A Desert Oasis

by Christina Nellemann on January 26th, 2009. 21 Comments
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In the stark Texas desert, Patricia Kerns has created a small community of tiny adobe, cob and straw bale houses that snuggle right into the landscape. I first saw Patricia’s tiny houses in the book, Little House on a Small Planet. The dome of the Egyptian style guest house caught my attention because of its interesting shape.

Patricia’s little community in Terlingua, Texas contains six tiny houses: the main straw bale house, a shower house, a bathroom, the guesthouse, a cob studio and a new project which will house a kitchen and a great room.

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The cob studio was built with Ianto Evans of the Cob Cottage company. The main straw bale house is a 20-foot circular structure. Her power comes from several solar panels and a small wind turbine. She uses rain catchment systems for all her water needs.

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She also has a video tour of her property and its tiny houses on her website.

Her love of natural building and small spaces came along at a time when she wanted to simplify her life and become financial independent. She took a straw bale building workshop, and she realized that with her new skills, she could leave her career as an attorney and build her own house.

A few years later she is living the life of her dreams in the desert. She was kind enough to send me her story of building a life of simplicity:

Journey to a Small Place
By Patricia Kerns

My journey to a small place began with a simple desire for financial independence. Several years ago, having taken an early retirement from my employer, I needed to find a way to live on less than half my previous income. I had to reduce fixed expenses, especially mortgage/rent. The crazy idea that I could find some cheap land and build a house with my own two hands began to work its way into my head.

How crazy? I was a 40-something attorney whose only experience with a hammer was to hang diplomas. Being a woman, I didn’t even have a high school shop class to draw on for experience. I ran through these and other pertinent facts every day, trying to get the goofy idea that I could build my own home out of my head. When the chance to attend a workshop on straw bale building came along, I jumped at it, thinking I could finally prove to myself that I couldn’t do it. But that workshop, and several succeeding ones, made it clear to me that my dream could be realized.

I began planning my home’s design as I sought land and prepared to move to a small desert community in the Big Bend area of southwestern Texas, far from any big cities. As I developed the design, I realized that the house would have to be very small if I wanted to complete it myself. I originally considered this to be a limitation, one I was willing to accept. I imagined that my standard of living in terms of creature comforts would decline, but accepted this as a small price to pay to free myself from the burden of a mortgage. I got some excellent advice at one of the workshops I attended: record the amount of time I spent in every area of my home for a week. I was living in an 1100-sf home when I conducted this experiment. I was amazed to find that there were two rooms in my home where I rarely set foot. I realized with a shock that the primary purpose of those two rooms was to store furniture that I had only purchased so those two rooms wouldn’t be empty. This was a happy realization, since all I had to do to cut my space needs in half was to sell furniture!

I sold every piece of furniture I owned, had multiple garage sales and made a few deposits to thrift shops. After two months of shedding stuff accumulated over twenty years, I packed what was left into a 10 x 6 U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of my truck, and headed for Texas. I had never felt so free in my life. It was the first sign that living in a small space wasn’t going to be the dip in standard of living that I had imagined.

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I spent the first three months in Texas camping out of my Suburban in the National Park while looking for land. This was a good start to my new commitment to minimalism. In January 1998, I moved onto a piece of unspoiled desert land halfway between the communities of Lajitas and Terlingua, Texas. I erected a 16 x 16 foot army tent, built a composting toilet and solar oven, set up a solar shower and camp stove, hooked up some solar panels for power, and I was living in the lap of luxury.

It took about two months to get my foundation built and the straw bale walls up, just in time to have a place to get out of the severe winds that whipped across my land in February and March. I had no roof, no windows or doors, and no floor, but I had a comfortable place to sit and read or play my guitar while the winds howled by “outside.” I could never before have appreciated such a humble shelter. It seemed like heaven to me.

