Camping in a tent next to a pile of lumber, recycled windows, and boxes full of our entire household belongings, Linsi and I had a task ahead of us: build a house and move into it before winter. It was at that time mid November of the year 1987.

Okay, the house was really only a cabin or trail shelter, the dimensions: 10 feet by 10 feet with a loft. But we had never done carpentry before and we were attempting to build this thing from a book.

We had to leave our previous house suddenly. Some good friends with some land in the mountains offered for us to build there.

Okay, we may have been crazy, but what prompted us to move before we had a place to move into was that we were allergic to just about any house that was available for rent. Green building was a brand new concept, and we were going to be one of the first. This chance to start all over and build something that would let us live allergy-free was the best plan we could come up with. We had spent the past 2 years sleeping in the loft of a barn as a way to get out of the house that was making us sick.

We were both excited about the prospect of designing and building our own living space. There was even something attractive about getting rid of almost everything we owned in order to squeeze into our house and live simply. Perhaps our habit of accumulating stuff had gotten to us. The prospect of needing to relocate with such short notice really pointed out how many unnecessary belongings we had accumulated over many years of dumpster diving, yard sales, and receiving useless gifts. What a hassle to deal with all that stuff. This new life would be a forced march into really thinking about what is important in life and cutting out the extraneous–a fresh start.

About that time we chanced upon a little book called Clear Your Clutter with Fung Shui by Karen Kingston. This book was a step by step instruction manual that preached the fact that clutter–belongings which are uneccessary and not used–actually hurts us in non-material ways. Fung Shui–the art and science of placement–starts with the premise that strategic design enhances vitality, health, and success. The antithesis of auspicious placement, it follows, is clutter. Clutter includes things you are saving in case you might some day use them. It also includes things you use but don’t have an orderly way to store. What we keep, why we keep it, where we keep it has far reaching ramifications in one’s personal life, according to Kingston. This book gave us the determination that we could do it, and in the process become empowered.

Another book that had influenced our decision was Tiny Houses. We had spent three years studying this book and had even gone so far as to buy some lumber and tin roofing for one of the knockdown modular designs. The plan was to build a little studio or get-away to hang out in. The house was never constructed, and now the prospect of actually living in the thing started us thinking about the design in a different way.

We tried to imagine what it would be like living in such a small space.

Okay, it took more than a weekend to build. We were ‘dried in’ in a month, and the rest of the year found us house sitting in different friend’s houses much of the time. We stayed in our unfinished house in-between housesitting gigs, moving often to where there was access to running water and electricity.

If you wonder what it was like to sleep in the shell of the house before insulation, water, power, and heat–just imagine sleeping under a gong or cymbal during a parade. The slightest wind would send our tin roof banging and crashing. We were sleeping in the loft, with plastic taped over the openings where the window would some day go. Oh how we dreaded thunderstorms at night!

Eventually we bought land nearby and moved the house, all the while living in it. Then we proceeded to build a house around that initial cabin, which we live in today.

The six years of living in our little trail shelter allowed us to save up enough money to buy land. It also had a hidden benefit and probably the most valuable. We started thinking outside the nine dots about design for small spaces.

Whether it’s a condo in the city, a garage apartment, or a cabin in the forest, small spaces have a lot to offer. It was this challenging and sometimes terrifying experience that we came to learn how to live in and love a small space. This experience prompted several years of inquiry, research and study about the art and science of small space living.

A Room of One’s Own

The biggest flaw in our 10×10 house was that neither of us could differentiate our belongings, our energy fields, and our lives. At first it was novel and fun, but there came a time when it just didn’t work anymore. We came to see the importance–indeed necessity–of each person having a room of her/his own.

It took about two years to complete our 432 square foot house (12 feet wide by 36 feet long). We lived in our 10×10 the whole time besides the last month. The new house literally engulfed and dissolved the original cabin. Each board and window and piece of roofing of the original was taken apart and applied somewhere else in the larger design until the only thing remaining of the original is the floor and front wall.

When our new house was completed we felt like we moved into a mansion. It felt weird to actually walk across a room to get to the phone. Even though most people would consider 432 square feet cramped–to us it was a long awaited opportunity. Now we could start testing out our ideas for Japanese design and furnish our house with the products our business makes. Most people would call what we had an ‘efficiency’ and furnish it with a table, couch, and bed–thus completely covering up the beautiful empty floor space. But to us, that floor was our new frontier. Spacious, simple, uncluttered–a blank canvas. How would we organize our belongings based on principles of Body Friendly Furniture and the New Ergonomics?

Click here for part two.