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Why I Built a Tiny House

Ann Handley Tiny House

I’m writing this now from a cramped second-floor office in my house. I’m sweating just from the exertion of typing this sentence… because despite air conditioning, it’s about 450 degrees up here. I could mix a tin of muffins and set them to bake on the shelf behind me, and in 20 minutes breakfast would be ready.

The heat up here normally makes me grumpy. But today I’m giddy, because from my window I can see two electricians fishing wire to a brand-new office in the backyard.

It’s the almost-final step to completing my tiny house before I can move my entire operation there during working hours—and by “operation” I mean me, my MacBook, and Abby, a 16-pound Cavalier King Charles spaniel who—even in this heat—lies under the desk, her furry rump pressed against my foot. (The spot on my foot where her fur meets my skin feels about 1,000 degrees. But when I move away, she nudges in again.)

(The final-final step in the tiny house is, fittingly, an actual step, in the way of a giant field stone that the landscaper is plopping into place this week.)

When I move my office tomorrow, I’m apparently joining a movement of “shedworking,” which is a thing. (Who knew?) Four years ago in the UK, Alex Johnson published a book on the subject, Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution.

And the trend, it seems, is gaining momentum in the US, too. This morning, Fast Company talked about how rising housing costs and shifting family dynamics, among other things, are driving the development of “micro units” on single-family lots—either as a starter home or retirement homes or sometimes as “accessory dwellings.” (Hat tip to my friend Mitch Joel for both the shedworking and Fast Company links.)

They can get quite ambitious, these structures, both functionally and architecturally: Look how these huge timber fins splay out from this treehouse-cottage, imitating the canopy of a copse of maples. treehouse

Some of these spaces are quite small, but still they economically accommodate full kitchens, bathrooms—the works. Sometimes the results are gorgeous, and sometimes it looks like someone installed a sink in a minivan and called it home.

My tiny house

I already live in a house I like very much, so my requirements for my structure (still can’t quite bring myself to call it a “work shed”) are more modest.

Mine is a one-room building with an open ceiling and a tiny screen porch in the front, enough for a small table and chair. For the past few weeks, while I’ve been waiting to move in, I’ve been gazing into the backyard and picturing myself on that porch with a glass of wine and a book when the five o’clock factory whistle blows.

Inside, there’s a rich red-oak floor that reminds me of what I imagine the inside of a bourbon barrel might look like. The walls are still rough for now, because (as my artist-son Evan says), you have to work in a studio for a while before you recognize what you need it to give you.

In the warmer weather, I’ll keep the French doors to the tiny porch open. But by the time the electricians leave today, the place will have heat when I need it. Along with plugs and lighting and Internet access.

I briefly debated Internet access: It felt romantic to ban online access there—more writerly, somehow. And, in that rarified wifi-free air, I imagined myself spewing forth gorgeous text with the ease of water spilling over stone into the Trevi Fountain basin. Perhaps, I thought, I’d write longhand with a quill pen, and ink I might learn to mix myself, in a blue-stained mortar I keep casually on the windowsill.

(“Oh that?” I’d say to my potential visitors. “Oh that’s just where I pound my inks.”)

But ha! Who am I kidding? I’d maybe last a day before breaking down and attempting to hack into the neighbor’s wifi, which I already tested the signal strength of anyway. (See what I mean?)

There’s a fine line between thinking ambitiously… and thinking that is just plain nuts.

The dark side of working from home

I’ve been working at home for a long time—for as long as I’ve been at MarketingProfs. So that’s… what, 12 years?

It’s easy to lust after all the choice parts of working from a home office—and anyone who works from home will brag about them: no commute, no water-cooler distractions, no pants (that last one might just be me).

But there’s a dark side to it, too, even when your upstairs office isn’t 7,000 degrees like mine is right now, with an overheated little dog igniting second-degree burns on my skin.

There’s a lot of living that goes on in a house. There are other rooms used for other things—for entertainment, for cooking, for showering, for laundry, for sleeping.
There are people who wander in and out, they talk and breathe in and out, and some days I find each intake and exhale irrationally distracting.

Sometimes people stop by, ringing the doorbell because they know you are there. (You always are.) There are things in the refrigerator, and you need to swing open the door and stare at them many times a day.

All of those things tend to compete for oxygen, choking off my available supply until I sacrifice the first thing I can—my work—and then my work turns blue in the face and gasps for air, even though I know that’s scientifically not even possible to be oxygen-deficient under this sprawling suburban sky.

And anyway, I’m not sure it’s really fair—blaming others for my own weakness to block distraction. As E.B. White said:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

E.B. White was a wise man, and a productive writer, and he had kids, dogs, and other things breathing his supply of oxygen, too.

But also, I found out recently, he had a cottage/shack/shed of his own.

