Dee Williams used to spend her weekends completing household chores. Now, she spends quality time with her 89-year-old neighbor. She used to spend upwards of $300 to heat her house in the winter. Now she spends $8. She used to worry about her mortgage, whether Portland was where she really wanted to live, and about her job. Today, Williams has no mortgage, can pick up and move anytime she wants, and she has a career she loves. The difference? Eight years ago, Williams moved out of her traditional-sized house in SE Portland and into a house on wheels, a less than 200-square-foot tiny house, as they are called.
Williams, who is the co-owner/operator of Portland Alternative Dwellings (PAD) along with friend and business partner Joan Grimm, was inspired to make the leap to tiny house living after receiving a harrowing email from a friend doing relief work in Uganda. “At the time, I was slowly remodeling my house and I got this email right after I had just spent $300 on a new dishwasher,” explains Williams. “It forced me to think about how I was living my one precious life. I’m a kind, generous, funny, quirky person and I don’t get to exer- cise that because I’m so busy at my job making money to pay my bills. I started PAD because I knew I wasn’t alone in the desire to leave all that behind.”
Originally focused on tiny house design and construction, in the seven years since Williams founded the company with carpenter Katy Anderson, PAD has expanded its concentration to consulting and educational workshops. “We’ve worked to identify how we can inspire and educate people about these pretty significant cultural shifts that are required when you want to shoehorn yourself into a space the size of a dorm room,” Williams says. “This is less than 200 square feet, probably smaller than most people’s garages, smaller than some people’s bathrooms. So that requires a really rigorous review of what you want and what you need. I don’t know of anybody who wants to feel like they’re living a spartan life. You want to participate in your life and you don’t want where you live to be a place that limits that.”
PAD’s workshops cover all the tricks and tips of the trade for those interested in potentially building and living in their own tiny house. “We walk folks through how to make the interior flow so it feels comfortable and you don’t feel claustrophobic or like you’re living like a pauper,” explains Williams. “Moisture control and ventilation in a little space like this is a real concern. We also talk a lot about how you do systems like gas, electric, and plumbing.” Legal ramifications and code enforcement are also a topic covered, because as Grimm puts it, “It’s not entirely legal to live tiny,” due to tiny houses’ unique position of landing between being categorized as an accessory dwelling unit and an RV or travel trailer.
But despite the challenges of tiny house living, Williams and Grimm have noticed that over the years, the audience for PAD’s workshops has expanded greatly. “The demographic of the people who are interested in this has really transformed, in part because of the recession and the housing bubble,” says Grimm. “There really is a diverse group of people who are interested in this, whether they are super smart millennials or empty nesters looking to downsize. And then in between, there is also a group of people who are looking at this as an option not necessarily by choice, but two years of unemployment certainly changes expectations and this option becomes really exciting. We feel really passionate that this is a really viable solution for those people too.”
Grimm points out that tiny houses are also being used for other purposes beside primary dwelling units. “There are people who want them as an option for recreation, for having your mother-in-law to stay, or as an office space,” she says.
Ultimately, Williams and Grimm’s main goal is to get Portlanders thinking. “We hope to encourage folks to reconsider the size of their living space, whatever that may be, and to also dream about how to build and live in a more environmentally and socially responsible manner,” Williams says. “We know little houses on wheels are just one way to do that.”