By Erica Paige Schumacher
“Home” is a word that soothes and also provokes yearning in all people across the globe. Symbolically, it is a refuge from the world’s storms, conflicts, and severe weather; spiritually, it’s a place of rest and a touch stone of familiarity, memory, evolving life, and meaning. It’s also a place where we can close the door on the world’s endless unfolding and its bottomless demands to find rest and rejuvenation. It’s where we sleep and wake up as the planet spins, and where we return to find bread, books or entertainment, family, and our belongings—however vast or meager these might be.
In Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, Odysseus fights monsters, inner battles, the Gods, and his own tendencies, simply to return to his family, his dog Argus, and his origins. Abraham Maslow cites “food, clothing, and shelter,” as the primordial first step in human development (before “love” can exist) in his famous pyramid scale towards self-actualization. And today, there are “sleep-outs” in Scotland and across the globe to remind everyone that all human beings need shelter and a home as a basic human right, or they will perish. Even the word “home” provokes deep thought in most of humanity—its importance has been written about in every culture since the beginning of time, and the feeling we get when we utter its sound, resonates musically, and perhaps even evokes a meditative state or the heavenly/spiritual realms within us.
As a result of the turbulent tides of our postmodern world, with rising costs, and diminishing resources, many people are choosing to downsize, simplify, and create new or useful modular dwellings, “smaller homes,” or alternative kinds of homes, community, and living spaces that provide practicality, utility, simpler living, or cleaner energy usage and refuge.
In the Hudson Valley, the tiny and small house movement as well as living in modified churches, farmhouses, and unique community dwellings has taken root for very practical reasons. Humans need places to live that they can afford, or at least exist in over time, and the “simplicity movement” that has begun the world over in many different forms appeals to the place where inner values dovetail with the necessity of the world’s current need. Embodying these values as people can imaginatively manifest them within their own means or with assistance from society or through home or community “sharing” is paramount for the future.
Ideally now or in the near future, modular, prefab, and container homes can be used as patterned designs for our most vulnerable communities: veterans, the transient peoples of all nations, war-torn migrants, for runaway teens who seek a calm place of rest away from the dark shadows of abusive environs, and for ordinary citizens pushed out of houses and apartments by rising costs, gentrification, health challenges, and stagnant/fixed incomes or lost wages.
Ultimately, while the body politic aligns itself in partisan blocks of conflict sometimes to the extreme, most of our societal problems and needs are being overlooked, or at least overshadowed. Many of our challenges can be solved through the recognition that all human beings need similar basic things. One pivotal solution to these problems is the idea that design can be efficiently imagined and mechanized, and if produced on a large enough scale and implemented locally for people, cost can be mitigated simply and proportionally, providing two vital needs of every community—homes and work.
Habitat for Humanity need not be the only model for community success; designs and creative thinking in a community and by the community can carry a multitude of options forward for greater human and planetary balance and affordable housing, and these solutions need not be stark or punishing. Theoretically, they can be efficient and beautiful, and provide dignity and aesthetic nourishment—if produced on a large enough scale using design solutions from across the globe.
Charles Petersheim is founder of Catskill Farms homes. His firm builds new homes and renovates existing houses in all sizes. He has been experimenting with smaller homes his firm and others call “The Shack Series,” which typically run around 700 square feet. While he agrees that design can accommodate many of society’s challenges, he makes the important distinction that “tiny” doesn’t always mean “less expensive.” Though he designs new homes and retrofits existing structures in Woodstock, Saugerties, and throughout the Hudson Valley—and builds smaller homes as part of his design and build territory—he states that at the moment, new smaller homes can be just as costly, or pricier per square foot, than choosing a more moderate-sized abode that meets a family or individual’s daily requirements.
He currently considers the tiny house movement to be a niche market that caters to magazines and to those in the design field, however, for practical purposes his advice is to purchase a home that is a little larger, say 1,000 square feet with rooms that will be used efficiently. “We have worked on one story retro-ranches with reduced bedroom sizes that have worked very well…if there’s a trend in the Hudson Valley, it’s to buy space you’re going to use…the cost of a smaller house doesn’t necessarily match the price points of people who want them.”
In addition, although design can solve many issues for transient populations, Petersheim notes that often people who state they would like to assist the home-insecure in society commonly don’t or won’t allow those structures in their own neighborhoods. Ultimately, for individuals wanting or needing to downsize, he suggests finding less expensive land to build on from scratch in a lower tax area, whether the home is experimental, ecologically structured, or larger and more traditional. Then, if you want a “smaller, more efficient or ecological” home, don’t make it so small that it’s not practical. His design philosophy is simple: “To build little abodes for families to peacefully and affordably enjoy.”
