MINOT — The Japanese have always been known for economy of space. Who doesn’t remember the indelible “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer accommodated his Asian guests at bedtime by tucking them into large dresser drawers – and closing them. While this may be an extreme example that fired up TV ratings, for years Japan has understood the profound impact of doing more with less. Apparently, so has Minot native Tarsha Downing.
“I’ve always liked small things,” Downing said recently by phone from her job as a nanny in Mass., revealing a lifelong penchant for small cereal boxes and children. Referencing a magazine story she read in June of 2009 in which Yale graduate student Elizabeth Turnbull chronicled the building of her own tiny house, framed on an 8-by-18-foot flatbed trailer, Downing, 29, soon set her own diminutive sails on a course toward Lilliputian living.
Researching the country's burgeoning tiny house movement and enlisting the help of family, friends and faith, Downing affirmed she's had "a relationship with God (her) whole life." In fact her tiny house fact-finding mission yielded results she could barely imagine, something she attributes largely to faith.
“All summer I thought about it,” Downing recalled, adding that when a friend asked how she was planning to celebrate her 28th birthday on Sept. 19, 2009, she committed, shortly thereafter, to building the house.
Mind over materials
With a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Maine, Orono, and nearing completion of work toward a master’s degree in leadership studies from the University of Southern Maine, Downing admittedly knew nothing about building. “When she sets her mind to something, she does it,” said her sister (one of four), Trina Downing-Hackett. “In fact when she brought our Uncle Norm her measurements for the house and everything she wanted in it, he told her they were closer than those of many carpenters.”
Downing arrived at specs for the house first by online research and perusing other people’s plans, and then by building a model (called the “tiny version”) to scale. Next, Downing recruited her Uncle Norm Gauthier, director of maintenance for Clover Manor in Auburn. Conceding she and Gauthier were not close before the project began, things changed dramatically when the two essentially became partners in the project, getting to know each other along the way.
Gauthier, who for years has built and renovated homes and installed solar panels — a requisite for Downing who was acutely aware of dialing down energy use — quipped that before the tiny house, “the only nails Tarsha had ever dealt with were at the end of her fingers.” All that changed because of her intense motivation and ability to apply herself to the research, materials acquisition and construction process, something Gauthier duly acknowledged.
Downing, who paid for her college classes and had paid off student loans, discovered that the amount of solar panels needed — typically costing about $20,000 for an average-size home — was considerably less for a tiny house, whose projected dimensions were 8.5 by 18 by 13.5 feet, including a sleeping loft, or 144 square feet.
In fact, except for the solar panels and a composting toilet, much of the house’s furniture and furnishings came from eBay and craigslist.org, according to Gauthier, with the rest purchased at Ikea and Target or recycled and repurposed from friends and family.
“I tell people all the time if it’s not pretty and doesn’t have multiple uses, it can’t go into my house,” Downing said. While logging every purchase on an Excel spreadsheet, Downing was able to get her front door and windows from the Maine Building Materials Exchange in Lisbon and further hold down expenses by purchasing such items as a direct-vent furnace model from the previous year.
A house is born
Downing commuted from Massachusetts on weekends to work on the house beginning in November 2009, with upwards of two dozen family members and friends assisting and taking up the slack in between. The fully insulated house — named “Harper Joy” for the sound a harp makes when praising God and for Downing’s good friend Joy Mason — was completed in April of this year and currently sits on 100 acres of family land in Minot. It meets electrical, gas and plumbing codes.
As a birthday present, Gauthier presented Downing with a “how to” owner’s manual, replete with personalized instructions on how to winterize, purge, drain and switch over equipment, batteries, propane and more when the time comes. It's all useful information given Downing's affinity for her Maine roots, and uncertainty about where she will ultimately live and locate the house, which is built atop a trailer. Until that decision, she will continue to stay in the house when she visits family and friends here in Maine.
“Right from the beginning, I said I was going to build my house with faith, family and friends, and it happened just like that,” Downing said. “God wrote the story for me, and I can’t believe I’m the girl in the story.”
Going to build your own tiny house?
Here's some of the equipment used in Tarsha Downing's house:
— Rinnai direct-vent 19,000 btu propane furnace
— Four Kyocera Solar Inc. 135-watt 12-volt solar panels
— Xantrex Freedom Series power inverter (for solar panels)
— Sunforce charge controller
— Interstate batteries
— On-demand instant propane hot water heater (obtained from craigslist.org)
— 35-gallon water tank
— Composting toilet