Sunday, October 26, 2008

The End of the McMansion

The McMansion is soon to be a thing of the past. Passe' at last, thank god. There are property lots a quarter the size of mine up on the foothills of Salt Lake with houses that fill the lot, are three stories high, and block the lovely views for the home owners around them. They're hideous, and now they're too expensive to heat and cool and too large for one person to clean--it takes a cleaning crew to clean a McMansion. I've seen a lovely neighborhood with normal sized houses get up in arms about the neighborhood going to hell when someone buys one of the old houses, tears it down, and builds a monster house that blocks the view and crowds it's lot. Bigger isn't always better, but during the Bush years, it became the mantra of newly wealthy, upwardly mobile, living on stock dividends home buyers--tear it down and build it bigger, and seldom do they build it better.

It is possible to do more with less. Less money, less space, more efficiency, and a much smaller carbon footprint. I live in what was once a garage with a 400 sq ft original floor space. When I decided to convert it to "the little house," I added one room--a bathroom with a greenhouse sitting room. I carved a bit out of the original 400 sq ft room by building a large closet for my clothes and some storage, and I added a small utility closet that holds the water-heater. So in the end I'm back to roughly the original 400 sq feet. I don't feel crowded. I feel cozy. I have everything I need in terms of space. And everyone who's visited this space has asked when I'm going to move out, so they can move in. I have rented it in the past and never had to post an ad or wait more than a couple of days to find a good tenant--I now have a waiting list of people who want to live here and hope I move out again. I rented it once to a couple (I worried that it would be too small for two people) who lived here for five years. If you've lived in Manhattan or San Francisco and rented, this space is huge. I now realize that a family of three or four could live here, and in other countries it would be considered luxurious for that sized family.

There are things I hope to do someday that will make the little house energy independent. There is a small company in California that makes glass that is photosensitive--it turns darker in bright sunlight and it acts as a year-round solar collector for energy to heat the water used in the house. I have three door length panels of glass in the ceiling of the greenhouse and three along the south-facing wall. And there are two porthole skylights in the main room. There are two other windows and a door with a window. All that glass could be collecting and storing energy. I have a ceiling fan that brings warm air down in the winter, and reversed, it creates a cool breeze in the summer in conjunction with the swamp-cooler. I'd like to have a solar panel on the roof for the heating and cooking. For now I have a small gas stove in the kitchen that does not have a pilot-light (it must be lit with a match) and a small gas heater in the main room. There is a little electric heater built into the wall in the bathroom greenhouse that pumps a bit of warmth into the bathroom on snow days when sunlight isn't heating that room. It is at worst 60 degrees in the bathroom some mornings in the depths of winter. On sunny days it's toasty and a good place to soak up sun when days are short. I can live with that. Apparently so can everyone else who's lived here, since I've had to pry them out when I wanted to live in the cottage again.

The floor in the big room is concrete and painted. The bathroom/greenhouse floor is tiled--I did it myself and enjoyed every second of that work. I have some nice old rugs and these floors are a lovely background for them. But in the winter I wear warm socks and slippers.

Landscaping the area around the little house was done with an eye toward creating a space with it's own little forest and is mostly self-sustaining. I xeriscaped it before I'd heard the term. Where I planted, I planted bulbs and perenials. Some things took over and crowed out others, but I was too busy taking care of my mother by then to notice or do much about it. Eventually I realized that letting the strong survive is, in most cases, a good thing in a xeriscaped garden. It doesn't require a lot of human energy or water. Mint was one of the big winners in the survival race of the back garden. For a few years I tried to contain it. But now I make a lot of mint tea, and the dogs smell great when they've walked through one of the mint patches. Some of my tree plantings were a mistake and have since required removal--I planted two Navaho willows on the east side of the little house. They grow fast and can thrive in almost any kind of soil, and they provide deep shade--they're sometimes called Globe Willow. Yes, they did grow fast, and they became a problem for the public utilities guys who trim trees over-hanging power poles. The roots are notorious for invading sewer lines and create a lot of business for the rotorooter guy. I took one of them out when I had the money to do it, but those days are past and I no longer have the money to remove the other. It crowds the fence and has been trimmed by the utility companies into near death. Once I get my property taxes paid, I'll try to save for getting that remaining tree removed. I pray I won't need dental work or major car expenses in the meantime, or that tree will still be there next winter.

It's hard to get a good photo of the exterior of the little house because it is will hidden by plantings of shrubs and trees. But as best I can, I'm going to give you a look at this space. This or something like it is the way of the future. Here are some photos of the little house.

The Ubermilf's Writer's Challenge

My response to the Ubermilf's writer's challenge has been posted on Savage Stories and at Writer's United.