• Kevin O'Keefe

Tiny Home = Big Life

Updated: Jan 25, 2019



Have you ever noticed that people will inevitably gather in the kitchen at a party? We are social animals that crave intimacy and love proximity.


My wife - Erin Maile is a self-described “design nerd.” All her life she’s dreamt of building a house. For ten years after we moved to Vermont she spoke to builders, real estate agents, architects and other home owners. After deep thinking and dreaming she came up with a plan. Phase One was to demolish on our drafty, wet-basement 1950’s home. Phase Two: replace it with an energy efficient, open concept, well-appointed one with a slide from the bedroom to the kitchen and a static trapeze. Did I mention that I work in the circus? Erin even thought of a way to make a circus ring in our backyard.


Then we started pricing out the dream. Green Demo- $30,000. New 1200 square foot home: $240,000. And that figure is with at least $40,000 of “free” labor. The only catch was our budget: $90,000. I’m 59 and she is 53. Did we want to take out another loan and anchor ourselves for the next 30 years?


Home ownership already felt like a millstone around my neck. Growing up and coming of age in the 1970’s owning a home was touted by every American politician as the holy grail of good micro-economic policy. “It’s like putting your money into savings account that accrues interest and you can live in it.” I found it to be less than advertised. Sure, the bank did just fine. They got their money first and even at the good rate at the time of 5% it was more than double what we paid for the house. 15 years later, we’re still paying that initial loan.


Then Erin turned 50. For her birthday she wanted a 13-foot pull behind trailer. We got a refurbished, canned-ham, 1970’s Shasta in Salt Lake City and drove it back to VT. In that two-week trip we discovered everything we needed was right there in that cozy and comfy space. Rather than eat at fast food restaurants or diners we’d stop at a grocery store do some shopping and whip up a healthy meal in the parking lot. At night we turned our dining room table and banquet into a queen-sized bed equipped with our own fluffy pillows and slept like lumberjacks. What we saved in meals and motels more than paid for the extra gas used in towing the Shasta. More than that though, we got closer. It reminded me of our honeymoon. Just us, just the road ahead and everything we needed right here.


Eureka, she practically cried one day about a month after buying the Shasta. “I’ll build a tiny house in our backyard.” Erin is a dreamer but a practical one. She immediately enrolled in Vermont’s own design-build school—Yestermorrow and took two week-long courses where trained architects mentored and facilitated her process. Her design nerd spent countless hours researching the best (and most affordable) faucets, sinks, light fixtures, appliances, flooring, insulation, paint, septic, etc.


I knew she was tireless but I’d never seen a person so on fire with every aspect of their creativity. She devoured best building practice videos. Her shoulders ached from sanding, painting, staining and polyurethaning. Pretty much every waking hour related to getting us into a new home while staying under budget and true to our principles. In the end we didn’t knock down a house that could be rented and we didn’t purchase all the new materials to build a bigger/better one and take out a loan where we would pay a bank 230%.


After a week-long initial build with a small team of carpenters our tiny home was insulated, framed out and sitting on a 28-foot triple axle trailer in our backyard. Erin hired Jim Harrick to do the septic and tree clearing, then a master carpenter - Dwight Holmes, and a master electrician and plumber - Jeff Doyle. Other consultants were the shower guy, the french door frame peeps, and the blacksmith who built the loft. She did all the finish work herself.


We moved in April 30, 2018. While in the building process we freely shared our process with friends and community members. A couple of common responses emerged:

1) What about all your stuff?

2) Oh, I could never do that.

3) Where will you go to get away from each other?

4) Won’t you kill each other?

I’ll answer them in order

  1. Erin built a circus storage unit with lots of shelves. She also build herself a carport and shop with storage for winter clothes, tools, and wood.

  2. How much space do you need? I can only be in one room at a time.

  3. I have an office and we have the Shasta trailer - renamed (if only by me) to The Man Cave.

  4. No, quite the contrary and this is the best part. We’ve gotten closer. We have more contact, more spontaneous snuggling, more make-out sessions, more dance parties of 2. It’s only been six weeks but the only thing I can compare it to is our honeymoon or being on vacation. Our tiny home is in a new spot on our property, only 100 feet from our old house but with a totally new view. Only my best clothes and things made the cut to get in there. We curated our life and let go, sold or gave away whatever wasn’t loved and frequently used. A lovely younger couple is renting our old house. They pay us for $1200 a month. It seems like they’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future.The tiny house should pay for itself in 7 years. We comfortably hosted a class of 12 design students in our tiny home this spring. We’re making a small community together with another tenant and some close neighbors. We share parties, weddings, and shopping. We mow each other’s lawns, loan cord wood and feed each others’ cats. We live like Vermonters. I’ll see you at the Tiny House Festival in Downtown Brattleboro this Saturday.


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