Luxuriously Less: Living Little in West Texas

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Photo By Nigel Valdez
Inspired by classic desert architecture, Patricia Kern handbuilt her tiny home and a guest home on the wild southwestern edge of Texas.

Over the past decade or so, the U.S. building industry has been influenced by green thinking. Advances in insulation, technology and design mean our homes have become more efficient. But despite these advances, the typical house built today requires almost as much energy to heat and cool as the average home built in 1960 because of an explosive growth in home size. In 1960, average U.S. home size was 1,200 square feet. By 2008, it had soared to more than 2,500.

Today, financial and environmental concerns, personal preference and our rapidly growing population are working together to encourage us to consider the wisdom of living in smaller spaces. In fact, in 2009, U.S. houses got smaller on average for the first time in 30 years. This certainly isn’t the first time humans have lived in small spaces out of necessity. Many cultures share a story of a family or individual displeased with the small size of their house. They are advised by the local sage/priest/rabbi/oracle/guru/medicine woman to bring a goat/cow/gnu/elephant/ox into their home for a few weeks. When it leaves, they find their house magically has expanded.

Modern small house dwellers sometimes mimic this by taking a vacation on a sailboat, or by inviting a dozen friends to spend a week in their home. Others stay at home and study history or anthropology, comparing themselves to our ancestors or to people far away. Understanding the normal scale of human existence tends to make most North Americans aware of our good fortune, at least in the material realm. Many of us could also learn this lesson with a trip across town. It is likely that someone not too far from you lives simpler and smaller. Volunteering in literacy programs, in hospitals or with the homeless can offer a fresh perspective on our own living situations.

In Texas, a woman found downsizing to be one of the most freeing experiences of her life. The story of her home may inspire you.

Living Little: A True Story

The southwestern edge of Texas is as wide and open as our Texan friends insisted it would be. As we drove through, my mind imagined how a person could dream of filling up the space with human endeavors, to soften the sun’s glare and break up the unfenced waves of desert soil and tiny wildflowers. Such an attempt would be foolish: The area’s precious feature is its emptiness. To fill it would diminish this great something to nothing. Despite the open vistas and clear air, Patricia Kern’s settlement appeared to jump up suddenly when we were less than a quarter mile away. We saw the guesthouse first, an adobe dome a few shades paler than the ground it rises from. Beyond and below it, in a small, flat depression, was Patricia’s open-air kitchen, shade structures, and her small round, straw-bale casita.

Patricia told her story. After almost 20 years working in the corporate world, Patricia did what she’d dreamed of for years: She left her job, sold her house and her stuff, and moved far away. She asked herself if she’d gone crazy. As a middle-aged attorney “whose only experience with a hammer was to hang diplomas,” how could she believe she could build her own house? Not hire someone to build it, but build it herself with her own hands. “I tried to get the idea out of my head,” she recalls. But as she learned more, attending a workshop and volunteering at several building sites, she decided it was possible, but only if the house were very small. To make it small, she’d have to reduce her needs. She says, “I got some excellent advice at one of the building workshops I attended: Record the amount of time spent in every area of my home for a week. I was living in an 1,100-square-foot home when I conducted this experiment. I was amazed to find that there were two rooms in my house where I rarely set foot. I realized that the primary purpose of those two rooms was to store furniture, which I had only bought so those two rooms wouldn’t be so empty. This was a happy realization since all I had to do to cut my space needs in half was sell furniture.”

So she held a big garage sale, gave away what was left, packed everything she wanted into a 10-by-6-foot trailer, and headed for Texas. “I’d never felt so free in my life,” she says. By spending her first several months camping she learned more about minimalism, so that when she moved onto her newly purchased land she was ready to simplify further. She realized, for instance, that she preferred to have her kitchen and bathroom outside her home, and 10 years later is still glad she made that decision.

In a few months she had a foundation and walls up. As the wind whipped around her tiny structure, even though she had no roof, she felt secure, and lucky. “I had learned to live with so little during my journey here that every addition now seemed like an unaccountable luxury.” The rest of the house took less than a year to finish, which is as fast as many people build larger structures, but she used almost no hired labor.

The straw-bale walls circle a central post, and sixteen beams radiate out from the center to form the roof, which is covered in corrugated steel panels, enclosed with radiant barrier reflective heat wrap and insulated with 10 inches of blown cellulose.

Windows are minimal: Three 1-by-2-foot openings are sufficient, since she’s outside much of the day. Their size is reminiscent of houses in older desert cultures, which conserve coolness by having few or no windows. As temperatures rise to 115 degrees, the inside temperature, unassisted by any mechanical device, stays below 85 degrees.

Patricia says she was able to see the luxury of her new lifestyle almost immediately. In one of her first years living in her new home, the 9/11 terrorist attack prompted vast changes that specifically affected her new hometown. Previously, people in Big Bend–whose town name refers to a curve in the Rio Grande–crossed the river to visit and shop in their Mexican sister city of Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and vice versa, with no visa nor passport. In the fall of 2001, border policy changed, creating a new division, separating friends and families. Patricia opened an immigration law practice for people whose children or parents or spouses were left, paperless, on the other side of the border. “Now that I have taken care of my own needs,” she says, “I have the freedom to pursue the dreams and gifts that come my way. If I were still tied down with my old house, my too-many things, and my mortgage, I’d never have this luxury.”

Adapted with permission from Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon.