Olympia woman pens memoir about life in her 84 square foot home

Olympia woman pens memoir on her ‘tiny’ life

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comMay 21, 2014 


Dee Williams sits next to her comfortable bed loft area inside of her 84-square-foot-house in Olympia on Monday, May 12, 2014. Below Williams are her closet for clothes, bottom left, and her kitchen, bottom right, and with the entrance to her home behind her foot. The home is open with 2 big skylights providing a bright living environment. (Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer)


It doesn’t take long for Dee Williams to give a visitor a tour of her Olympia house. She simply stands in one spot and spins a 360.

As she turns she’ll point out the composting toilet, the small maritime heater, the loft she sleeps in. It doesn’t take much to fill a home that’s only 84 square feet.

For the last 10 years Williams has been living in the small and tidy structure in the backyard of close friends. The home has no running water and no refrigerator but, she says, it’s all that she needs.

“I feel like my life has gotten a lot bigger,” Williams says.

Though Williams and her small home have been profiled previously in The Olympian, she has just come out with a memoir on her life in her little home. “The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir” hit stores April 22 and has already gotten national attention, including a feature in The New York Times.

Williams’ journey from big to tiny began in 2004 in Portland. Without warning Williams collapsed one day in a grocery store (“Next to the onion bin”).

Diagnosed with congestive heart failure and sporting a newly-implanted defibrillator in her chest Williams realized that she wanted to make some changes in her life. One of those was not having a house with its attendant mortgage and never-ending list of repairs. So, she sold her three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot bungalow.

Using salvaged materials (she found cabinet trim and her front door in dumpsters) and a $10,000 budget, Williams built the structure in Portland with a lot of help from friends. Outfitted with wheels she had it towed to Olympia.

Williams, 51, is now a part time hazardous waste inspector for the Washington State Department of Ecology. Living in a space smaller than some storage lockers necessitates a paring down of possessions. Williams has only a few dishes and a meager wardrobe.

A doomsday prepper Williams is not. She stores two or three days worth of food at any one time.

But that, Williams says, has given her a completely different relationship to food compared with her previous life. She now places a high emphasis on local, fresh food.

“The (Olympia Food) Co-op isn’t just the co-op. It’s my pantry,” Williams says.

The small house has changed the way she relates to living spaces. She designed it around her body, measuring, for instance, how high the ceiling would need to be to prevent hitting her head when rising. That, in turn, changed her relationship with nature.

“You can’t sleep with your head 4 feet from the ceiling and not hear the rain.”

The small space means having a separate room or even a screen for the toilet impossible. Does that sometimes create awkward situations, say, when a guest is over?

“The answer to that would be ‘yes’ in big, bold puffy letters,” Williams says.

What little power she needs is met by a 240-watt solar array a few feet from her home. She runs her stove off a propane tank that she last filled in June for $8.

Her sleeping loft holds a double bed. She has to kneel while making it. She doesn’t mind. “We’re so adaptable,” she observes as a young neighbor boy bounces on it. Her house is a big hit with children, she notes.

While some of Olympia’s larger homes have area rugs bigger than her home Williams notes her living conditions aren’t that unusual for many people.

“I’m not at all in the extreme for most of the world’s population,” Williams said.

Williams has no mortgage, few bills and spends only 10 minutes cleaning her home. She spends part of her free time as the co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings where she leads workshops on small houses, green building and community design.

Williams acknowledges that not everyone would say she lives an independent life. She relies on her neighbors, Hugh and Annie, for their yard and their water as well. But, she says, independence wasn’t her goal.

“I think I’ve rewired myself,” Williams says. “It’s helped me see that we’re not autonomous.” She became a companion and helper for Hugh’s aunt Rita for several years until the elderly woman died recently. Williams used Rita’s house for showers.

Williams’ health has improved since her move to the Big Tiny. Her defibrillator used to fire daily. “I could have jump-started your car,” she observes. Now, it fires just once a month on average.

Williams is not an evangelist. She knows that most could not take her lifestyle and even she admits, “I’m happy about 85 percent of the time.” But, that’s enough.

“I want a lot but that doesn’t mean I need it. And those feelings pass.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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