Note from Ethan: This is a guest post by Miwa Oseki Robbins
Like many tiny house builders I see out there, my dream to build a house started with a partner. We were going to build our small, off-grid, sustainable house and live happily ever after. You could even say this dream was the foundation of our love story, as it was only months after we met, in December of 2010, that he gave me The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans and I began to fall in love with him and our dream of building a house.
But in 2013 we broke up and it seemed like my world, including my dream of building a house, was crumbling around me. Despite having taken multiple building workshops, having done work trades on other people’s houses, and having done a timber frame apprenticeship at the Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts, I didn’t have the confidence to think that I could build a house on my own.
I knew enough to know that even a tiny house was no tiny project. And I knew enough to know how much I still didn’t know. Besides, who was I – a 25-year-old, 5’2” girl with no savings, no land, and only a few hand tools of her own – to think I could build a house?
But what I didn’t know was that to build a tiny house for me was exactly the kind of project I needed to rebuild myself, from inside to out.
A New Start
So when I moved to Ithaca, NY on my own, I had no intentions of building. Not for me and probably not for anyone else either. It was back to basics; get a job that I knew how to do, find a cheap room to rent near town, make friends, save some money, keep things simple.
But then a friend, John, who knew I had done that timber frame apprenticeship, asked me to help him with a barn. And then he asked me to help him with a house. He was an older contractor type who had the knowledge, tools, and skills, but who didn’t want to be climbing up and down ladders too much anymore.
Suddenly, without meaning for it to, most of my income was coming from carpentry work. And then there was a tiny house open house at a local, woman-owned carpentry business and school called Hammerstone.
Up until that point I had never been inside a real tiny house on wheels. My dreams of building a small house had been more focused on cob and straw bale. But looking at this tiny house on wheels, suddenly the wheels starting turning, pun intended. I could live in this thing, I didn’t need land to build one, and I was beginning to feel that I might even have the skills to tackle a project of this scale. Or at least the know how and the resources to figure it out as I went along.
And so I cautiously let myself start dreaming again of building my own tiny house, just for me this time. Sure, I hoped one day I could share this house with someone, but it felt important that this dream be fully mine in its creation.
Once I got clear on this, things just started to fall into place. John had some property that was just an old farm field with two hoop houses on it. He said I could build there if I wanted, and that I could use his tools. There was no electricity or running water on site, but somehow that didn’t deter me. I always imagined my house would be off-grid, so why not start off-grid?
Things Start Coming Together
Then the ecovillage at Ithaca was selling a solar system of 8 panels, inverter, charge controller, and 4 led acid batteries for an amazing deal, so I jumped on it. It was their backup system for their water pump in case the town electricity ever went out, so it was a good sized system and had basically never been used! The catch: I had to figure out how to take it apart, move it, and then reassemble it. But with help from John and a few other people, we did it! And it has been amazing.
If they decide to go that route, the solar power system is one of the last things to be installed for most tiny house builders, and most end up spending at least $4,000 on the system. But this was the second thing I got after my trailer. It cost me only $1,500 and it means that not only will my house be off-grid and solar-powered, but that my whole build will be too! Not once has it failed me, and I have done everything from rip furring strips on the table saw for hours at a time, to keeping a chest freezer and a blender out there for smoothies during this hot summer.
The Challenges of Building Off-Grid
Building off-grid has had its challenges, but so far they have not been related to a lack of power. The site I am building on literally had no infrastructure, and still has very little.
There's still no running water and no bathroom. The solar shed was the first thing to be built, and that didn’t get finished until early this spring. So, although the system was working in the fall, I worried through the winter that the batteries might short out due to not being adequately protected, or that something else might malfunction.
I repurposed the hoop houses to store my building supplies, including salvaged windows, John’s table saw and chop saw, and other tools and building supplies. I worried about these through the winter too, fearing the hoop houses would collapse under the unusually large snow loads we had. And I will say that they are not perfect or leak proof, so it is not ideal, but they have held up and now I am beginning to be able to store stuff inside my tiny house, so my hope is that they have lasted as long as they needed to!
As the winds of early fall start to whip through my site again, the lack of good indoor storage is once again becoming a point of some anxiety. One of the biggest difficulties this has caused is that I hesitate to order materials too far in advance, or grab promising looking salvaged items that I won’t actually be ready for until later in my build, because I don’t know where I will store them.
Also, with no bathroom and no water yet, if going in the bushes doesn’t suit you, you have to take a bit of a drive to get to the nearest gas station. And when I go out there for the day to work I usually bring two nalgenes full of water, if not more, and pack my lunch and sometimes my dinner too.
