The very small house: Residential minimalism

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118235759116185.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of GPJ’s Web site’, ‘Mobile Hermitage, Gregory Paul Johnson’s name for his Very Small House. Since zoning regulations vary, it may not be legal to live in this type of structure in all locations.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118235762122839.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of GPJ’s Web site’, ‘Gregory Paul Johnson, owner of the Very Little House.‘);

We live in a time when “bigger is better” has become a dominant theme in our society. Bigger income, house, car, expressways, malls, schools, jails, corporations, political entities and military budgets have gained an almost sacrosanct status.

To meet someone willing to challenge the assumption of bigger is better is a refreshing experience. It offers another option for living well while reducing one’s ecological footprint. While Gregory Paul Johnson of Iowa City did not set out to live in a small house, he now happily resides in a 140-square-foot home.

At one time, he lived in a 2000-square-foot house. When his relationship ended, he put most of his belongings into storage and moved into an efficiency apartment. Later he moved into a 10-foot by12-foot room with a shared bath. With each move, he had less space available, but came to realize that the belongings he had in storage were not necessary for a full and interesting life.

After reading an article about an artist, John Shafer, who lived in a 100-square-foot house he built for himself, he contacted Shafer and paid him $15,000 to build a 140-square-foot home. Later, the two of them formed The Small House Society for people interested in simple and sustainable housing. Johnson also maintains a Web site focusing on simple living.

Johnson acknowledges that moving into a small home can shock a person who is no longer surrounded by the large space and multiple sources of stimulation with which we fill our lives. It also provides an opportunity to gain an inner peace which comes from reflecting on what one really wants from life.

His house is built on a small trailer parked on a lot adjacent to his father’s and stepmother’s home. While taxes are paid on the lot, Johnson only pays an annual license fee for the trailer. The home is without running water and is not connected to the grid—such services form the basis for code stipulations which would have changed the building’s size and design.

The building is low maintenance with steel roofing and cedar siding, along with unfinished pine walls, ceiling and floors. The roof and walls are insulated with 1-inch thick layers of foam. He has no need to paint or wallpaper the interior space. Without a shower, he has no moisture or mold problems. He heats his home with a propane wall heater and cools it with two 1- volt computer fans. His lights are powered by rechargeable batteries.

A small second-story loft serves as a sleeping area. The first floor serves as a kitchen, living room, office and food preparation area. He does not cook in the home, preferring to eat fresh fruits and uncooked vegetables.

Although he lives in a small space, Johnson does not have a sense of deprivation or poverty. All four walls have windows, which make the outdoors part of his home. He maintains a sense of independence and ownership.

He does a great deal of what he calls outsourcing. He uses the shower and toilet facilities of his parents’ home next door. He rides a bike and no longer owns a car. If he has need for one, he rides with friends, borrows or rents one. He takes his clothes to a laundromat.

Living in a small space has expanded his view of what is home. Rather than spending hours maintaining a house, he interacts more with others and considers the library or park pavilion additional living rooms. It also encourages him to spend more time in the community, where he volunteers to teach a computer course at the library and serves as a consultant to organizations interested in helping others and lessening their own ecological footprint. He maintains offices at the University of Iowa, where he is a computer consultant.

Johnson’s personal transition to a simple life evolved over time. He has always been interested in off-grid living and looked into the possibility of installing solar electic panels. When he filled out a worksheet to determine the size of the solar array needed to power a house, he realized it was far less expensive to do without many of the conveniences characteristic of modern living rather than powering them with renewable energy. Living close to the Iowa Amish communities and having Mennonite friends gave him another perspective of what constitutes “the good life.”

Johnsonwill be making a presentation about Small House Living at this year’s Illinois Renewable Enery and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at the Ogle County Fairgrounds, Aug. 11-12.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the June 20-26, 2007, issue

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