As I planned my house, I kept in touch with Bill and Athena Steen about a possible article in the Arizona Daily Star, where I worked. I hadn't shared my dilemma with them, but as they sent me an e-mail about a series of workshops they were giving, they also offered to assist with my house plans. I knew what they'd tell me -- that my house was too big.

"Okay," I replied," as long as you don't tell me I have to live with two teenage boys in 800 square feet!"

The front entrance.(photo: Rick Peterson)

"We have an architect, Wayne, living with us," Bill told me in a return e-mail, "who has been looking at ways we can live in less space, consume fewer building materials, and be perfectly happy. Houses have tripled in size since the 1950s and much of the space in them doesn't get used."

I had to agree with that. My boys' bedrooms had served as receptacles for dirty clothes and beds. They weren't used for much else. Our formal living room housed the fancy furniture, while we all hung out in the little den off the kitchen. And as for a formal dining room-every time I had people over to eat, we gathered outside around the barbecue. The holidays seemed to be the only time I needed a large dining table. I would be willing to rearrange the house for that. But my pantry and my master suite!

"Smaller houses won't sell, if I have to move," I replied. "I know that from being a real-estate agent."

"Houses need to be seen as more than investments," he replied. "If you can build something for $30,000 then you can sell it and move on easily. There is a growing market for smaller, less expensive houses."

He had a point. While a smaller house might not appeal to everyone, I had seen plenty of clients who would buy a smaller house if the mortgage payments fit into their budget. "Okay," I agreed. I had no strength left in me to object to anything. A have to relook at this whole project, anyway. I'd like to come out and see what Wayne is doing."

(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
The porch outside the bedroom
with clay sculptings.
I recalled an article by David Eisenberg entitled "Sustainability and the Building Codes," which stated that only one-third of the world's population lives in modern buildings, but these homes are so resource-intensive that they consume one-fourth of the world's wood harvest, two-fifths of its material and energy usage, and one-sixth of all fresh water usage. In the past one hundred years the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen 27 percent, one-quarter of which has come from burning fossil fuels just to provide energy for buildings. During the same period, the world lost 20 percent of its oxygen-creating forests.
Building a smaller house would not only ease my construction workload and lighten my financial strain, but do minimal damage to Earth's ecosystem. If I could find a way to live in a smaller house and still meet the needs of my family, I would consider it. So, that Friday in late July, after work, I once again found myself on the road to Canelo, hoping there would be a miraculous solution to all my doubts. Clouds rolled over the Santa Rita Mountains to my right, while brilliant bolts of lightning pierced through the blackness. I breathed deeply of the musty, damp desert air. As I neared the foothills, thick drops of rain spattered on my windshield and occasionally in my open window. I left it open, enjoying the coolness of the spray. Thunder exploded over the mountains to the west, which were now engulfed in dark mists. My breath slowed automatically as my little car and I became engulfed by the awesome magnificence of the thunderstorm on the empty, open highway.

(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
The porch was largely done by a carpenter.
Thanks, Randy!
As the storm subsided, I maneuvered down the driveway to Canelo, feeling energized and renewed. Wayne, Bill, and Athena were very polite as they rolled out my plans on their kitchen table. Knowing my stubbornness against reducing its size, they searched for ways to reduce the amounts of expensive lumber and concrete. Even so, their estimate of construction costs was between $50,000 and $1000,000. And they didn't figure there was any way I could do the labor on weekends within a year. We talked briefly about construction loans, but they felt the same way I did. Without prior building experience, there was no way to get around the bank's requirements for a general contractor and the subsequent limits of how much work I could do myself. I wouldn't be able to afford a loan, anyway. The evening grew late and the prospect of a mobile home was calling me louder and louder. Athena led me to their little straw bale guest house to sleep. I woke at 3 A.M. with the realization that, like it or not, I had to reduce the size of my house. Maybe I could cut out the computer room, reduce the main room and kitchen, shrink the bedrooms a little ...
When I wandered back into the main house at 7 A.M., the Steens were both at their computers and Wayne sat at his drawing table with some plans unrolled before him. He beckoned me toward him, showing me the drawings.
(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
The completed, fully plastered house
from the south.
"The Steens and I have been tossing around ideas for efficient use of space in smaller houses," he said. "This is a design we've been working on. It's for a guesthouse in Utah -- an 8oo-square-foot rectangle, with a sleeping loft and surrounding covered porch. The porch would be far less expensive to build than the finished core of the house and would serve as alternative living space." He had drawn in an area of the porch that was screened for summer sleeping, another portion as a south-facing sunroom for winter passive solar heating, then more room for outside dining and storage cupboards.

Memories of Hawaii's plantation homes with surrounding lanais flashed through my mind. All my objections melted away as I listened in fascination.

"My wife and I are looking at reducing our possessions and building this house ourselves, doing all the labor, for under $30,000."

That was all I needed to hear. A solution!

Athena chimed in, "You can have storage cupboards for kitchen appliances out on the deck. All those things that you use once or twice a year -- they don't need to be in the kitchen. And then after you build this and know what you are doing, you can build a little guest house for your teenager while he goes through college. I lived in a tiny house when I was first married -- I even took care of a baby in there."

(photo: Rick Peterson)
The sunroom with earthen floor, gold clay
plasters and large south-facing windows.

My mind was so overworked that it barely comprehended what I was hearing, but I knew it all made sense. The covered deck could be alternative dining, laundry area, storage area, perhaps even a place to sleep. I loved being outside and watching the sunsets or thunderstorms and had often wondered why Arizona homes didn't utilize porches more often to spare the house walls from the intense summer heat and pelting thunderstorms. The porch wouldn't have to be much more than a surrounding roof, really. I could probably just lay flagstone or brick for flooring. As I drove away from Canelo that morning, I had a small sketch of the new house plan on my passenger seat -- a gift from the Steens and Wayne. The Steens had even offered to help Dan redraw my plans. I had a few ideas for small changes I would make on the house, but all in all, it felt like it was made for my family. I wasn't sure how my boys would react to this, since it meant they had one sleeping loft instead of separate bedrooms. But then, I could give Zej hope for building his own guesthouse where he could blast rock music late at night, after we built the main house. I'd let him quit work and offer to pay his car insurance so he could learn how to build with straw. Then he could largely build his own cottage. What a great experience! Hope for my straw bale house flickered anew. The former alleged mansion that threatened to topple over and crush me had become a friendly cabin that I could imagine building. The knot in my stomach was gone.