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In a tiny house, large lessons about life

AMHERST — As a child, Hampshire College senior Nara Williams hated being told to pick up after herself. This semester, she’s learning to keep things tidy — very tidy.

For her senior project, she is living in a 130-square-foot house to explore the realities and benefits of living small.

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A few weeks ago, Williams took delivery on a model home used as a showcase for the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a leader in the burgeoning “small house” movement. Williams, a 21-year-old native of Oak Park, Ill., has become a bit of a student celebrity, with her experiment in efficient living situated prominently on the Amherst campus.

The cedar clapboard cabin has a sleeping loft, a kitchenette, and a bathroom.

“It hasn’t once felt too small,” said Williams, sitting in the window seat just inside the door of her new home. Out on the tiny “porch” — just big enough for one person — stood her boots. A carpet runner lay on the muddy grass below.

The housing project, Williams said, is her inquiry into “viable alternatives” to the American dream. Blogging about the experience, she is raising questions about property ownership, material goods, consumption, sustainable living, and other issues in an era marked by housing and environmental concerns.

Small homes are well established in some places, such as Japan, that are grappling with population growth.

The movement is also gaining attention in New York and Boston, where a developer last year began building micro-unit apartments in the Seaport District.

Besides the appeal of lower rent or mortgage payments, small houses leave a smaller energy footprint.

Williams warms her house with a marine heater that runs on propane. Electricity is supplied by an extension cord that snakes to a greenhouse across the lawn.

The kitchen in Nara Williams’ tiny house.

Darren Durlach/Globe Staff

The kitchen in Nara Williams’ tiny house.

The cabin has ample storage space, for a solo college student, at least, with several hideaways and twin built-in bookcases flanking the tight squeeze to the kitchen.

With a peaked ceiling, the main room feels surprisingly roomy.

“I’m always shocked by that,” Williams said. “I’ve never had a room with the ceilings so high.”

The project has been fun and enlightening for the school’s plumbers, electricians, and grounds crew, said Larry Archey, director of facilities and grounds.

“It’s not uncommon for us to help students with their projects,” he said. “But this was really exciting.”

Given the college’s reputation for progressive thinking, students often propose senior projects focused on social and environmental impact — such as “using drying racks in a dorm room, or solar energy for communications in a bus stop,” Archey said. “It’s about being good citizens.”

Deb Gorlin, codirector of the college’s writing program and one of two faculty advisers on Williams’s project, said the experiment is “about behavior, cultures, people’s ways of living. It’s all sort of interdisciplinary. That’s the great fun of teaching at a place like this.”

Williams said she applied to Hampshire in part because she liked the college’s no-grading philosophy. (Instead, professors give written evaluations.) But she has grown into a bit of an activist, throwing herself into­ the conversation about alternative living. Last fall, she drove around the country to research the small-house movement.

The home’s exterior.

Darren Durlach/Globe Staff

The home’s exterior.

After considering building a dome or a yurt, she approached Tumbleweed about borrowing a house for her senior project. (She paid about $1,800 to have it delivered.)

The day the house arrived happened to be a Friday. Exhausted after moving in, Williams­ was in bed by 10. She could hear students walking by, loudly wondering where the little house had come from.

“It was prime party traffic,” she said. “I went and bought earplugs.”

Yet she knew when she proposed the project that she had be attracting attention to herself. On March 3, she hosted an open house.

“It’s funny,” she said. “Part of the appeal is the privacy, but the novelty kind of interferes a bit.”

On a shelf sat a set of decorative bowls her brother made. Behind her, a small photo of singer Sam Cooke leaned against a windowpane. Choosing her belongings carefully, she said, has made her realize “it’s better to have a couple of nice things” than to pile up a mess of not-so-nice things.

If Williams’s goal is to make people think about downsizing, it seems to be working.

Archey, who has worked for Hampshire College for 25 years, said that the tiny-house project inspired him to “have this exact conversation with my wife.”

“It’s a good talking piece,” he said.

James Sullivan
can be reached at
jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.
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