About denise and oliver

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Beautiful Simplicity


“The decision to base our heating and energy technology on the power of the sun is not open to sensible debate. There simply is not other long-term solution, and any naysaying comes from either ignorance or in service to some special interest. We have to finally and permanently admit to the simple beauty of our solution: it’s all about the sun.”

- Clarke Snell , Building Green

A good reason to live tiny is to lower your impact on Earth’s dwindling resources. The math is simple. If you’ve got a small space, the less input is needed to heat and cool it. Once you’ve decided to go small, the next step is to be smart about your design so that it requires the least possible outside input for it to be habitable (i.e. electricity for heat, fuel for heat or cooking, food, water, etc.). We’re still building our initial design and we have new ideas we’d like to try, so it’s been helpful to remind ourselves that this is a practice. Change doesn’t happen over night and perfection is never achieved, but we’re trying to be conscious of how our actions and lifestyle choices make an impact. This is a summary of the design concepts, relatively new to us a year ago, that guided us as we aimed to make our home as energy efficient as possible.

Passive Solar

We started by thinking about the sun. It’s a pretty powerful thing — the sun. It can warm you on a winter day and roast you in the summer. It’s light can penetrate gloominess and inspire the soul. This is common sense, of course, but, as the saying goes, common sense isn’t all that common. By code and culture, homes are often oriented to face the street, paying no mind to the solar cycle above. The sunlight that enters the typical home is often incidental and unplanned — and sometimes, as in the form of heat during the summer, it’s unwanted. That unwanted heat necessitates costly cooling measures. The opposite is true during winter. There’s great potential heat from sunlight, but most homes aren’t set up to receive it. So, something somewhere needs to be burned to warm the place. It’s a wasteful way to live. What’s a better way? Passive solar design.

At it’s simplest, passive solar design intentionally lets the sun in when it is most needed — during the winter — and keeps it out when it’s hot. This isn’t a new concept. It’s how people, out of necessity, have built homes all over the world since we moved out of caves and started constructing our own shelters. It’s only in the last century or so that we’ve elected to pay for and use irreplaceable resources in exchange for something we can get for free — if we plan for it.

And to plan for it, you have to know how the sun moves through the sky.

Here’s an illustration of a typical sun path during it’s peak (summer solstice) and it’s lowest (winter solstice) :


The typical orientation in passive solar design is to face your building south. This offers the most opportunity to capture the warmth of the sun during the winter. Then, to avoid getting roasted in the summer by light pouring into your home, create an eave that sticks out far enough to block the sun when it’s high in the sky. As summer turns to fall, more and more light creeps into the house through the windows. This is how we designed our place. This spring, we’ll add a small awning over the big window (and hopefully planting a tree) to have the same effect.


September 10th – the eave is nearly covering the window.


September 19th


September 28th


October 27th —  BAM! Full sun for the cold months.


December 11th

You can calculate and chart all this stuff on paper, but we just used Google Sketchup. Sketchup is free and very easy to learn. You can input your address, load a bird’s eye view of your property, start putting down rough home shapes and see exactly what the sun is doing when. It’s a crazily powerful tool — and amazingly accurate.


In Sketchup, you can set the exact time that you want to see sunlight in your building. Here, it’s set for 8:08 AM on December 3rd.


This photo was taken at 8am on December 3rd. Compare the light from the window in real life and the digital version above.

In the winter, your home becomes a greenhouse. It’ll warm nicely during the day, but will quickly cool down at night unless you create a way to store the heat. To do this, you have to build a thermal mass to store the heat generated throughout the day. Preferably, this will be where the light gathers most (i.e. the north wall). The most common thermal mass to use is earth. We opted to use an earthen plaster in the northeast corner which gets a lot of sun during in the late afternoon. Ideally, the north wall and possibly the east and west walls would be entirely made of earth. Indeed, the mother of modern passive solar designs, the Earthship, is often dug into a hillside. Other homes are made from cob (or a clay, sand, straw and water mixture that’s been around for centuries) or straw-bale.


Check out this cob home built by our friends Greg and Danielle in North Carolina.

Our two to three inch thick plaster wall is a bit of a token, but it might mean a nice warm spot to gather just before bed in the winter time without needing to turn on a heater. We plan on using clay on the property to plaster and build cob benches early this summer.


This spot gets slammed with sun all winter. We decided a bench made of cob here might warm nicely and be a cozy spot to sit in the evening once the sun has left.

The flip side to keeping things warm in the winter, is keeping things cool in the summer. Our design will block the light from getting inside, but it doesn’t keep it from battering the roof and the exterior walls. To limit the transfer of heat from outside to inside, we made sure the insulation in our ceiling and south wall was extra thick. Additionally, we planned for ventilation. Inevitably, our home will warm up. We’ve already noticed that, even in the wintertime, it can get hot in here. So, we made sure we designed ways for hot air to leave. Our neighbor generously gave us an operable skylight he wasn’t going to use, and we installed opening windows on the east and west side to create airflow.


Well positioned windows are key for summer heat control.

