The Mayday Experiment: Tiny House, Big Complications on the Road to Simplicity

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The road to simplicity is complicated.

I crave simplicity. Even sitting down to write this now, my mind races with my extensive to-do list, between the tiny house, my three jobs, my studio practice, design gigs, needs of students, trying to plan this giant project...this constant dance to stay afloat as a freelancer balanced with trying to be an artist. This, too, is a big part of my push to move into a smaller space, off the grid, affordable. Simplicity. Filled with time to make things, research, explore, LIVE. See also: As an Artist, I Am Both Gentrifier and Gentrified

But within that simplicity, the questions that need to be asked are complicated: Where does my water come from? Electricity? Does it really make sense to keep this big-ass 27" monitor? How do I deal with trash? What is important? What is durable enough to travel? And where does the rest of it go...what can I stand to trim away? What do I NEED? It turns out that making things more simple is damned complicated.

We live in a world of conveniences. We never wonder where the power is coming from when we flip a switch - we scarcely know how it was generated and, in most modern American lives, we expect it to just be there. We don't think about where our poop goes, either - one flush, and the answer is simply "away," and that's how we like it. Food is increasingly convenient, prepared for people who don't cook to be popped into a microwave and scarfed down in front of convenient entertainment that comes at the flip of another switch. Trash is whisked away by garbage collectors, with minimal effort required on our part: simply making it accessible in a pre-arranged location.

But when living off grid, in a quest for simplicity, you must generate all those resources and dispose of all that waste yourself. Poo is your problem, all of a sudden. Waste doesn't have a pre-arranged location for disposal. And you must collect and store electricity on your own -- not to mention manage and conserve it.

At every step of this process, there have been questions I have had to ask myself, and some of the biggest involved water. How much water do I need? What's realistic to collect, and how? Where do I store it? Better to transport it from place to place, or dump it? And none of these questions have had simple answers.

Growing up in the West during times of drought, I have always been keenly aware of water use, encouraged to never leave the faucet dripping and to only water on pre-approved days, charted out in a calendar delivered each summer. Between the West's complicated water laws and the visible drying of mountain pine needles, we have always been surrounded by reminders -- sometimes dramatic, fiery reminders -- that our water usage is governed by not only arcane water rights laws, but nature itself.

It was almost culture shock to live in moister climes, where people don't have this consciousness to save every precious drop, where the abundance of water causes it to be taken for granted.

Two summers ago I spent a summer on the Straight Out of the Ground CSA Farm, as a part of the Andes Sprouts Society residency . The mornings were heavy with a blanket of dewy fog, and streams and ponds abounded in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York (though to a Coloradan, they do seem more like hills). Working on the farm for a month was bliss, and also extremely educational in numerous ways. Everyone helped out here and there on the farm, and I found myself becoming the self-appointed "hose Nazi" -- continually turning off a stream of running water in the barn, in the garden, or wherever the hose had been left. The people around me were surprised it bothered me; they were used to living near an abundant watershed that supplies New York City with some of the cleanest water in the country. In fact, I even had a somewhat magical encounter with the water of the Catskills when I visited the Hubble Homestead -- the ancestral homestead of my father's side of the family right up the road from the farm. The Homestead had a roadside spring that for the past two hundred or so years had been freely offered to the people of the valley, since one half of the valley had water that was contaminated with high amounts of sulfur. The water from the spring was pure and sweet, and I imagined drinking the same water that my great-great-great-grandparents may have, burbling in an algae-covered trough by the side of a country road.

Despite the lush wetness of some parts of the world, abundant water is an illusion. Though 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, only roughly 1 percent of it is potable and accessible to drink, and as the population has exploded worldwide, access to water has become politicized and commodified. Water scarcity is a fact of life for many in the world, and is shaping up to be an increasingly difficult problem in the future, as corporations and governments grapple with whether or not access to water is a fundamental human right or an exploitable profit-driven resource.

It turns out, the average American uses eighty to one hundred gallons of waterper day. And much of that is in flushing the toilet, with one to three gallons going per flush. A shower uses two to four gallons per minute. And this is where I have to ask myself...am I an average American? Or will I be, in the tiny house?

