Wednesday, May 04, 2011

From Playhouse to Mancave: A Tiny House Grows Up

The White Shed - a work in progress

I've been inspired by the tiny house movement. Not that I desire to live in a house any smaller than I do, mind you (just for the record, it's 1450 sq. ft., of which my dear wife constantly reminds me; but heck, it's paid for) but that I have this play house-cum-shed in my backyard, which I built for my grandson several years ago, and now I've decided to remodel it into more of a mancave, of sorts.

The problem with tiny houses is junk; where do you put all your junk?. As a species, we tend to collect stuff, to a greater or lessor degree, like packrats. In fact, I have this theory (that I just invented) that there's rodent DNA somewhere deep inside our chromosomes.

I like to look at architecture magazines that sport well made-up interiors, with furnishings not so much liveable as museum-like, as if to say "look but don't touch". I admire the integrated sense of design, the elegance, of such spaces. But they're idealizations, architectural pornography. No one's house really looks like that. Even though we pretend, like the last minute frantic straightening-up that we do just prior to company arriving, putting on airs. I figure, if visitors really are family or friends, they'd understand why my house is a bit more dirty or cluttered or otherwise unkempt than the ideally decorated magazine interior. Real life is messy; why shouldn't one's home reflect the messiness that is reality?

But there's another side to this business of orderliness in one's life, and it has to do with the mental state that a well-ordered interior space can induce. It's no mere coincidence that many of us like to do our most creative or introspective thinking in places like our favorite coffee shop, for example, rather than sitting at home and drinking coffee every bit as good. And I don't think the difference is totally about being in public, the noise of other's conversations. Most of us who set foot inside a coffee shop alone do so, not to people watch but, to do the kinds of work (or play) that we could just as easily do at home, if our home environment were more conducive to such creativity.

Our homes, they serve a multitude of purposes, yet we only have so many rooms, only so much space. So we are forced, through necessity, to make compromises. Also, the nature of relationship is based on compromise, ceding our own desires for the greater good of the commonwealth. Thus, we end up living in environments that are compromises from some idealized state, cluttered with the messiness of our imperfect lives.

What we need is a retreat, a place to which we can retire, get away, an environment where we can recenter ourselves, find our inner self, active our creative core (choose your metaphor). In my case, I've decided that I need a mancave.

The future mancave started life as an economically-built playhouse. Wood frame, plywood-sheathed floor deck resting on concrete supports, simple 2x2 framed walls sheathed in outdoor grade finished sheet rock panels, roof covered in steel panelling - it was all designed as a compromise between necessity and cost. I had installed two fold-down plywood bunks on either wall where, half shed, half tent, we enjoyed many pleasant summer nights' slumber.

But then the grandson got a bit older, lost interest, and the playhouse began to collect castoff toys and other overflow from the main house, as if it were in the midst of some dark transmutation from one species into another.

Meanwhile, I had been enjoying periodic visits to various websites dedicated to the tiny house movement, like Derek "Deek" Diedricksen's "Tiny Yellow House" video series and blog, and began to look at the now abandoned playhouse in the backyard in a new light. Finally the "ah-ha" moment came when I realized the shed was in a mere chrysalis phase, awaiting transformation into a humble thing of beauty, waiting for me to pick up hammer and saw and begin the remodel process. It's a faith-based initiative, this remodel, faith being the evidence of things unseen. Rather than have the plans entirely laid out in advance, I do a little bit, then stop and think, and think some more, then start again, one tiny step at a time, a slow-motion transformation, cocoon-like.

Years ago (about a decade, now) I was assigned to a nine-month-long, work-related relocation to the Portland, Oregon suburb of Hillsboro. There, I discovered the McMenamin's chain of brew pubs, a local business that repurposed older properties while still maintaining some of their original charm and style. There was the Kennedy School, in east Portland, the site of a former public school, where in the former Detention Room could be found the whiskey bar (which gave rise to the phrase "I'm in detention"). However, the location I visited most often was the Road House near Orinco Station, the site of a former farmhouse and barn complex. The main farmhouse had been converted into a restaurant, while the octagonal barn was now a dance hall. And adjacent to the barn, under a stand of pines, was a tiny little out building, formerly a milking shed, that had been converted into The White Shed, a whiskey and cigar bar. It sported a tiny bar in one corner, barely big enough for a few shelves of whiskey bottles, a few tables, and a wood stove, stoked by the bartender on those cold, rainy, winter nights. But everyone liked going to the White Shed because, being small in size, it offered that rare element in public spaces: true intimacy, the opportunity to rub elbows, chat and mix it up.

There's got to be some metric, a way of measuring the intangible comfort of such tiny spaces that seem out of proportion to their physical dimensions, as if you could take a measure of the space's effectiveness at inducing a happy feeling (call it "Fh"), divide it by the volume of the space (call it "Vs", which equals LxWxH) and arrive at a calculation of the Happiness Density (call it "Dh"), how much happiness is found in each unit of volume of said space. We could express it as a formula: Dh=Fh/Vs. The units of Happiness Density could be expressed in smiles per unit volume, perhaps.

With such a measurement system available, imagine how we could analyze various public and private spaces. What would be our conclusions? For instance, large "big-box" retail buildings would have a very low Happiness Density, while places like The White Shed would be high up on the scale, near the top. A dainty bed-and-breakfast room, or mountain cabin, would rank right up there with the best, while a room in a chain hotel would disappoint. We could begin to explain, in more scientific-sounding terminology, why some spaces seem to comfort us, while others we shun.

My hope for The White Shed (yes, that's going to be the name of my new mancave, plus it's white) is to instill a high Happiness Density, make it a place to retreat toward, to hang out within, to write or type. And, there will be a fold-down table that the grandson can use, should he be taken with the itch to retreat to his own Happy Place, too.

No, it's not finished yet, my mancave, just a work in progress. As are we all.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo.)


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