One of the great things about living in a place like Denver for much of your life is that you wind up with friendships that span twenty or thirty years by the time you’re my age. And sometimes, those friends’ lives are parallel and you find yourself in similar places.
My friend – we’ll call him Bobby Bassman – is living in a tiny house in a top-secret location in the outskirts of Denver, in a mutual friend’s sprawling back yard. It’s idyllic – close to the city, yet feels like the country, with space for him to have a small urban farm where he grows vegetables for himself and his “housemates," where roosters crow insistently throughout the time we talk. The location has to be top-secret, because in Denver and most of its environs, it's still quasi-illegal to live in a tiny house.
Technically, Bobby refers to his tiny house as his "man-cave," and if it were ever an issue, he could just say he lived in the main house, which is where the power comes from and where the bathroom currently is, though he has set up a rudimentary and charming kitchen. Eventually he hopes to be fully off-grid.
When I first started building my tiny house, Bobby came over and helped for a day as we put the plywood sheeting on the outside of what had already been framed. He asked a lot of questions, and we caught up after not seeing one another for a long time. I was surprised he was on the same path as I was, serendipitously. However, he built his tiny house much faster and moved in quickly, before it was done, continuing to finish it as he lived in rustic construction splendor. But now it is comfortable and homey, decorated with touches that I would have recognized as Bobby’s style thirty years ago, too.
We met in Denver’s Wild West 1980s, when he played bass in a seminal punk/noise band called Human Head Transplant and I was bouncing around between bad punk-rock bands and drawing comics. Denver’s underground was a close-knit band of weirdos back then, and many of us have stayed in touch and aged together, still involved in various music and art projects.
Bobby and I recently had a long, wide-ranging talk, jumping backward and forward in time. We sat in his very tiny house, door open and sunshine streaming in, and chatted, eventually coming to the topic of our plans for the future, and what we are doing with our tiny homes now, bouncing between topics and interrupting each other frequently with excitement. Here's the conversation:
Bobby Bassman: My main intention in the long run is to eventually be off-grid, living in the wilderness more, or farming somewhere, or something.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy: That’s how I feel, too! I support the tiny house communities, because I want that to exist, and I want that to be an option, but I don’t ever see myself living in one. That’s not why I’m doing this. But when we’re old? It might be a really good option. You need community…but I am building mine because I felt like I needed to be nomadic, not tied down…but then, you need it to be legal. It’s such a quandary.
You know, I was really happy to see that Walsenburg, down south, has basically said, okay, we’re sort of into this, there’s still some requirements about…
Trinidad is playing with the idea, I heard…
Are they? Good. The whole thing there is that they still require you to tap into sewer, which is not bad, and they’re only charging four grand for that, which is not bad, because she (motioning to our mutual friend’s house) paid fifteen grand for hers. And it actually has to sit on a foundation.
Which is a non-starter, if you’ve already built it onto a trailer…
Yes and no, depending on how you’ve done that, because you could quite easily lift it off of there with a crane…
Not mine; mine is SOLID. Bolted down with twenty bolts. So it’s not happening.
You could, it would be work…
It wouldn’t be worth it. To me, the whole point is that it’s nomadic; the whole point is that I can move around.
I think for a lot of people, that was a lot of the agenda, but that wasn’t my agenda…I really wasn’t building this to drive it around a lot. Originally, my purpose was to build it and see what it was. I started out living in my camper, which was a little bit smaller than this, and then I thought, I can sort of do this, but I need a little bit more room, and a little bit more headroom, because the camper I had, you basically had to squat down. The whole purpose was to let me see what that way of living was, first, because probably what I will end up doing in the end is getting land and building something small on that land.
That’s my long-term intention, too. Mine started the same way, but not by design…when I moved out of the house, the only place I had to move to was the closet, so it was like…okay, and it wasn’t bad.
You adjust to it.