I spent six months finishing the exterior, roof, door and windows, then moved into the house while I finished the interior. I had designed a space that included a bedroom, a small computer nook, and a larger sitting room. The design was a circular space trisected into three areas. Between the three areas, instead of building walls, I built shelves that pass through so they can be utilized from either side. This gave me a great deal of storage in a small space. The bed is a futon on a plywood board that flips up to reveal storage. I also designed a built-in sofa in the sitting area with storage underneath. I learned a lot about effective use of small spaces for storage by visiting numerous trailer sales lots and observing their use and design of space. All of my interior furniture is built in, using cob (unformed adobe) and scrap wood.

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I decided not to have the kitchen and bathroom in the main house, but rather to leave them for a second project. I haven’t regretted this decision, and continue to be happy cooking on a camp stove or in a solar oven, and using a camp shower and composting toilet. The climate here is quite mild, so this might not be feasible in a more northern location. I learned to live with so little during my journey here that every addition now seems like an unaccountable luxury.

The most beneficial consequence of my decision to build small became apparent as I networked with other self-builders. I was able to complete my home in the same amount of time that many people used to build larger structures, but using much less labor. This allowed me to like the home and continue to like it as I worked. I never felt overwhelmed by the process. My little casita and I have remained fast friends, and I have nothing but good memories and good energy invested in my home.

As it turns out, there was no lowering of my standard of living – not in creature comforts, not in any other way. I have learned to be greatly appreciative of every little comfort, and I enjoy what I have now far more than the four times as much that I used to have. My home and possessions serve me and shelter me, and are never a burden that require more than I am willing to give (such as a 30 year mortgage). I am well on my way to becoming sustainable on this land and a small home is part of what allowed me to see my way there. Now, when I am inside large enclosed spaces, I feel lost, disassociated and adrift. I wouldn’t trade my casita or my experience of creating it for a mansion any day.

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Note: I wrote the above article five years ago. Since then, I have completed a small bathhouse of adobe and a small office building of cob. In addition, I have a large shade building (one day to be a kitchen/living room – if I ever think I really need it…) by which I catch enough water for my needs. I remain mortgage-free, and have no utility bills. Visitors stop by occasionally and say “gee, isn’t it HARD living like this?” I’m not sure what they mean, but I guess it’s that I have a composting toilet, cook outside and have no television. I think back to when I had all those “luxuries” in my life, and what it was costing me to sustain them. No, it isn’t hard!

By Christina Nellemann

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21 Responses to “A Desert Oasis”

  1. Anne says:

    I loved the story and the pictures. I have been imaging myself living mortgage free on my property in SE Arizona, in much the same type of climate (but with higher average rainfall). I have been picturing an exclusively outdoor kitchen, but I wonder how the frequently strong winds in that area would impact outdoor cooking. Have you set up your kitchen in a way to shelter from the winds?

  2. mia says:

    SO cool! Love all the pictures especially the mantle with the blue glass! I think I’d surely love to have myself a Tiny House some day!

  3. Sravaka says:

    Love the article!!!

  4. Greg says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with all of us Patricia. You are truly an inspiration. I too have had these visions of simplifying my life, and down sizing to the point that I can live in harmony with my surroundings… In a tiny house, or at least something much smaller than what I occupy today.
    When I attempt to share these thoughts with others, most look at me like bewildered dogs… they tilt their heads and stare at me… Like I have lost my mind. And until I discovered this site, and similar sites like it, I was beginning to think perhaps I really were losing my mind…
    However, thanks to this site, and stories such as your own, I am comforted to know that I am not alone… That others really do share this vision and have had success living that life style.

    I feel very fortunate that I can learn from those who have come before me, and hopefully can return the favor by some day sharing my journey with those who have yet to embark on a journey of their own… Perhaps I too will be able to share my story and insight to the benefits of the living small way of life.

    So thank you again for sharing your story with us.

    I would also like to thank anyone who has, and continues to contribute to TinyhouseBlog.com. Thanks to your input, and the daily upkeep that you do. Your efforts have made this the wonderful place that it is. You have created an oasis for dreamers like me to find respite from our lives in an oversized world… where we can reclaim our sanity and dare to dream the dream… with a little help from others of like mind…

  5. Judy says:

    Thanks for this post, I had lost track of her progress. I linked Tiny House Blog here http://strawcottage.blogspot.com/2009/01/im-hooked-on-small-houses.html

  6. Kim says:

    This is such a brilliant story. I agree with the comment made by Greg:

    “….most look at me like bewildered dogs… they tilt their heads and stare at me… Like I have lost my mind….”

