in NJ where we raised our sons. My husband has built 2 small outbuildings - a shed/greenhouse for him and a 1 room "cottage" for my aromatherapy business. We share our house with a dachshund and a yellow lab. It is cozy for the 4 of us. We look out on the Passagasawakaeg River and enjoy beautiful sunsets. We have a deck to entertain on in the summer and have "intimate" gatherings in the winter. Keeping "stuff" to a minimum is very cleansing for the soul. Our little house on the coast is perfect!

Sherry Sabine
1/6/2010 9:22:22 AM
While I appreciate this article and was drawn to it immediately upon opening my email, I have to say it's shocking in today's digital world for a writer not to realize that photo images and/or video are vital go-alongs with just about any article - especially one that attempts to explain how one manages to live in such a tiny space! It would be more helpful to the readers to have photo's of the inside of this wonderful little cabin than a solitary one of the outside.

The Herbangardener
11/12/2009 11:34:19 AM
Wow! 480 sq. feet! That's impressive. We live in a 650 sq foot apartment, and while we don't have any large furniture to make it feel too cramped, we also don't have a washer or dryer! With such a small space, it can get messy VERY quickly. I really struggle to stay on top of the day-to-day clutter. But I'd gladly live in a tiny house for the rest of my life if it meant I could live in the country! The author is very lucky! ~The Herbangardener~ Kitchen/Garden/Sanctuary - Urban Homesteading to Nourish Body + Spirit www.herbangardener.com








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