I liked the way I adjusted to it. I got a pair of shoes, I got rid of a pair of shoes: that’s NEVER been who I am.
We were joking recently because Johnny, one of the other roommates in the house, accidentally grabbed my towel in the bathroom and went and did laundry somewhere, and I was like, “Where the hell’s my towel? That’s the only towel I have, dude!” You find that you just have one of things.
But it’s funny, because my mom lives in a tiny little apartment — 600 square feet — which isn’t tiny to you and me now, and she has a bazillion towels, and they’re all turquoise. So you’ve been in here a year now?
Yeah, over a year – March 1 was the anniversary. The day I moved in was the March blizzard last year. I was desperately trying to get it done so I could move in. When I moved in it was just insulation and nothing else.
I remember that.
And it was tough. It’s been a progressive little thing. I wasn’t working, so it was really what I could scrap and find…
It’s mind-blowing to me that you’re already living in yours, and mine doesn’t even have windows at this point! It’s so frustrating!
Yeah, but the whole living experience has been very rude and crude…. I needed a place to live, so I just decided to max out my credit card and get it done and get it livable…or at least squat-able, and then over the next year I’ll get more money, or get found things from people or whatever, and I’ll just keep doing that along the way. This was phase one; I just wanted to see what the experience was, first. And aside from standing the walls, I did everything myself. I spent $3,500 on the whole thing.
Including the trailer?! Holy crap! That's nuts!
It's small, though...and, like, the cedar on that wall is the fence from my old house. A lot of it is found, and found from friends. I scavenged a lot for free. Nothing matches, but I'm a dude — it's like a cabin, it doesn't matter. I got the windows at ReStore for $25 each. They all came in little suitcases; they were demos for a convention.
I think $3,500 is a story of hope for a lot of people — this is comfortable. I'm doing mine differently, and it's costing more because it's more than twice as big, but still — it's good to know it can really be done for that.
I think a lot of people are preoccupied with the perfection of it. I just needed to build something to live in. I think people get hung up on it being just right. Look: You're going to fail. Get over it!
Well, in the studio, sometimes failure is the most interesting option you have. It grows you.
You learn more from your failures than any of your successes.
I feel this all the time; I could totally fail at this still. Very publicly. And yet, at the same time, with what I've learned, I could build anything. And I'll get it done — it's just going slower, but that's life. Gotta earn a living.
I'm curious how many people have lived in theirs for more than five years. I wonder...I feel like people might do it for a year or two and then find out that the space is too small.
I worry that might happen for me. I've already decided I need to always have a studio. I need to be able to make messes and leave them there. I want to go make my own residencies and use it as a studio, but I will always want to make big, stupid weird things, too — I can't help that.
But isn't that going to change how you work as an artist?
Yeah, but I want that. I embrace it. This is where I feel pulled: I want to go into the field. I want to move more toward making experiences and less toward making objects. The world has enough objects. And I'm tired of storing them. I like the restraints, and I also like the idea of leaving things behind. We're at "peak object" right now — I like the idea of making things that don't last or impact anything. I'm forcing a restriction on myself. But I will probably always need a studio; I'm kidding myself if I think I won't.
So back to your tiny house...how ARE you heating this now?
I have a little radiant space heater. On the lowest wattage setting, it keeps it about 65 degrees. I’m a hot person who’s always warm anyway, and I grew up in Michigan, where it was always like, “Put a sweater on, don’t turn the heat up.” I’m really fortunate that I’m a hot person, so I survived it. The biggest thing was that, because it’s such a small space, I have to keep the window cracked to keep it ventilated because of the moisture.
Did you put any ventilation in?
I didn’t, but that’s one of the things I’m probably going to do this year. Opening the window worked: I’d still get a little moisture on the windows, but I’d open the window, and once the morning came and the sun hit, it was fine.
My whole thing is that I only plan to be in here five years. And in five years, I’m going to be doing whatever I’m going to be doing, wherever I’m going to be doing it.
