Couple rise to challenge of ‘Tiny House Lab’

Columbian reporter wants to save money to build a tiny home, so she moved into a small studio apartment with her boyfriend and cat

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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About three months ago, my phone pinged. A message from my boyfriend popped up, asking me to come check out an apartment in Uptown Village with him.

We were in the midst of looking for an apartment, hoping to move our belongings and cat, Lucy, from a 2,600-square-foot house we shared with roommates to our own place. But there’s a catch. My boyfriend, Justin, and I hope someday to build a tiny house. With rent skyrocketing in the Vancouver-Portland metro area, and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt between us, we dream of the kind of tiny home you see on the idyllic HGTV shows.

Probably the kinds you laugh at, actually.

You know the type: Family of four moves into 350-square-foot craftsman style home with a cabinet for children’s art supplies that can be used as a table with the right configuration.

Free spirit builds 80-square foot shack complete with solar panels and a composting toilet so she can live off-grid.

Millennial couple saddled by debt parks their 250-square-foot tiny cabin on their family’s land in order to rid themselves of excessive belongings and live mortgage-free.

Yes. We are those weirdos, especially those last ones.

The definition of a tiny house isn’t set in stone, though most tiny dwellers I’ve talked to, and the experts at tinyhousecommunity.com, say anything less than 400 square feet qualifies as tiny. That can be on wheels, on a foundation or, like ours, an apartment. And at a total of 300 square feet, our new home certainly meets the mark.

But when I first stepped into the apartment, a two-room attic with a detached bathroom located downstairs, I realized the challenge we were in for was more than I expected. Justin was immediately all in for the cozy space, but I needed some time to think.

“OK,” I texted Justin several hours later. “You convinced me.”

Three months later, we’re all in for living tiny, but it’s not without its challenges.

Below are collected musings on our tiny apartment collected over the last three months, and reflections on downsizing into a tiny home.

Day 1:

I’m sitting on the floor of my new studio apartment surrounded by boxes, furniture and odds and ends that don’t yet have a home.

Our sheets are in boxes, our bed frame is in pieces, and there isn’t enough room to unpack what we need to properly make the bed. Boxes are stacked everywhere, and there’s hardly enough room to make the short walk from one end of the apartment to the other. I have no idea where anything in the apartment is going to go, and anxiety is creeping into a full-blown panic attack.

Moving into this tiny apartment, which we’re nicknaming our Tiny House Lab in preparation for downsizing even more some day, seemed like a great adventure. But right now, lying on our mattress on the floor, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve made the right choice.

Day 3:

It’s our first full day in our apartment, and what felt like the inside of a giant trash bin is starting to feel like a home.

The lack of space means there isn’t enough room on the floor to unpack a box. Every time I want to do so, I’m forced to go through a ritual reminiscent of a sea anemone retracting, then re-emerging from its shell. I spread every box in the apartment out throughout the space, unpack what I need, then re-stack the boxes so I have room to work. I’m sweating and frustrated by the work it takes just to unpack dishes from their boxes — which conveniently happen to be the ones buried deepest in the stack. We didn’t plan this move well.

There are happy discoveries in this process, though, most of them related to the number of inches I have available in the apartment. The shallow cupboard to the left of the oven, is almost exactly 10 inches deep, which means my 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish will fit there. Then there are the disappointments, like the fact that anything bigger than that 9-by-13 pan won’t fit in the three-quarters-sized oven anyway, so it has to go. Wah-wah.

But despite the challenges, with every unpacked box comes exactly 14 cubic inches of space, and in those 14 cubic inches are infinite possibilities.

Day 4:

There is one wall where our 24-inch television can reside, and about 28 inches in which to place it. Nervously, I run a stud finder across the wall. It beeps — directly in the center of my allowed space. I install the unfamiliar hardware into the wall with the help of a friend. Building an entire tiny house, here I come.

Day 5:

You will never know despair until you fill an IKEA cart with carefully curated storage solutions designed to make our small space work, only to have someone walk off with your cart. We had some of the same items in our cart as someone else, and we almost walked off with theirs. I am certain they did the same thing with ours. I sat on the floor in the IKEA lamp section — which, by the way, is near the end of the behemothic store — shaking my fists at the sky and shouting “NOOOO!” without care for who stared at us. I start my shopping trip over, exhausted.

Day 7:

In 300 square feet, there’s no eating without your cat having a seat at the table. In some cases, your cat takes over your seat at the table. At breakfast, Lucy sticks her head in my water glass when I’m not looking to take a drink. We’ll soon get used to cat hair in everything we own.

Day 11:

I come home to find a counter with a drying rack full of dishes and a sink full of dishes to its right. I’m angry at first, but it subsides. After all, there’s no dishwasher in our tiny kitchen, which means we have to wash everything by hand, and there isn’t enough counter space to let things out to dry, which means we have to dry things by hand as we go.

