Less is more: How and why I live large in a tiny house

This week we hear from guest blogger, Christy Tinsley Ilfrey, a Texas-based writer, gardener, runner, animal rescuer, and co-owner of NativeDave, a sustainable landscaping firm, plant nursery, and farm.

My family and I live in a tiny house we built ourselves on five acres in Texas Coastal Bend. Growing up in a sprawling metropolitan area, I was surrounded by enormous houses, shiny new cars, and shopping venues from bargain and second-hand to high-end luxury retailers. The race to upgrade, to be in a constant flow of accumulating money and material possessions did not resonate with me. Having them is nice but wealth in and of itself does not motivate me, I discovered. I needed to pursue a passion, or passions, that would give meaning and contribute to making the world better.

When I was 16 or 17 years old I read Thoreau’s Walden and suddenly Life made sense. To live deliberately, with purpose, and honest self-reliance felt authentically “me.” Of course, the transition from spa days and sports cars to homegrown produce and pickup trucks did not happen overnight or as organically, or romantically, as I would have liked. What has emerged, however, is a vision for life and business guided by four key principles: Conserve, preserve, restore, and celebrate.

Our search for the property to become known as Sage Hollow lasted nearly five years. The parcel we chose was raw, undeveloped land mostly comprised of stands of Live Oak-Redbay forest separated by ephemeral ponds. Typically the ponds are dry and covered by coastal prairie grasses, such as Brushy Bluestem and Coastal Bluestem. The layout of our home, nursery, and gardens considered the natural integrity of the property as well as the potential for flooding. The home site, we decided, would straddle the edge of a section of forest and a dry pond, and would be constructed on a platform above the water marks left on the surrounding trees by previous flood events.

I was drawn to the concept of tiny homes due to their efficient design. A tiny home incorporates elements that have more than one use – a table that folds into a sofa or a bed, a door that doubles as a hanging closet, etc. In this way, the tiny home uses fewer construction materials and curbs waste. Its design promotes conservation of natural materials harvested for construction and reduces construction waste in landfills. Our tiny home would go a step further by emerging from a pile of discarded construction waste, thereby diverting hundreds of pounds of materials from the landfill. All told, approximately 85% of our construction materials derived from that pile.

A view of the Tinsley-Ilfrey tiny home. Photo by Christy Tinsley Ifrey.

To bring electricity to our home, we planned for a combination of solar panels and wind turbines. We started with inexpensive, low-wattage panels and worked up to a heftier configuration. Although gulf breezes are abundant in coastal south Texas, we excluded the wind turbine and opted instead for a gas-powered generator. Having lived off-grid through hurricanes, floods, a pandemic, and historic winter storms; we appreciate the versatility and universality of our backup energy source. The current solar array is powerful enough to run an air conditioner on clear, sunny days during the hottest summer days. But to operate this appliance at night, we must rely on our generator. Eventually we will add enough panels and deep-cycle batteries to sustain our energy consumption.

Sourcing water has proven to be the greatest challenge in terms of amenities. Rainwater harvesting was our primary method for collecting and storing water for the nursery and gardens, and for household cleaning uses. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 destroyed that system and only recently the portion servicing the nursery and gardens was restored. In the interim, we purchased well water in bulk from a neighbor and pumped it into our holding tanks. We also now have access to a small freshwater reservoir that we tap into to irrigate our garden. Drinking water, however, has always been purchased at one of the local kiosks and stored in 1-, 3- and 5-gallon bottles. Future plans call for full restoration of rainwater harvesting and expansion to include a filtration system for producing potable water.

From the beginning, my quest to create a simpler, more meaningful life has been underlined by a penchant for independence and intentionality. Sage Hollow is working toward resource independence by conserving natural and monetary resources. But what about other resources, like food and human effort? Planting a garden is one of the most important skills and steps toward self-sufficiency.

If one must rely on others for sustenance, she will never truly be independent.

With each season we become more successful produce gardeners, saving money while preserving our health. Living in a tiny home all but eliminates impulsive purchases; and a smaller home means lower costs to heat and cool, deliver energy, and make repairs when necessary. Less space means less time spent housekeeping and more time for loved ones and pursuing one’s interests. Most importantly, we have rewired our brains along with this shift in priorities to invest in experiences rather than “things”. The tenets of our vision – to conserve, preserve, restore, and celebrate Life – govern us at home, work, and school, and beyond. After all, deliberate, intelligent, and thoughtful intentions make the most significant strides toward a better world.

One of the gardens Christy and her family maintain for self-sufficiency. Photo by Christy Tinsley Ifrey.

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