I’ve been looking into other things, because once again, you run into these legality issues, which I think is sort of bullshit. America is the “land of the free,” except you aren’t really free to live the life you choose to live for you.
They’re cracking down on off-gridders a lot, and it’s like, wait a minute, we’re a country founded on the idea of homesteading. How did we lose that value? I’m not sure if this is your motivation in getting off-grid or not, but I imagine it is: It’s so frustrating to be constantly feeding into a system that you don’t want to support, and that you don’t believe in, and that you feel is destroying things.
I have mixed feelings about some of it. There's a lot of people buying land down in South Park and doing the tiny house thing, and a lot of people are pissed off at that down there. I was close to buying land there, but once I looked into legalities, and having to buy camping permits while you're building things...it wasn't so good. My biggest concern is that a bunch of people just moved down there to grow weed. They're doing off-grid in a terrible fashion, where they're not really doing it right. There's crap everywhere. And I understand that this is a cheap living solution for people, but as soon as you want to send your kids to school, you need to pay taxes to do that.
The responsible thing to do in that case is to work to change the laws and volunteer to pay taxes, because you're part of a community. There isn't infrastructure in place for that yet — but fight to create it instead of just wrecking it for everyone. Many of them are fighting paying taxes, it sounds like.
It puts those of us trying to live tiny in a bad light — that's what I worry about. I can understand the concerns of the people in the area. It just takes the one bad apple.
It’s those aspects, the aspect that I’m into growing my own food and I want a place to do that; it’s more about being free to live the lifestyle that you choose to live, whatever that is. On-grid, off-grid, partially-grid, it doesn’t really matter — just having the freedom to do that.
For me, too, building this structure pretty much by myself – I had a few friends help me stand up the walls – this taught me a lot about building. So that I know what to not do the next time I build something, and what I need to do the next time I build something. But there’s also a certain amount of pride, that you feel like “This is my place, I built this place, this is me." It has a certain connection.
But then, mostly for me, it’s that I’ve always been a hermit, anyways.
I am super-proud of mine, and part of why I am going slowly – I mean, mostly because I’m working too much and trying to save up enough money, but also because we keep redesigning things, because I want to do this RIGHT. And there are already things I would redesign about the structure.
I know what you mean! This summer, I’m going to put my tent up again, and I’m going to move everything into my big twenty-foot tent, and I’m just going to strip out the house and do a few more things to make it the next phase of how I am going to live in it. I'm going to plumb to outside, instead of the bucket I have under the sink. I'm going to build a folding couch bed. I’m going to put a little composting toilet in there. But one of the things I’ve always wondered about…what are people doing with that? You either spend a lot of money to buy some incinerating composting thing, but where you taking that shit?
Well, once it’s compost, you can just dump it on the ground. For you, since you’re a farmer, you could use it!
But I would probably never put it into my food, I’d be really hesitant. I think it takes longer than people think it does. If I’m just going to go old-school, cheap-ass bucket compost, that’s phase one; it’s going to have to go to phase two in another bucket somewhere, so I’m going to have to develop that process…but once again, this has been one of my questions about this whole tiny house thing. I understand that people have these ideas about the sustainable aspects of it, but I’m not sure that rainwater collection – legally, you can only do two 55-gallon barrels in Colorado, which is not enough water to sustain you.
So, my rainwater-collection system is a parapet gutter sunken into the roof, so I can do it with no one knowing I’m doing it. But I only have forty gallons on board.
That’s my point, though – if it only rains so often…
Oh, yeah, in Colorado, it’s really not practical.
Right – that’s what I’m saying: not practical. I think it’s a good thing to do — I’m not saying that it’s not. It’s just ..hey, wait a minute, tiny house movement: What’s the practicality of these things? What’s the reality of these things?
