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Luxuriously Less: Living Little in West Texas

Those who have taken part in the growing trend of small-space living demonstrate how less can often be more.

| July/August 2011

  • Inspired by classic desert architecture, Patricia Kern handbuilt her tiny home and a guest home on the wild southwestern edge of Texas.
    Photo By Nigel Valdez

Over the past decade or so, the U.S. building industry has been influenced by green thinking. Advances in insulation, technology and design mean our homes have become more efficient. But despite these advances, the typical house built today requires almost as much energy to heat and cool as the average home built in 1960 because of an explosive growth in home size. In 1960, average U.S. home size was 1,200 square feet. By 2008, it had soared to more than 2,500.

Today, financial and environmental concerns, personal preference and our rapidly growing population are working together to encourage us to consider the wisdom of living in smaller spaces. In fact, in 2009, U.S. houses got smaller on average for the first time in 30 years. This certainly isn’t the first time humans have lived in small spaces out of necessity. Many cultures share a story of a family or individual displeased with the small size of their house. They are advised by the local sage/priest/rabbi/oracle/guru/medicine woman to bring a goat/cow/gnu/elephant/ox into their home for a few weeks. When it leaves, they find their house magically has expanded.

Modern small house dwellers sometimes mimic this by taking a vacation on a sailboat, or by inviting a dozen friends to spend a week in their home. Others stay at home and study history or anthropology, comparing themselves to our ancestors or to people far away. Understanding the normal scale of human existence tends to make most North Americans aware of our good fortune, at least in the material realm. Many of us could also learn this lesson with a trip across town. It is likely that someone not too far from you lives simpler and smaller. Volunteering in literacy programs, in hospitals or with the homeless can offer a fresh perspective on our own living situations.

In Texas, a woman found downsizing to be one of the most freeing experiences of her life. The story of her home may inspire you.

Living Little: A True Story 

The southwestern edge of Texas is as wide and open as our Texan friends insisted it would be. As we drove through, my mind imagined how a person could dream of filling up the space with human endeavors, to soften the sun’s glare and break up the unfenced waves of desert soil and tiny wildflowers. Such an attempt would be foolish: The area’s precious feature is its emptiness. To fill it would diminish this great something to nothing. Despite the open vistas and clear air, Patricia Kern’s settlement appeared to jump up suddenly when we were less than a quarter mile away. We saw the guesthouse first, an adobe dome a few shades paler than the ground it rises from. Beyond and below it, in a small, flat depression, was Patricia’s open-air kitchen, shade structures, and her small round, straw-bale casita.

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