Sarkis Simonian partners with Kristabelle McDermott on a formidable design-team working from their Modern Shacks design and build studio in Kingston. Their mission is simple and elegant: “To design alternative spaces to live, love, create and play in.” Their sample model for a smaller or ecological home is 625 square feet, larger and more practical than a “tiny house,” and it is built on a foundation. The beautiful sample model is onsite in Kingston, and it is full of potential.
All the homes Simonian and McDermott are designing or building are customized for each individual client. “We were noticing a lot of clients were coming up to purchase second homes, but there wasn’t anything out there for them in terms of what they wanted design-wise, so they were hiring us to retrofit and remodel.” Often people who are moving into more natural settings want something a little different: a writing space, an artistic studio, or a smaller home that lets nature in and allows them to decompress from modernity.
“Kristabelle and I have a passion for modern homes and thought it would be better to offer people structures that have a smaller environmental footprint and alternative living spaces keeping in mind energy efficiency,” Simonian states. “All of our designs feature a wall of glass, allowing us to bring in the beauty of the Hudson Valley, while also taking in the benefits of passive solar gains.”
Many of McDermott and Simonian’s clients are on the upper economic scale—those who want a “getaway”, a second home away from urban life, or who are downsizing and want to live here permanently. He has also received requests from people who are interested in sharing community and costs, and designing for that. For example, he is working with a group of retired professional women who want to create a community of modern smaller homes. “They each want their own little house…they want to be neighbors with a communal building for a sense of community, socializing, and support.”
These kinds of ideas are not only better for longevity and quality of life in a community, but the concept of smaller homes compounds and adds social and economic value for the owner, the community, and the environment over time. “Every step in building a smaller home compounds the savings of natural resources,” Simonian states. “By building smaller homes we’re reducing our carbon footprint…we’re using fewer trees; efficient homes use less energy…they save energy costs and it all compounds into a smaller environmental impact over time.”
Larry Brown, a tiny house owner, builder, and solar expert of Sun Mountain Solar in the Hudson Valley, states he “has been living this simplicity/ecological movement” for a long time. He builds tiny houses for himself and others, as well as on-grid and off-grid solar systems for clients and individuals who want to reduce their impact on the planet, while living more sustainably and in deeper alignment with personal values. “Let’s just say I’ve been a homesteader and living simply for close to 50 years,” Brown states. “My first cabin that I built in Mt. Tremper was eight by 10 feet, and I lived there for two years. Now I am in my fifth (smaller) house, built for my family and myself. It is simple and allows for time to travel and be deeply involved in our local community.”
As for the exponential benefits of living more affordably, in simpler, smaller, or more thoughtfully designed ecological spaces, Brown added, “Simple living with low overhead gives us much more room to move and explore and to be creative. It can give us time to travel and play.”
For Brown, his clients, and other like-minded designers and individuals, the constraints of the modern planet and its pressures and resources can be the palette on which to paint viable solutions for sustainability, affordability, community and life goals. “I have built many homes and sacred spaces for clients over the years,” Brown said. “And we still continue to install grid-tied and off-grid solar electric systems for clients.” The reasons for Brown are personal, but also dovetail with the world’s desires and realities. “Not being in debt and being creative with friends and family and partners—and the choices we make in what we think we need—has so much influence on what we need to get along in the world.”
Like an extended family, some people are building tiny or smaller homes on family property to share costs, community, improve their ability to pay local taxes, and reduce their impact on the environment; others are downsizing upon retirement and building smaller homes in a community together with shared values making their own “micro-families” based on common goals and shared common or private living spaces, and others are combining these elements in terms of design, values, simpler ecological choices, house sharing in community for combined strength and support, and also just to make life changes based on financial constraints and economic realities—such as retirement or living on fixed incomes—as these facets of existence and the world itself evolves.
When thinking of buying a non-traditional home or a smaller home designed for special purposes or for general living, all builders and designers remind buyers to do their research, check with local authorities on building zoning, permits and ordinances, and to do careful analysis before making any kind of financial commitment. That research itself will often dictate your design choices and home building goals, purchasing or retrofitting decisions.
Photo: This 625-square-foot “Modern Shack” model is viewable on Route 28 in Kingston.