How I Decided to Build a Tiny House

Reader Contribution by Liz Coakley
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Throughout my twenties, I worked on farms in and around Ithaca, New York. Every morning I’d hop on my bike or into my car, or, in a few ideal situations, walk out my front door, and make my way to the farm. In the evenings, tired and dirty, with a bunch of Swiss chard or a few tomatoes in hand, I’d make my way back home.

Home. Home to an apartment or a shared house or a cabin in the woods. Home to a bedroom and a communal kitchen, a table on the back porch, a hand-pumped well by the front door, a row of peas in the yard, a clothesline. Home to roommates who cook dinner and chat, friends who want to bike to town for a game of cards at a local bar. Home to a roommate who is silent, who talks too much, who I secretly hope is always out. Home to solitude. Home to my patient dog.

2005-2013. Nine years. Twelve homes. Fifteen roommates with fourteen pets.

Mostly, I found this fulfilling. I liked the change; I liked setting up in a new space, creating a dynamic with the people around me, discovering the closest swimming holes and coffee shops. But moving is exhausting, and although I didn’t realize it, it was wearing me down. Packing, unpacking, finding the things I needed, storing once again the things I didn’t really need. The last time I packed my belongings and shuffled boxes out the door without letting out my roommates’ cats, I knew I was done with it. All I wanted was a space of my own.

Before the Build

After years of farming on other people’s land—learning from experienced growers, arriving each morning to pull as many carrots as I could before the end of the day, or negotiating land rental agreements to grow out my own marketable crops—my long-term goal became to buy land to farm for myself. As I yearned for a living space of my own, I also knew that until I had corresponding land of my own, I wasn’t interested in the commitment of buying a house on a foundation. Maybe the process was backwards—to build a house and carry it along with me until I had my land—but a tiny house on wheels made a lot of sense to me.

So began the journey towards my tiny house. I wasn’t a tiny house fanatic. I didn’t know a lot about tiny houses, or spend hours on the Internet considering my options. I had seen pictures, listened to a friend talk about his tiny house as he built. I understood, without doing a lot of research, that I could afford to build a house like this on my farmer’s income.

My first step was to learn to build. I’ve built a few passable chicken coops in my day, but until I started my tiny house, I’d never held a circular saw or a power sander. I never considered the option of having a house built for me. Much of the allure of this project was the learning process, and the creation of my own home. From the start, I was excited that learning to build my home could make me a better farmer.

I quickly got on a waiting list for a weekend tiny house course in Boston, but I doubted that I could learn to build a house in two days. Long before I got off that waiting list, I bumped into a friendly acquaintance and local builder, Maria Klemperer-Johnson. As she picked out her vegetables at the winter CSA where I was working, I casually asked her about building a tiny house. At that very moment, Maria was contemplating creating a carpentry school for women, and offered to host my build as the project for her inaugural class. Through this serendipitous meeting, Hammerstone School Carpentry for Women was born. My tiny house build would take me through the following winter, but my first step was secure: I was building my relationship with Hammerstone School.

Liz Coakley has been living and farming in the greater Ithaca, NY area since 2005. In the summer of 2013, her tiny house was built as a class project for Hammerstone School’s Carpentry for Women program. Liz and 7 other budding women carpenters worked and learned alongside instructor Maria Klemperer-Johnson to bring this house to life. This blog is the first in a series on the process of building tiny.