Using Every Cubic Foot in Home Design

In the Spring of 2014, I began a work-for-rent trade with my current landlord, staying in a spare room in the house in exchange for design and rough carpentry in the garden (repairing rabbit hutches, adding more chicken coops and garden beds, etc.) My landlord and I, who met in Permaculture Design Certification back in 2010, were operating my “lease” on a model similar to the Transition Lab’s Skilled Resident Program — which applied permaculture principles to match the resources of underutilized housing and skill sets.

Suddenly, in mid-2015, the tenant of the back cottage on the property moved away. I immediately saw an opportunity to try my hand at home renovation. As a designer by education and as a bit of a back-to-the-lander in spirit, it is one of my life goals to design and build a house; and as I am developing my coaching practice, I saw a great chance to not only play towards that goal with a practice house, but also accomplish a large project that would take some learning, challenge and organization to complete. My landlord gave me the go-ahead to start making repairs, and to move in by the end of summer. One and a half years later, at a rental cost of 20 hours a month (or cash contribution of expenses), I’m finally coming to a solid point of completion — both with building the house, and with living in it.

My purpose here is to write about my experience of designing and living in an urban house with the ethics of reuse and wise use (planet care), and human interaction and utility (people care). To me, this design constitutes an application of urban permaculture — even though it does not include cob, earth construction, and other more rustic, primitive solutions — those aren’t what I am playing with here. In the urban and suburban setting, we’ve got to work with what already exists (existing resources, built environment, empty lots, et cetera) to make spaces that accommodate the activity of a growing, increasingly creative and self-sufficient population.

Cooking zone by the open front door, with new cabinets, pegboard and DIY counters.
Mini-fridge hack: plenty of food storage space for 1–2 people, plus mason jars and tequila!
Instead of a fridge on my porch, it became tool storage, and the evening sit spot. Duh.

Kitchen — Fire Mouth

At 6' by 9', my kitchen is smaller than many people’s closets. The previous tenants had less than 4 square feet of usable counter space — behind the massive refrigerator, which was hiding half the storage space beneath the counter and sink. The front door would not open all the way due to the 40-gallon water heater taking up 24" of an eighteen inch space. DIY particle-board shelves ringed the ceiling (annoying to reach for at 7' high) and inhabited the wall behind the stove (hazardous to your health to reach while cooking).

The first two transformations in this space were in removing appliances. I insisted on a tankless water heater, (a solar rooftop heater would be better but less reliable in winter) freeing the space behind the front door for a second countertop and 14" shelving above the fire mouth. We ended up donating the 30" fridge. I wanted to plug it in outside — it was still a working fridge, after all — but my landlord didn’t go for that. We found two tall, skinny mini-fridges — refrigerated cabinets, really — for less than $300 on craigslist. They stack nicely in the corner, have a real freezer, and allow extra storage space on top for rags and paper towels. Into the side of the fridge-stacker, I integrated custom mason-jar sized shelving from floor to ceiling. These, and the cabinets above the stove, were made from wood that was left over from a shop project that another client had cancelled midway through. I tiled over the burn-yourself-alive shelves (fire-proofing…) and opened them up to the next room.

Cooking in my kitchen is a nearly perfect embodiment of what R. Buckminister Fuller called the “Dymaxion house” — his “machine for living.” As I operate my kitchen, I never have to take more than three steps in either direction to get to what I want. There is no wasted effort by walking around looking for things — they are right there. Sometimes I do need to use a stepping stool to reach things, and I have to dry my dishes before I start cutting vegetables. Well, I suppose I could cut vegetables on the coffee table.

Living / Studio — Airspace

The room where I eat, have tea, host guests, paint, write, read, work, is 121 square feet. Sleeps 2. In ecological design, this is called “stacking functions” — we give a space or design element multiple compatible uses. It is a very cozy and beautiful space, which I painted sky blue to imitate the feeling of being outside. This was the only change I made to this room.

Unfortuntely, I never feel like I’m getting the benefit of being outside when I’m religiously checking facebook, clicking on tabloid websites, and dreaming up better business plans — most of which haven’t happened yet. In order to get the benefit of being outside, I have to actually go outside, and often, I do eat or drink tea in the garden, or do wood shop work on the porch. (Outside: by far, the most important room in any house.)

This room was made using abundant urban waste. The furniture in this room are mostly ground scores and cost me no more than $100. My tea shelf is made of broken old futon frames which I chopped up and reassembled. It cost me $0. The coffee table has a glass window in it and fluorescent lights installed underneath so that it doubles as a tracing table. At $40, I spent more on the fluorescent daylight setup for that table than for all of the furniture in this room. The coffee table itself cost $0. The office organization equipment are ground scores. The little hemp bag I carry a couple books in to read on the BART train is a ground score. The ground covers in my living room are Hippie Christmas ground scores. The picture frames are ground scores. There is no shortage of black picture frames in this country.