I have also neglected to get a lawnmower. (What can I say? My little bit of money feels like it has more important uses right now.) So, except for right around the house, the site tends to be overgrown with grass and wildflowers. It's hard to keep things tidy at times, and I envy those who are building next to their parents' garage or house or by a full shop, but then I watch the birds flit through the field of wildflowers from my ladder or I accidentally disturb some mice who have nested in my wood pile, and I can’t help but smile at the beautiful wildness of my site.
I wanted to live off-grid and I am making it happen. And through the process I am learning to be patient with myself and to have trust in the world and in the community I have created, and I feel like I am literally and figuratively claiming my place in the world.
A Big Project
In case no one told you, building a house, even a tiny one, is a big project. This year my focus is the house. Next year it will be the land and the site. And as my build has progressed, John has been spending more time out there on the land and he's now talking about building his own place.
He's helped to set up some basic camping-style infrastructure like a fire pit and some outdoor seating, which came in handy when I had a wall-raising party.
Although there are stories of people building their tiny houses in a summer for under $10,000, I knew from the beginning that this would not be me. On the practical level, I knew I would have to continue working to have the funds for this build. And doing it on my own in my off-grid setting has sometimes slowed things down.
Also craftsmanship is important to me, as is the quality of the energy, both spiritually and literally, that goes into the building. I am an artist and building is becoming one of my crafts.
From the very beginning, the process of how my tiny house was built felt just as important, if not more important, than the finished product. It was clear to me that I was building something that would be sacred, at least to me. This was about me building my sanctuary – a space that would reflect me and what I am about to the world, and hold and remind me of who I truly am when I need reminding.
I wanted to enjoy the process, and to be able to be creative in it, as I believe that any structure will reflect the love and energy that is put into it. It is certainly a labor of love for me.
The process has been slow but beautiful. One of the things I am most proud of is that the house is 100% my design. I didn’t buy any plans and I didn’t work with an architect or a designer. I started with pencil drawings, not even to scale, then I tried to draw things to scale by hand, and then, during this past winter, I pushed myself to learn SketchUp and to create a 3D model of my tiny house.
My model is basic but has everything I need to frame my tiny house and work out each step along the way. The way I am building very much mirrors my creative process when I paint; I have a vision, or a plan, but then, as I put paint onto the canvas, I have to step back at each stage and react to what I see. Through this process, things shift and change. It is a process of continual learning and revision.
I knew I wanted to build this way and that I needed to have full ownership over my design. It had to be mine and I had to know it inside and out and be able to change it on the fly as I saw and felt fit.
I still have a long way to go with my build and I do sometimes wish I had more time to devote it, but already I can see and feel that the house does reflect me. I love every moment that I spend on my build site and, some days, if I am too tired to work, I just go out there and sit inside, drawing sketches, making lists, or doing research for my next steps.
I so look forward to the day it is done, and I dream of when I can be cozy inside it, by my tiny wood stove, watching the snow fall outside. But I know that, like any creative endeavor, it cannot be rushed. Time must be taken to recharge, digest, find inspiration, and nurture the inner creative flame.
And I love how everything has flowed so organically thus far. And so, as I learn to be patient with the process and to find love and compassion on even the most challenging days, I feel this house is also working on me, mirroring my own journey towards self-love, and showing me my own inner and outer strength.
A few weeks ago, I spent my first night out on the land. John helped me to get all my windows in, and he made a delicious lentil stew in his CrockPot, powered by our solar system. We toasted to another big milestone and I set up my tent outside to enjoy the stars and to soak up the satisfaction of a good day's work, dreaming of my house all finished.
Even more recently, I got my front door in, with the help of another friend, Barry. It was quite a project to take a $70 re-use center door, sand off the paint, restain it, build jambs, buy new hinges, and lock, set, and get the door hung. But the satisfaction of looking at this handsome door, made even more beautiful by the years it has lived, hearing the click of the door swing shut, and holding the keys in my hand… The extra effort has been well worth it. It is something I think I will forever be proud of.
The Story Continues
If this story inspires you, I hope you will consider supporting me to finish this labor of love, by either making a donation or following my progress on my blog. I, my family, my friends, and fellow supporters will all thank you! Who knows what your support might make possible – pizza for a tired crew at the end of a long day's work, a needed boost in morale after a challenging day, a special artistic flourish, or some essential nuts and bolts for my house…
Blessings to all of you and may we all have the courage to pursue our dreams!
Photos taken by Miwa Oseki Robbins, Jim Bosjolie, and Jessie Jean.
Miwa Oseki Robbins is building her tiny off grid-home in Ithaca, NY. She is an artist and a proud member of contract crew at Hammerstone, a woman-owned building company and carpentry for women school that specializes in tiny houses, timber frames, and foam-free construction. You can find out more about her and support her by visiting her blog or checking out her Indiegogo site.