We’ve discovered in our first week in our new home that there is a fine line between a tiny apartment that is cozy and clean and one that is an unmitigated disaster. That’s amplified by furniture that has to serve multiple purposes. Our bed is also a couch, and has storage for video games and towels in the frame. Our coffee table holds board games and serves as a craft and dining table for large crowds. And our ottoman becomes an end table when adorned with a tray, and a “garage” when opened to reveal all our tools. An end table is reconfigured to hold Lucy’s litter box. It has to be cleaned at least once a day.

When the bed is made, the socks are in their drawers and the dishes done, our apartment feels like a cozy treehouse. When those things are messy, all bets are off and I’m back to my college dorm years. Those were bad years.

On the bright side, we’re able to vacuum our entire apartment — an important task since we live with a cat — in less than five minutes.

Though, considering how much Lucy sheds, we usually have to vacuum every five minutes.

Day 46:

Sitting in my apartment more than a month after we moved in, I press the “book” button for plane tickets to Colorado this August. Colorado Springs is home to the National Tiny House Jamboree, a three-day gathering of speakers and tiny house dwellers showcasing their own tiny homes and discussing the logistics of going small.

The challenge of the tiny movement is that the kind of home we want isn’t strictly legal. Tiny homes on wheels, or THOWs, are considered by many municipalities to be recreational vehicles. You can’t live in an RV full time, even one that has a craftsman facade and solar panels. Furthermore, International Residential Code restricts things such as room sizes and stair widths, which means lofts, narrow stair cases and other space-saving solutions common to tiny houses are often out of the question.

That means even in places such as Portland, where the city is relatively tolerant of the tiny houses cropping up in backyards in hip neighborhoods, they aren’t actually legal dwellings. That means if a neighbor narcs and code enforcement comes by, you can end up homeless.

There are experiments with tiny houses in the Portland area to address the region’s affordable housing crisis, including efforts in Multnomah County to allow homeowners to build tiny houses in their backyards for housing for the homeless, and the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland recently approved a village of 14 tiny houses for homeless women, according to The Oregonian. But similar efforts are not yet publicly underway in Clark County, meaning our dream will have to wait. Our rent, fortunately, is far below the median for our area — which might have something to do with the fact that we’re living in a shoebox — but as affordable housing continues to be a need in Clark County, there is a market for smaller homes. Maybe we’ll come back from Colorado Springs with ideas.

Day 60:

I discover I can shout from the kitchen to my phone to start a timer for the meatballs I’m cooking on a suitably small baking dish, even when the phone is across the apartment. Though, to be fair, across the apartment is only about 10 feet.

Day 66:

It’s a Sunday in March, and I’m sitting on the floor digging around for the tools I need to make lasagna for game night.

It’s been a couple of months since we moved into our Tiny House Lab, and this will be the first time we entertain a crowd. Of two. That’s the most people we’re comfortable accommodating — plus, we have only four wine glasses.

So, of course, I’m pulling out all the stops, more than my 82-square-foot kitchen with its 3-ish square feet of usable counter space can handle. I’m making a lasagna with four meats, two sauces, two cheeses and an excess of fresh herbs.

This project has that sea anemone-like quality of the initial move-in. I take out what I need for one component of the recipe, make it, clean everything I used for that project, put it away, then start over on the next stage. Justin flits through the kitchen, helping where he can and dodging me when he needs to.

Hot pans, sharp knives and high stress can be especially dangerous in a small space, especially when that entire space is within my blood circle — the area within the radius of my arm and the length of a kitchen knife.

It’s become a familiar dance for us at this point — projects must be tackled with this methodical approach within the confines of our space. Anything more and they’ll get out of control, consuming valuable inches of counter space and overloading the sink. We’ve planned this well; by the time our guests arrive, the lasagna is in the oven, our dishes done, our coffee table converted to gaming space.

They ooh over how cozy our home is, issuing the now familiar refrains of, “I love what you’ve done with the place!” or, “I could totally do this!” I feel a surge of pride in our decorating skills, excited to share our simplified life with friends.

Over the course of the evening, we discover a few more things about the limitation of our home. The human inclination to gather in the kitchen is impossible for four people unless you huddle close, and who wants to bump elbows while eating pie?

Board games are hard when you have a cat no matter what, but when the only surface you can play a game on is one of the only places your cat can walk, you have to have a sense of humor about the safety of game pieces. And get used to your shoes and coats just being out instead of tucked away, because there’s no place for them.

After our guests leave hours later, well-fed, happy and gushing about our sweet home, I lean back with a glass of wine — the last bit from a massive 3-liter bottle, which, when shared between friends, freed exactly 19.63 inches of valuable counter space in our Tiny House Lab.

Day 81:

Justin has the stomach flu, and there is nowhere to hide in our tiny apartment. The bathroom is downstairs, a frightening distance in an emergency.

Day 92:

In the writing of this story, I measure our apartment’s dimensions. They look wrong somehow. I calculate the size of our apartment, and discover it’s about 300 square feet. We’d been telling people it was 350. I text Justin.

“Our apartment is smaller than we thought it was,” I say.

“Oh sweet!” he responds without skipping a beat.

He adds: “Makes it a true Tiny House Lab for us.”