(Can you imagine anyone in E.B. White’s generation calling his cottage anything as ridiculous as a “micro unit” or “accessory dwelling”? I’m embarrassed for 2014 just thinking about it.)

So I build my tiny house because I wanted a place like E.B. White’s, with close to nothing in it, where all the oxygen in the room would be mine, mine, mine.

A place where I could focus on work I love, and more work I love, because there’s nothing else on which to focus anyway.

So tomorrow—ribbon cutting day!—here’s where things will have ended up:

Tiny house accommodations: One room, 11 x 12, with a four-foot screen porch

Cost to build: $12,000 (give or take) (If you’d like one similar to it, here’s the builder’s number.)

Furniture: Sparse. A desk, a stool, a lamp.

Inhabitants: Two creatures (Abby and me); one machine (a MacBook).

And all the oxygen I can handle.

 

Total Annarchy

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91 Responses to Why I Built a Tiny House

  1. C.C. Chapman says:

    I love that this is finally finishing up and I can’t wait to come over and see it in person.

  2. Ari says:

    Oh, Ann, just another reason why you’re my hero. Enjoy!

  3. tom martin says:

    Can’t wait to hear how you like it… been mulling over doing the exact same thing at my house… though it wouldn’t be a full-time office like yours… the idea of having at least one room on property that is all mine is quite appealing.

    Congrats on completion.
    Tom

  4. Sunny Hunt says:

    Wow, wow, wow! This is going to be wonderful for you! I understand all too well the ongoing battle for oxygen and attention. *High Five* on your wonderful new addition that’s ALL YOURS!

  5. I can’t get the image of you and the mortar out of my mind! ;-)
    Lovely writing as always.
    And your “shed” looks amazing.
    I wish you all the best as you move in and write there.

  6. Ann, this is spot on. Especially this: “There are people who wander in and out, they talk and breath in and out there, and I some days I find each intake and exhale irrationally distracting.”

    The value of a room of one’s own–whether an outpost on the edge of your home turf, or a specially soundproofed new office, as I’m looking forward to in September–is freedom from screeching at a loved one, “Come ON! Could you breathe a little less already?!”

    Congratulations on carving out your own blissfully silent space!
    Margot.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Exactly, Margot! I’ve thought of soundproofing, too, as Mitch Joel suggested, in part because I think it would give it a rich tone for webinars/podcasts. Or so I suspect…?

      • Alessio says:

        Awesome spot. I started to have mixed feelings about open space for the same reasons you mentioned above.

        I wanted to add that I would totally soundproof the place for one reason: after work, I would listen to some good blues rock vinyls while drinking wine, and not even bother if I’m bothering someone :)

        cheers! Alessio

  7. I am excited for you, and envious.

    You describe the light and dark sides of working from home so accurately. I have been lusting after a tiny house (workshed?) of my own for quite some time (as my overflowing Tiny House Lust Pinterest board will prove). How wonderful that you have created this new space for yourself (and Abby!). Sounds like the perfect retreat.

    Can’t wait to see more pics! :)

  8. Stephan says:

    what a fantastic idea Ann! I’m jealous, now that the rest of my family has infiltrated my basement “slash” man cave (yes, they’re all women).

  9. Jack says:

    I often dream about the house I will buy/build for writing. I don’t think perfection is necessary, but I like chasing it.

  10. Scott Monty says:

    Love that you’ve done this, Ann! Can’t wait to read more of your inspirational writing (will it become even more so from the shed?) after you get settled in. Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Kat says:

    Congratulations Ann! I have always wanted a tiny house/hideaway in my backyard. You’re living my dream – Ha! I can’t wait to see your Instagram decor pics.

  12. joe says:

    Ann, great job. Now you can say what I’ve always wanted to say.

    “Oh the article draft? Why I’ll have to go out to my writing shed and retrieve that.”

    Writing shed? Oh, you know it’s where my creative juices really flow, I really consider it my sanctuary where my muse and I spend quality time.

    Glad you’re confirming your dream.

    • Ann Handley says:

      LOL — you’re like me: Having whole conversations where I’m slipping in “writer’s cabin” or “writer’s shed” or something — half delighting in it, and almost half embarrassing myself…

  13. Ron Ploof says:

    Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott, Handley.

  14. Lee Odden says:

    Thank you for sharing this story Ann. I have a feeling some big writing will come from that tiny house!

  15. Jim Spencer says:

    Ann,

    12 years working at home, an office that is 7,000 degrees and a refrigerator door that needs inspection every couple of hours, yep that’s my exact story.

    And then there are the nuclear family members that think I don’t work and can certainly run errands all day long or wonder how I could forget to complete the strays tasks that they so casually request during the work day, like I don’t have a work day.

    There is certainly a greater sense of belonging developing amongst those that work from home. It used to be a secret and now we celebrate it! Cheers, Jim.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I love this comment, Jim. And I’m nodding along, too.