For me, if I take it to the East Coast, or I take it to the Midwest, I could easily be collecting. I have the onboard one for traveling on the short end of the roof. On the long end of the roof, there will be a gutter with a diverter system like you would have on a regular house, but it can be hooked up to a tank in my truck. If I’m staying someplace, I can hook it up to the tank, but to me the point is the ability — not so much that I will be depending on it, but that in a pinch, I can if I need to.
Another thing that’s odd is the idea of sustainability houses being pulled around by a big-ass vehicle. That’s the irony of the thing.
That’s been my biggest problem, trying to figure that part out. That’s my biggest worry: I want to go around and talk to people about sustainability, but no hybrid has the towing capacity, even though that would be the best technology…so I had my truck, Bertha, and I was going to go biodiesel, but the truck died. Now I have a really cool conversion van, and I love it, but that’s not sustainable at ALL. It’s a struggle.
Here’s how I’m starting to see this thing though: For me, at the beginning, it was about getting off-grid and getting to do this, but now, through the process of this experience and writing the blog, it’s basically about the struggle. And, really, isn’t that what's interesting — the struggle? Because we all face it. If I had just gotten this done and I was already on the road, I might have lost interest in writing about it by now. The thing is, this is hard. And if it was easy, I guess we’d all be doing it. I don’t think the tiny house movement is an answer to sustainability, because we have buildings. I’ve never seen it as an answer to broad sustainability, for everyone; I’ve seen it as the answer for my own sustainability. And being able to survive on very little so that I can focus on things like art and writing.
One of my biggest things with the whole experience, and why I wanted to do it, was to do with less. I think as a society, we accumulate so much shit.
And I really, really do.
Well, you’re an artist, so it’s okay. But I experienced, when I got rid of my house, just going through stuff and going through closets I hadn’t looked in for five years, that I had all this shit that just accumulated and accumulated…
Dude, we found US West and Public Service Company of Colorado bills…
You just end up with all this stuff that you don’t really need but you think you do. By moving into such a small space, it’s done nothing but force me to do that. I’ll meet people and tell them I live in a tiny house, and they always say, “Whoa, that must be so cool” And I say, it’s not as glamorous as you think it is.
People think that it’s about glamour because there’s all of these twee tiny houses with beautiful photography with fish-eye lenses…
First thing I say to them is: You have to get rid of all your stuff. Can you do that? And they always just say…what do you mean? And I tell them, envision this: I currently live in less than 100 square feet. It’s 8 x 12, so once you account for the interior walls, it’s about 94 square feet. But getting rid of your shit is the biggest reality of it. And they can't do it. People have garages full of shit that they never use, and there's some attachment to these things that they never use.
We had a computer graveyard! Ten generations of Macs!
Yeah, I had a bunch of weird servers! Why? I don't need them...but it was an interesting thing to get rid of all these things I don't really use but have a weird attachment to. I try to explain it to people that that's the biggest thing — not only learning to live in a small space, but because you find that it gets cluttered very quickly, you're constantly moving things to get to other things. You just don't have room for anything extra. But it's good!
And you have no loft!
Part of that is because I got the trailer cheap, and it’s an above-the-wheel trailer. So I couldn’t really build a loft that would be used for anything but storage. Plus, I’m getting old – I don’t necessarily want to climb a ladder. But I also knew that this was just house one. That my whole intention is to buy some land and build something bigger.
Probably what I will wind up doing is finding a municipality that’s 600 s.f. friendly, and I’ll build something 600 s.f., but 300 of it will be an attached greenhouse, which will then include in the square feet, and I’ll have passive solar. Half of it in the ground, the other half passive solar. It will be three times as big as what I have now, so it will feel like a mansion!
At that moment, the donkey outside brayed, causing the cat to jump and both of us to laugh. It seemed as good a point to stop as any, time to wander outside and away from our focused conversation, and on to talking about disconnecting from cell phones, digital hoarding and a million other subjects.
I'm looking forward to seeing where the next five years takes us both, in our tiny houses, wherever we wind up.
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 or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.