Keep reading for more on the liquid assets of a tiny house. While some might find it gross, I've never been one to shower every day - with a propensity to dry skin and an untamed head of curly hair that takes hours to dry, it's always seemed to make matters worse. The tiny house won't have a flush toilet, but instead a composting toilet that uses no water. I won't have a dishwasher or washing machine for clothes, both water and electricity hogs -- it will be hand- washing and laundromats for me. Washing dishes by hand still uses quite a bit of water - about two-to-four gallons per minute, though a foot pedal instead of a hand spigot can save that little bit of water lost as your hand moves to turn off the faucet, and will be incorporated into my kitchen design. The rest is brushing teeth, cooking, drinking water, washing your face...and the issue of the shower. Or the tub, because dammit, I want a tub. A full tub takes about 36 gallons...but still, I want -- no, need -- a bathtub.

Which was an idea that Philip Spangler found preposterous and crazy. We argued mightily as we designed the tiny house over this very issue. To tub, or not to tub? It wasn't only an issue of the space -- my plan was to go vertical, with a deep Japanese style tub that you sit in and steps -- but an issue of water. Not just the collection of 36 gallons alone, but the weight: 36 gallons weighs about 300 pounds. But before we could start building, we had to know the dimension of water tanks. In the end, he caved to my tub demands when I pointed out that a tub could save the house in the event of an overflow in the greywater tank.

But then, where was the tank to live? How much water would it hold, and where would the weight best be distributed? Early designs of the house had the tanks over the axles -- when I was thinking I should save 200 gallons. To accommodate them (and the insulation they would require under the house so as not to freeze), we raised the floor of the house, creating a 1970s style split-level situation that featured steps down and stairs up...in the end, it was too complicated given the head space, and we decided to downsize my water. Philip insisted that in order to move the house, the water must be dumped each time, so as not to slosh, and while I understood his logic, it pained me to think of the waste.

So once I'm in the tiny house, frugality will be the order of the day, and with that, a complicated simplicity. I purchased a forty-gallon freshwater tank - it, the tankless water heater and the filtration system will live in the back corner of the loft, directly above the shower so that gravity can be used, though a pump will still be needed for the sink. The forty-gallon greywater tank - delivered by UPS covered in stickers, without even a box -- will live below the sink, and with any luck, a filtration system will move through my green wall of microgreens and herbs, cleaning the water for re-use. Forty gallons isn't much, however; there will be a hookup outside, so my tub dreams will require that I am at a mobile home park or a friend's home with a hose. Only one end will have a gutter that leads into my freshwater tank -- the other end will have a more traditional gutter system, with a flexible hose that will allow me to redirect the rainwater into a tank in the back of the truck for extra water, or into tanks by the side of the house when it is more permanently parked.

But the "simplicity" also has the complication caused by the inclusion of a greywater tank with no blackwater tank, which would collect water that was contaminated beyond my ability to clean. (For example, in an RV with a blackwater tank, the flush toilet is mostly what fills it up.) So I must be conscious of every bit of liquid that makes its way down the drain. To that end, my life will lose the convenience of buying shampoos and soaps, and I've been madly researching recipes to make my own, in order to account for everything that my plants must filter in order to maximize my collected water. And in order to dump it without causing harm, only natural materials, no chemicals, can be used. I can account for everything being non-toxic thus far, though I haven't begun the journey of making these things - everything, that is, except hair dye, and I have visions of illicit truckstop dye jobs late at night in the middle of nowhere. It will be an adventure.

In order to get the simplicity I crave, things must get more complicated first. But trading the time making my own shampoo or toothpaste is really the same as taking the time to earn money to buy those things. It's estimated that women put around 500 chemicals on their bodies every day. Being conscious of my water usage leads to being conscious of these chemicals, and why would I miss them?

I know living off grid won't be easy. But living on grid isn't, either, with exorbitant heating bills in my warehouse studio/home. In the end, it's a choice of conveniences that must be made: trading in the modern-day conveniences of buying shampoo and turning on a faucet without a thought, versus the freedom of needing to earn less in order to live. I like the thought of the latter, but I really won't know until I live it.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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