We astonished our friends and family 7 years ago Labor Day weekend when we purchased 44 acres of Driftless Area ridge side that we had first walked only a week before. We wanted to settle on its south-facing slope and care for this bit of land

Then we learned, as we talked to local conservation organizations that city folk buying little pieces of “Nature” and plopping a house in the middle of it is disastrous to that nature.

..This one is too big!

Talk about a buzz kill!

What could we do?  If we sold the land to someone else and stayed in Madison, the new buyer would plop a house in the middle of the land.  Our piece of paradise had been shaved off a farm as an estate was settled, and it seemed destined to take a hit on the green-o-meter.

New goal: build the most non-intrusive structures we can and return some of the land to small-scale, sustainable agriculture in which it had spent much of the last century.  If we build very greenly and contribute to the local foodshed, and restore some prairie/savanna/woodland — that’s probably the best this 44 acres could hope for.

Now we have a building date for our house on the timeline – summer of 2012.  And to that end we are learning everything we can about straw bale and whole tree structures, earthen clay finishes and the other techniques and materials that sound good.

Because all of this is new to us, next summer we will try our hand at the new skills and materials with a tiny, practice structure up the hill.

..This one is too small.

This little structure should guarantee we build a better, smaller house in several ways.

1.  We will understand the materials and use them wisely.

2.  It will provide guest accommodations that can be eliminated from the main house where it must always be heated and dealt with.

3.  It will teach us the ABCs of living small

Our master plan required putting our Madison house on the market next spring and then renting a small place near our land while we prepare and build.

Now we are thinking that if we can rough it in our test building for a year, we can save a chunk of change, and also get a real sense of how small we can go.

This is The Goldilocks Model.

Right now we live in a house that is too big.  If we live for a time in a house that is too small, then our ultimate house will be just right.

It’s intriguing to consider life in a tiny unplumbed cottage heated with wood, and maybe a solar panel for off-the-grid power.  We have circled this idea warily for a while.  But can we make it work while I do freelance writing and Doug teaches college classes?  Such rustic conditions are a little more of a challenge when interfacing with the “modern” world.

Once before, we pushed ourselves beyond what we had thought possible when we fixed up and sold our house  to move to the Netherlands.  That leap changed our lives in ways we could not imagine as we grasped each others hands and jumped out into the unknown.

That was 25 years ago.

Can we do it again but more so?

  • Finish all the repairs and renovations needed to put our current place in town on the market next spring?
  • Trim down the possessions that fill this place to only the most valued – and put most of those in a storage unit?
  • Design and build as much as possible with our own hands a tiny dwelling by the time we need to occupy it?
  • Live through at least one cycle of seasons in a few hundred square feet  with minimal power and no plumbing?

I’m counting on it.

14 replies

  1. Good for you and all the best with your new venture. We wanted to build a house on our piece of land but like you don’t want to destroy something lovely in the process. We shall see where we go from here at least we live nearby.

  2. Thanks, Joanna
    It is a conundrum. This 44 acres, when we first saw it, looked lovely to our untutored eyes, but the more we learned about environmental restoration, the more we have realized that it was really sliding further out of kilter with its natural balance.
    The previous owners had planted all their former farm fields to trees and put them in CRP. The first prairie expert to walk the land with us pointed out that in one area the young pines (about 6 feet tall at that point) were growing in a prairie remnant. We bought it back and have been restoring prairie there.
    Most of our time on the land so far has been spent in ecosystem restoration and pitched battles with invasives. I like to think that it evens the score of making a house.

    • Thank you, Lori. I like us being connected.
      I think it’s very interesting that we sometimes labor over what we think are the major decisions in our lives, when actually, the off-hand ones can really be the ones that change everything.
      Like when Doug and I decided to go to the 25th reunion where you and Bill and he all reconnected.
      Or that Doug and I decided to follow up on a paragraph and a blurry photo in a realtor’s newsletter that led us to our 44 acres.
      It seems like it is those little day to day decisions that ultimately make the “big” stuff possible.
      (I’m going to run to the library and the grocery store. What may that set in motion?)

  3. Denise, I’m not going to say that living for 19 days on the Grand Canyon out of a raft was easy, but it was doable and, frankly, is similar to what you’re conceiving. What’s radically different is the climate. We had unrelenting heat; you’ll have unrelenting cold for a big chunk of the year. If you can find a way to hold in the heat, I think you can easily do it.

    After several river trips, I’ve learned what I really need, and it’s not much. Maybe a Boundary Waters trip where you load and unload gear each day would help you pare down too.

    Happy planning!

    • That sounds like a great idea. Travel light — travel right, taken at its most fundamental covers every eventuality.
      And we are planning to build this practice structure of straw bale, so it should hold heat.

    • What a great link! I’ve often found Scott Adams to hit the bulls eye with his Dilbert dilemmas, and I find a lot I can recognize in his adventures in green building.
      There are a lot of hurdles to contend with when we step away from what has been deemed the easiest way for big business to operate.
      Adams called himself and other early adopters idiots. And it’s true that deliberately choosing a more difficult path probably seems crazy to outside viewers and even the party of the first part from time to time (I have personal experience with this senstation) but I suspect most early adopters also would admit that we don’t seem to have much choice.
      Thanks for your good wishes on this project. We are going to need all the help we can get.

  4. We have a 4-burner propane stove from partner steel that we carry on long camping trips that also serves as our “summer stove” when we don’t want to heat up the house. Partner Steel makes the stoves, and ours is more powerful than our indoor propane stove. It might be an option for a small space.

    • Yes, we’ll have to come up with some kind of simple stove. Sometimes we might even be able to cook on top of whatever little wood burning stove we are using.
      Life is definitely easier in our non-ironing clothes era that it was for our parents. And even more our grandparents. I remember my grandmother’s house had no running water in the tub. She carried in pots of hot and cold water to create a comfortable bath water.
      As a child I thought it was great fun.
      I suspect our washing up system will be even more primitive.

      • I hesitated to mention the brand, but since Partner Steel has both 2 and 4-burner stoves that are much better than the average camp stove, I thought you might really appreciate. Ours has been on so many adventures and also handles our canning!

      • I appreciate your mention of the specific brand. I think it’s really useful to have the right tool for the job, and word of mouth can be the best way to find out. I value your experience.
        I mention specific brands of things that I have found to really do the job in the hopes of helping others when something really stands out in my experience.
        I had a college professor who gave me a guiding principal that I use in both my journalism and my life.
        He said, always ask — Who is telling me this, and why do they want me to believe it?
        When you and I recommend products that work well for us, we are not getting a kick back from the company. We are people with first-hand experience and our motive is to help smooth the way for those on similar paths.
        So thanks. I am going to look into Partner Steel.

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