The final thing to mention in passive solar design are trees. Well placed trees can do wonders to compliment your passive solar design. Instead of letting the sun beat down on the house all summer long, plant a nice deciduous tree to the south and/or west. During the hot months, it’ll shade the house and when it’s cold, it’ll let the light through. If it’s a fruit tree, it’ll feed you too. We likely wont be living in our tiny home long enough for trees to mature, but we hope to plant some anyhow. Think of all the beautiful big shade trees or mature fruit trees you’ve grown to love. Someone planted it years ago and possibly never got to reap the rewards. Tree planting is about caring for future generations.

In an earlier post, we discussed our decision to build a permanent tiny home versus one on wheels. If you have an opportunity to build on a site permanently, you can more readily take advantage of all these energy saving design features.

The Cosmic Clock

Using passive solar concepts, we knew where to put our house and how to face it, and the rough roof line and where to put windows. But we still didn’t know exactly how we’d function in the space. For that, we consulted one of our favorite books, The Hand Sculpted House.


This is such a cool way to think about designing living space. Using a chart like this, you can plan your house in such a way as to have natural light follow you through your daily routines. Also, it helps you think about where to put rooms and spaces that don’t necessarily need natural light. (i.e closets, stairwells, bathrooms). If you’re letting the sun warm the rooms you’re in, while you’re using them, you wont have to pay to heat them or turn on lights. Next week we’ll elaborate a little more on the cosmic clock and our design.

Next Week :



House vs Home

For us, there is a difference. A house is a physical structure, a possession, four walls and a roof, etc. A home may have those things, but a home is so much more. There are intangible qualities to a home, the way the light shines into the kitchen on a winter morning, your favorite place to read, the laughs shared by family and friends, the view out he window, the smell of the wind blows at different times of the year. We wanted our house to be an intentional home. One that we would enjoy now and hope that future generations will appreciate.

A question that comes up a lot : Did you build your tiny house on wheels?

To get at that question, we’d like to lay a bit of groundwork. Looking back, the fact that we’re now tinyhome dwellers is somewhat incidental. Our main goals were to save money, pay off debt and simplify.

What do we mean by simplify? We wanted to cut out the middle men in our lives so that we might have a closer connection with the things that matter. For us, good food, a healthy place to live, family, friends, joyful work–those things matter.

Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth. ~Lanza del Vasto

Our first successes in feeling the freedom from simplification came from simplifying our food, by eating closer to the earth. Participating in feeding ourselves by keeping a garden, raising a few hens, fermenting foods, supporting local farmers/growers/food and beverage craftsmen. By making that shift, a lot of joy was felt!

We turned the similar philosophy to our shelter and imagined what that would be like. Could we build it ourselves? Could we use simple materials? Could we make friends with those that know how to do this? Could we share resources? We explored this further in NC, where we did a natural buildign workshop using strawbale, and clay harvested on site. It was incredible and empowering and we shared a really special ten days with people new to building but with similar desires in their hearts. We wanted to participate in the creation of shelter. We wanted to simplify that fundamental need by getting our hands dirty (literally).

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Oliver at the strawbale workshop.


Denise applying a base coat of plaster.

There is anther aspect of simplicity that is important to us, and that is about balancing level of effort with the impact of effort. In that, we have rented for the last 10 + years, and we always made improvements to make it our own. It may be fresh coats of paint on the wall, or a sweet garden space (or a chicken coop) or smart built-in structures that make the flow of every day living more effortless. We like to live that way, it makes us feel good at the time, but we always had felt some sadness when we left and handed the keys over to a stranger. Would the gardens grow over? Would the additions be neglected? And sometimes, on a glum day—why did we waste our time just to do it all over again?

When we set out to simplify this was knocking around in the back of our heads, and definitely made setting up on family property a no-brainer. Let’s put the effort in now for any number of people that we care about to enjoy after we inevitably move on to something new. Let’s build a little place to call home for a few years, and hopefully one day we’ll visit our nieces and nephews in the space, enjoying some newfound freedom! Let’s build a big garden that the family can eat off of for years to come. Let’s invest in fruit trees and berries. Let’s build our little structure to get lot’s of sunlight in the winter and nice shade in the summer.

So, back to the question about wheels. With all those feelings, putting wheels didn’t make sense to us. We wanted to build roots so that our little home to grow old with property of which its a part. Our structure is more aligned with the “mother-in-law” unit or Accessory-Dwelling Unit (ADU) than it is with notion of a roving house on wheels.

But why are a lot of tiny houses on wheels?

There are two main reasons it seems.

First, it’s a great way to build something on family or friend’s property then move it when you can afford your own property (or wear out your welcome). Second and possibly most importantly, codes and permits (kind of) don’t apply to things on wheels. (though you are restricted to eight feet wide to take your house on the road – which, is a very tight design constraint)

How did we work with codes?

We knew we were building something fixed on family property. So, we started researching ADUs. These usually fall into three catagories : finishing unfinished space (attic, basement, garage, etc.), converting an existing outbuilding (which we considered), or building from scratch (which we did).