    Until I wandered into the Small House community with their open minds and exceptional creativity, that is! What a great find :)

    If anyone else has a small house story, come and shout about it @ http://www.livinginsmallhouses.com/DIY.html

    Thanks Patricia! You’re a DIY Star!

    Kim

  7. Lellewynn says:

    Patricia, you are freakin hilarious! I hope someday i can come visit your house and play my guitar horribly with you! I love the look and feel of adobe, I just need someone to teach me how to do it. Also, you said you were mortgage free? do you not have to pay for the land on which you built your house? That would be amazing! Thanks so much for the post and the blog, you made my day!

  8. Jo says:

    We have just started construction on our straw bale home. We paid cash for the land, and so far have been able to pay-as-we-go on the construction. We are doing all the work ourselves. Our home is a bit bigger- these pesky kids keep coming back!

    We read everything ever written on straw bale homes, but none of the books really cover the small, important details.
    I would love to share ideas with other women who are building their own homes.

  9. Incredible stuff!! Will visit again:D

  10. Linda says:

    Patricia,

    Thank you so much for posting your story. I’ve been dreaming this same dream for too many years already and feel like it’s getting close to the time for me to make my move. I’m a bit apprehensive, but it’s something that I just can’t stop dreaming about. After reading what you’ve written here, it made me realize that I’m just wasting precious time by staying here and not doing anything. I would like to thank you for the inspiration. Your story and the stories of others encourage me so deeply. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I’m also in Texas about 10 1/2 hours drive from where you are. Maybe one day we shall meet.

  11. Christina says:

    Linda. Once you get your tiny house up and going. We would love to see it!

  12. Timothy P says:

    Does anyone know where I can find free online grant applications?

  13. Kim S says:

    Absolutely beautiful.. I also have property but near N Rim Grand Canyon. So far I have only camped on it but when I eventually leave NJ(ICK) I also will be erecting a place. No water or elect there but plenty of solitude. The straw bale classes are great idea and have also researched them . Enjoy your paradise girl I envy you. Kim S

  14. Hello Patricia,
    I absolutely love the story, and the youtube video.
    I recently purchased property out in Terlingua and no one was really excited for me, lol…but you are truly both an inspiration and a motivation.

    Blessings,

    A future neighbor

  15. Rebecca says:

    I am leaving Denver for the Big Bend Area next month. I am finally making my move to live the dream. No mortgage, open space, financial freedom. Patricia, your story is a true inspiration and encouragement and very timely. Maybe I’ll run into you there. I’ll mostly likely land in Marathon for the time being. I know the look “they tilt their heads like bewildered dogs” “Marathon, Alpine? Big Bend National Park. Where is THAT?”

  16. [...] just the smaller ones houses. i like looking at these pics b/c it's in one of my favorite places! A Desert Oasis Reply With [...]

  17. Debra Sola Hauf says:

    Great story; I went to grammar school with Patricia and graduated 8th grade in class of 1969. We haven’t seen one another since then so it has been 43 years since graduation. So refresing to hear that one our own has come a long way to create such an innovative lifestyle. Great going, Patricia.

  18. Dean Augustine says:

    Hi Pat,
    Great story. Actually, I’ve been at your place back in 2005. I was visiting my twin brother, Dane, and helped him deliver your window frames for your straw bale house. I am now building a small house by Dane on Gate 4 Road. Your story is very inspiring! Maybe I’ll run into you at “the porch”.
    Good Luck,
    Dean

  19. Greg says:

    I am so, so envious! You are living my dream! Is there a reason that you did not attach the additional structures (office and bath) to the original design? Thank you for sharing your story. I am interested in how your development is coming along :)

  20. John Pfeffer says:

    I would like to visit at your community.

  21. Anne says:

    Another lovely home from the past that deserves a bump so more can enjoy it…

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