      And funny how it used to be a secret — I remember being on the phone with someone from IBM years ago. On his side, you could hear a pin drop, if someone dropped one. On my side, it was total chaos. And I was completely embarrassed by it, too.

  16. Amanda Batista says:

    As always, it’s a joy to read your thoughts, Ann. I look forward to the many brilliant works to come out of the “tiny house.” Welcome to your new workspace.

  17. Dan Gorgone says:

    Can’t wait to see the live streaming grand tour of this place. Looks amazing…

    Have you figured out an official name for it yet? Kerry and I were brainstorming just now: The Handley Shanty. Handley’s Haven. The Handley Hut. The Ann-Quarters. The Corner Penthouse of Content Central. The Luxuriant Lean-to. Handley’s Hideaway. Ann’s Cabana.

    We’ve got more ideas, if you need em.

  18. OMG. You make me laugh! And now I totally want a tiny house.

  19. So exciting! And as someone who also works amidst many distractions and much inhaling and exhaling (which is on occasion quite possibly grounds for murder), this will be lovely. Can’t wait for your pants-less self to be ensconced there. xo

    • Ann Handley says:

      LOL… I’m glad that painted a picture. And yes I know you work among the chaos, too! You need a lil’ house, too. Call it Kramerville, perhaps. Or Shell’s Station.

  20. Dane Sanders says:

    So glad for you Ann! It just seems write (… I know, SO clever).

    With our recent move, I just claimed a new home workspace too. It’s on the top floor of our house with a deck. Kind of like a tiny apartment loft or treehouse without a tree. No kitchen. Yes bathroom. Yes Nespresso :).

    I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!

    But wait… I can’t. And neither can you! Our muses just won’t have it. There’s too much good work to be done. On to it then… <3

  21. Macy Koch says:

    THIS: “There are things in the refrigerator, and you need to swing open the door and stare at them many times a day.”

    I’m having work from home envy right now at the thought of a space with no distractions. I’m planning a trip to Boston in the fall – would love to stop by and see it!

  22. Scott Caldwell says:

    I think it needs a proper napping couch though. Nothing says writing quarters like a nice well-worn sofa on which to recline and await the muse’s appearance.

    Plus you also get the photo opp of you lying on the couch, glasses on, intensely reading your latest draft. Ideally in black and white. Dog staged at your feet.

  23. Oh, Ann, the thought of a work cottage is wonderful!! Come to think of it, the thought of any kind of cottage is pretty appealing! It would just have to fit a long couch for my ever-growing Yellow Labbies.

    I’ve been in business for 12 years, also! I’m such a cold weather sissy that I’d have to have it attached to the house so I wouldn’t have to walk outside to get there, then I would be right back in the thick of “house distractions.”

    Enjoy…I can’t wait to read and see how things go!

  24. Ann, I can’t wait to learn more big marketing ideas and insights that emerge from your tiny house (aka The Handley Hideaway). Congratulations! P.S. Looking forward to your upcoming book, Everybody Writes. I pre-ordered it from Amazon today!

  25. As soon as I saw “tiny house” in the subject line, I had to read this — I love tiny houses! Tiny House Swoon is one of my favourite blogs (non-marketing blogs, of course…). And I just watched TINY on Netflix, which was great. It’s becoming a bit of an obsession, actually. Yours is beautiful, Ann. Would love to see more pics!

  26. Ann, so cool!
    I see no mention of a beer fridge but I think it’s safe to assume…

  27. Awesome. I’m jealous!!

  28. Elaine Fogel says:

    Cute little house, Ann! Does this mean bundling up in the winter to walk to the “shed?” :)

  29. Ha! And I felt accomplished because I moved my desk in my at-home office today! : )8 At least the basement is cool…

    I’m so psyched for you. This shed little house looks refreshing! (Especially the porch.)

  30. Ann,

    When is the micro unit warming party?

    Derek

  31. Jackie Huba says:

    I’ve never heard of “shedworking” until now. This is super cool.

  32. James Pier says:

    Ann, you’ve loosed the green demon envy among like-minded writers. And who isn’t like minded when it comes to a space purely one’s own?

    Thomas Merton wrote arresting journal entries about the tiny hermitage for which he required special permission. I recommend him on that. You enjoy it, I’ll keep dreaming and planning.

  33. I want one of these over the river and through the woods so I can really escape folk!

    Enjoy.

  34. Sandy Stefanik says:

    Ann,
    You make me laugh! Your little house is fantastic! Seems absolutely perfect. I’d love a little house just like yours! Congratulations… Enjoy!
    Sandy
    P.S. Soooo, if I sent you a plant as a little house warming, would it fit???

  35. Pam Slim says:

    OMG, I am totally visiting when I get in your neck of the woods! (With permission, not by just knocking on the door, of course!)