Sleeper / Library — Earth Plane

The bedroom is also 11x11, but it has a closet cut out of it to make it smaller. Naturally, the closet is small, and I have to make the most out of it with shelving. The left side of the closet has two stacking IKEA dressers that fit perfectly in that space. Clothing accessories and coats get hung out on the walls for easy access. Stacking shelves double as seating for music practice and maximize the use of cubic space in the room.

The room is laid out with exactly enough space to do sun salutations at bedside, which I did for 30 days in a row this summer. If you’ve never tried to challenge yourself to a routine like that, I highly recommend committing to a practice that suits you, and then doing what you say you will do. In my room, artwork is placed strategically on the four walls as focal points for yoga practice, which helps maintain stability. I post an old Viewmaster reel by the window on the fourth wall.

Solving for pattern with the floor tile

Bathroom — Water Altar

Extra storage shelf grandfathered in from over the stove
Finished bathroom — ready to go!

As unusable as the kitchen was, the bathroom was in the worst shape out of all the rooms of the house. The tub had rusted through itself and the floor was rotting out halfway through the joists below the wobbly toilet. It looked like it was about to fall through. My first job, clearly, was to remove the toilet and cut a square hole out of the floor to see how bad it was.

I spent the next week doing anything but this task. “I’m gonna cut open the floor after learning how to do this on YouTube!?” All the best monkey mind symptoms came out. “I’ve never done this before… What if I screw it up?” Blah blah blah. After enough YouTube videos and a couple trips to the hardware store, I made the first cuts and cracked open the floor. Holy shit! The big crossbeam that the joist was sitting on was starting to have a little surface rot. We covered that up quick and sistered the joists on each side of the sewer pipe. This was nearly impossible as the house had been built with less than a foot of crawl space at this part of the house and there’s water and gas pipes all over the place. I spent another week doing anything but this task. This is why a house needs a crawl space (or an earthen floor!) After a solid while of “how the fuck do I get myself through this one?” I ended up feeding the extra joists into the crawl space through the access point under the bedroom, using ropes to bring them over into position, and then cutting a third hole through the floor in the kitchen to secure the second joists to the originals under the kitchen floor.

Then the tub got removed, and I noticed again that there was rot and termite damage through the floorboards underneath and that squirrels had been nesting inside, leaving a solid mat of forest duff in the cavity. Rather than repair the floor, I built a shallow box to raise the level of the floor and we installed a shower pan. We designed an inset into the wall opposite the shower head as a bath altar, and reversed the old kitchen shelves to face the bathroom.

The floor tile was designed to reflect the elements of water and earth… and also to work with the fact that the floor was a little uneven. The T pattern in the floor tile (and wall tile) was installed to cover the inconsistent surfaces and prevent large broken tile from further shifting of the house. By doing what permaculturists call “solving for pattern,” I created a unique design that fits the space and hopefully protects the work from a floor that might shift again over time.

Project Completion

Moving out after a solid two years interacting with this house, I realize the extent of the toolsets needed for a homesteader’s life. A kitchen is a hell of a collection of things — you can do okay with one frying pan and a knife, but you really do want a lot more tools than that to make the most of your time when you’re settled. Things like canning jars and food storage bins. I have tools for cooking, carpentry, tea, art, music, technology — clothing and toiletries and the organization for them. They fit well into the house — and yet they didn’t fit in a standard cargo van, and might not fit in a small box truck.

There is an extent to which I don’t believe in the de-cluttering manifestoes. “Get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy” is the latest one I heard. This is important, but what of utility? Going without a proper kitchen for an extended period of time is expensive, because you eat out all the time. Not having a screwdriver means you depend on a handyman to put your furniture together. This works if the salaries of the handyman and the cook are less than yours, but for most people, it doesn’t add up just yet. By all means, get rid of that which does not serve you. But let us maintain the tools that give us life and build community.

The bigger waste of attention than the having of stuff is in the moving of stuff. If only we could liberate human attention from moving stuff — into creating furnished, decorated places that evolve with layer after layer of interaction with different occupants. Community kitchens and living rooms. Ubiquitous stuff that everyone uses. To trust that the means of a good life are available anywhere. I would love to live a nomad’s lifestyle but always be able to support and maintain and be supported by the physical space that enables art, music, food, et cetera. Personal de-cluttering and mobility coupled with community sufficiency.

What I see is that in this country, there is housing and tools enough for a billion people to inhabit and tend to the land, and to live beautifully. It is not going to happen by building more high-rise condos for the rich, nor is it an individual task that can happen by each person on their own. It must happen on the community level. We must be creative enough to re-envision what our existing homes and communities look like in order to build regenerative communities — to make spaces work for functions that they did not adequately serve before, and to create new functions of space and place that help our regenerative systems emerge.

Where are you working too hard or dangerously to overcome the obstacles of bad design? How can what you are doing be supported in efficiency by good design? I invite you to look and see where we can make some edits to our environment, to design a world that works with more ease and grace for humans and nature.

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