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An early idea. Converting an attic space above a workshop.



We were pretty set on doing a strawbale structure. But we scrapped this. It was too late in the season to start a water vulnerable project.


During our research into county code, we learned that in our area, structures less than 200 sq ft could be built without a permit. The main other restriction in that code was that our structure couldn’t be more than twelve feet above the ground. That’s where we started.

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Here is our first draft at a sub 200 sq ft design.

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Another angle of the first 200 sq ft design



Next Time : We’ll answer, why 183 sqft?

Hint :


Why Tiny?


We aren’t sure about how this blog is going to work.

It’s been on our minds to share our tiny home building experience and we’ve been encouraged by the questions and interest we’ve had along the way. We also want to jot down for posterity as much we can while the trials and tribulations are still fresh on our brains. We hope these ruminations and anecdotes are inspirational and informative. If building a tiny house is something you’ve been thinking about, or curious about, we hope you’ll follow along. And please jump in with questions and comments. We have a lot of topics we aim to discuss, but if there’s something you’re itching to know now, please interject. We will be happy to write on that topic. We have no agenda to follow.

As sort of a disclaimer, our tiny home is still in the works (now and forever). We’re designing and building as we go and as we discover more about our habits and needs. We have a lot of work to do building storage and built-in seating and such. Plus, we plan to develop the surrounding property with outdoor living spaces and an edible landscape. More on that when we get there. Nonetheless, we’re moved-in and the major work is done.


Anyhow, here’s where we’re at right now :


  • Square footage :    about 183 (plus a sleeping loft)
  • Location :    Pacific Northwest on family property (in the back of an acre lot)
  • Broke ground:    August 28, 2014
  • Moved in :    November 27th, 2014
  • Percentage of materials from salvage :     about 75%
  • Pounds of nails pulled from salvaged boards :    30
  • Novice builders (gracious volunteers) :    19
  • Man hours to date:     about 1200
  • Amount spent to date:     about $3100
  • First completed repair :    Roof Leak (January, 4th 2015)
  • First repair needed:    December 5th, 2014 (window blew out on a windy day, still needs fixing)



We went back and forth on how to present our path to building a tiny house … we decided to just share our abridged conversation :

O: When did we start talking about building a tiny house?

D: I think we were both feeling burnt out on high rent and long hours while we were living in Brooklyn, and wanted a freer and more self sufficient lifestyle. We had both started to hear about tiny houses and then I gave you that tiny house book for your birthday! Ha! What really appealed to me was that creative and hardworking, yet inexperienced builders, were creating charming and livable spaces for themselves.

O: I think lifestyle is a key word in that description. For me, the cost of living and the job was one thing, but in my off hours I wasn’t feeling like I could live the life I wanted to live.

D: And what was that?

O: I didn’t feel connected to the natural world. I wanted to be more connected to my food sources and to trees and the places that you can’t find in a city. And so we started talking about moving to a place that was basically the opposite of Brooklyn and North Carolina was an option with your job so we moved there. And I think we did find a lot of the things I was looking for.

D: Are we going to talk about our foray into buying a house?

O: Oh, right. That’s important.

D: You obsessively started looking for houses to buy in North Carolina and we went down and were talking to real estate people and looked at a bunch of houses and we both felt like that wasn’t the situation we wanted to get into – of having a mortgage. Partly because we were trying to lessen our financial responsibility for where we live and partly because we already have a bunch of debt from school. Especially me. And taking on a mortgage felt like something we couldn’t do. We shouldn’t do.

O: Yeah. It’s crazy that I was so bent on buying something. I think I just wanted a big change–to get out of the city and be more connected to the land. Moving to North Carolina was going to be that. We made the decision to move there without knowing where we’d live exactly. When we were out looking at properties we found Saxapahaw. And it seemed like that spoke to us.

D: The small town. In the middle of bunch of farms.

O: With people our age farming and thinking about building a local economy and sustainability.

D: A community that cared a lot about food and building community around that.

O: So how did we get to the tiny house here?

D: We could talk about how we were deciding between settling there for a while or moving closer to our families. Or you could talk about how you started building and then we did that workshop.

O: Yeah. A lot of inspiration came from working as a carpenter in North Carolina. I felt empowered to build something of my own and was inspired by Logan’s (Heirloom Builders) approach to building and the self-sufficient lifestyle he was creating. The strawbale workshop was pretty influential in our initial designs for the tiny house. And also the philosophy behind building your own shelter.

D: So then I think we flung out to the universe that we wanted to do that for ourselves once we landed in the Northwest.  And we talked to my mom about converting the loft above the woodshop or the room near the carport using the natural building practices we learned.

O: Then, when we were still on the road, your mom mentioned that there was a shed that had to come down and that’s when we first started to think about building from scratch.

D: We landed without much of a plan of what we were going to build.

O: And we started to build a week later.



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Next week, we’ll talk about our initial design ideas and how we settled on a design.





If you’re looking for more info now, we have a section devoted to books that have inspired us HERE.