    What a fantastic idea, good on you!

    You write so well in 7,000 degrees and chaos, just imagine the writing that will come from your “Work shed,” aka “Writing pad of dreams.”

  36. brian kelly says:

    David McCullough has a similar space in which to create his award winning books. Hope it works as well for you!

  37. Mary Aviles says:

    Brilliant! I face the opposite end of the temperature spectrum and I’m always burrowing my feet under my dog for warmth from either the winter cold or the impossible-to-regulate-properly air conditioning. I spent the first seven years of my consulting career wedged between my bed and the wall on a teeny, tiny desk. I have been dreaming of a whole house remodel (b/c really, if you think about it, the whole house is my office…see what I just did there?) But, I think your tiny house idea is much more attainable! Congrats!

  38. Lisa Gerber says:

    I love this sooooo much and now we can all stop by and knock on the door whenever we want!

    Was the ribbon cutting today? How did it go?

  39. Love this…but MUST ask…

    Is there a bathroom?

  40. Lise Janody says:

    Wonder if my neighbors would allow me to build a similar woodshed in our communal courtyard? I could fit in somewhere between the garbage cans and motorcycles that take up all the space–though not sure the view would be much better than from my kitchen table. Further from the fridge, though…:-)

  41. Nicole R says:

    I love everything about this and can’t wait for a virtual tour :) congrats on your tiny house. Enjoy it in good health,!

  42. Katy Tafoya says:

    When my husband and I look at places that we’d love to one day buy, I always seem to fall in love with the smaller, more intimate places. To which he likes to point out that we both need office space. I of course, have always had a vision of a little backyard annex for the office. A girl can dream….And you are one lucky girl! Enjoy that porch!

  43. Congratulations on your new tiny space… oh, and the new book looks great!

  44. Bobby Lehew says:

    In Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety I picked up the term ‘thinkhouse’ for these structures: ambition, work, and retreat rolled into one succinct word. I have a picture of E. B. White in his thinkhouse, sitting at what looks like a simple (what we call now) farm table and his typewriter, index fingers hovering as tiny sledges over his craft. Perhaps you should invent a new type of open house for your thinkhouse, one where guests just stealthily arrive around midnight with gifts of quills and parchment and silently leave? :-) Happy for you and your new thinkhouse (and I smiled at the phrase ‘copse of maples’ and the ‘blue-stained mortar’ – you didn’t actually need a thinkhouse after all).

  45. Ann Handley says:

    That’s actually an interesting idea, Bobby. The right Open House for my Tiny House is one where I’m not there — and other people temporarily take up residence for a while.

    Thanks for your comment. It’s lovely, too. And I think I like “thinkhouse” quite a bit!

  46. Sam Fiorella says:

    So cool. So jealous.

  47. Beautiful–the tiny house AND the writing. So jealous. I’d follow your lead but, sadly, our backyard is too small.

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  49. Pam Moore says:

    I love this idea! I can so relate to everything you wrote in this post, even the opening of the fridge over and over even though I can’t eat anything in it.

    We often put big signs on our front door that says “NO ring, no knock… RECORDING” so the kids won’t knock. It works maybe half the time.

    Anyway, can’t wait to see the rest of the pics once you move in! So happy for you. Enjoy!

  50. Amanda says:

    Your son’s words and your heeding them and are one of my favorite parts of this post!

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  52. Katy says:

    What a misleading title. This is not a tiny house at all! You didn’t build a home that would lessen your environmental impact. You built a workspace that resembles a tiny house, expanding your carbon footprint even further. Then used the terminology that describes a popular movement to describe it. False advertising.

  53. Julie says:

    I love it! The overheated dog especially mad me laugh because I have one of those, attached to my leg under my desk as I work.

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  55. I found you through “who’s who in marketing” in the Sept 14 Entrepreneur. After resonating with that article, exploring your pinterest page, and falling on to this article, I am officially a fan. Combining content marketing, tiny house movement, and online presence, I can’t wait to read more of your work and pick up your latest book.

  56. Erik Carlson says:

    Hi Ann –

    I’m obsessed with tiny homes so I was excited to see you built one yourself. Will you post some more photos when you’re officially moved in and settled?

    Have you seen the movie, TINY: A Story About Small Living? You might like it. :)
    http://tiny-themovie.com/

    Cheers,
    Erik

  57. Ed Nicholson says:

    Way cool, Ann. I’ve been intrigued by this movement for a while. I do music as an avocation, so have aspirations to build one as a music getaway.

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  59. Trish Forant says:

    Our little houses might just be the same exact color! Here’s mine (http://www.dayngrzone.com/photos-of-our-little-house) still debating on whether or not to make it my home away from home office. Plus, now I want a screened porch like yours or at least screen in the back deck!.

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