The Italian Tiny House Project

The 2 rooms in this tiny house are full of unbelievable ambience, even with the old wall paper and curtains. 

The 2 rooms in this tiny house are full of unbelievable ambience, even with the old wall paper and curtains. 

Last summer, when we were least needing or wanting a project (we were up to our necks building a one-of-a-kind online business to sell Piemontese wine throughout Germany and the rest of Europe), we came across something that caught our attention and wouldn't let us go.  

My friend Annika from Sweden posted on an Italian renovation facebook page that she was starting to think about finding an apartment or other property in Italy that she and her family could use as a vacation spot and possibly retirement residence in the distant future.  It needed to be very affordable, it could require cosmetic work and should be exactly where she wanted to be. As happens on those kinds of open calls, the entire community chimed in with ideas and opinions.  I started scouring  the sites I knew for properties she might like.  I didn't find anything for her.  But, as destiny would have it, I found one that interested us. 

That particular property ended up getting sold almost before I could write an email requesting information.  But as I was letting go of the idea, another property popped up; it was half the price of the one I had seen previously, was closer to the area we have come to love, and had a smaller garden (an advantage to us as there is little gardening work to do).  It had about 48 square meters, or about 516 square feet, of living space and about 35 square meters of cellar space.  It was located just on the edge of the Langhe Barolo village of Novello, and enjoyed views both vineyards and the Alps.  It's located in a borgata of about 12 houses, full of life, kids, animals and friendly people. Yes, there's a connector street in the distance too, but that was a small compromise we were willing to make; we've since discovered that small, very well priced properties like this never stay on the market for long as they are quickly snapped up by locals who know the owners. 

The living space is upstairs, and the cellar opens up to a terrace which leads down to a small lower garden.  It's attached to other houses on both sides. 

The living space is upstairs, and the cellar opens up to a terrace which leads down to a small lower garden.  It's attached to other houses on both sides. 

Up to this point we had kept a long term rental in Piemonte.  After selling our B&B and moving to Germany, our plan was to start the wine business, requiring us to be in Piemonte for long stretches of time.  The rent is super fair and the apartment has been very good for our needs, but we  both want Piemonte to be a permanent part of our lives. We loved the idea of having a small  bolthole of our own that we could design to our own specifications -something that could be bought and renovated for a modest budget.  We don't do vacations in a traditional sense.  We go home to Italy.  That's what we love to do.  

Neither of us were compelled to do a large renovation project in Italy.  We'd had a 6 phase monster of a project under our belts and it had been an exhausting, frustrating process.  But we also felt that we could take on something small, and try to use all of our experience to extract the best ideas with the least amount of money possible, creating a minimalist space that would be functional, cool, and welcoming.  We knew, even though it's a small house, that this would be a challenge.  Italian builders and geometre (the surveyor that helps you get your plans through the city) almost always have an extremely conservative viewpoint of what materials should be used, and also assume that foreigners have deep pockets.  So, with that in mind, we were prepared to stand our ground during the design process. 

Here's the original floor plan.  You enter from the car park (driveway) into the living room (soggiorno).  The shower is located outside on the balcony (wc).  You can see the exterior staircase that leads from the driveway to the basement.  This is staying.  We thought about bringing it inside, but the costs were too high and the compromise on interior space too great. 

And this is the basic redesign plan that we'll apply for: 

 

We're removing the wall between two of the rooms to create a long space - it will most likely require an iron support beam which will be left exposed. This space will be about 9 meters long and about 3 meters at its widest.  This will be an open plan kitchen, dining, and living space with a wood burning stove as a heat source.  It opens onto the back balcony.  The bathroom has been moved and will contain a 70x 100 cm shower, sink and toilet.  The bedroom also opens onto the balcony.  The headboard will double as end tables, with a shelf and lighting.   The floors will all be simple concrete that we'll either acid wash and polish or paint with Carte Colori floor paint. This was a tough sell with the geometra and he's still not really buying it.  The existing ceramic tiles will come up and a reinforced concrete screed will be poured.  This would need to be done even if we were putting wood or tiles down.  The concrete will be compressed with a concrete compressor and then treated. 

For wall color, I will be mixing my own natural lime wash with pigments.  I hope to get the advice of my friend and natural color artist  Alison Faith Kay in the process.  Alison's work is amazing.  We've known each other for years, and watching what she's doing now in terms of living life on her own creative terms is so inspiring.  

We opted against an expensive central heating system, much to the consternation of our geometra.  The space is small and can easily be heated with the wood burning stove.  We're going to be there a few weeks in winter only, so why do more than is necessary to be comfortable and have a great atmosphere? We'll have a very small water boiler for the hot water, enough for a couple of showers and service to the bathroom and kitchen.  More is simply not necessary.

The far wall of the kitchen is planned with white subway tiles up to the ceiling.  My neighbor here in Germany is a blacksmith and is helping me make thick wood slab shelves with iron shelf brackets for that back wall, which will be spot lit - I plan to make a set of natural wood ashed glaze plates, bowls and cups specifically for this house.  This will be showcased on the natural wood shelves. 

Our plan is to be in the space by August.  The cellar space, which we had originally planned to renovate with the house, will remain untouched.  We've had several ideas for the cellar space.  I think, in the end, it will be a wine cellar and art studio.  Turning it into official living space would have been costly.  The ceiling highs downstairs are 260 cm, and Italian building regs require 270 ceilings on renovations.  That would have meant digging out the cellar and repouring the floors 10 cm lower, lowering doors, windows, etc.  In addition, there would have been a 5% change of use tax on the renovation costs. We simply lost interest when we carefully looked at why we are doing this project.  It's to provide us with joy, not headaches and anxiety.  We are putting in a tube to be able to install a wood burning stove at the lower level.  Next year, we might have the builder just put down some rebar and a cement screed to level off the floors.  But the rest of the downstairs we will do ourselves over time.  What's the rush, really?  

This whole project is a bit of an experiment in letting go of things that do not serve.  I have been fascinated by small spaces for years, ever since making Tammy Stroebel's acquaintence on the internet back in 2009.  I would like this house to be of good design, and the lessons drawn to be of living large through going small.  

So this is a bit of a spiritual journey, this little house, quite an unexpected one.  I am finding myself very excited at what is to come, about doing art work there and seeing what results.  

Here's a short video of how the front and interior look right now.  I'll keep filming through the renovation and completion - the good and the bad :)  I like to say the Tiny House is all Annika's fault!  I will make her pay by coming and sharing a bottle of wine with us when it's all finished! 

 

 

The Irony of Chaos

I have a confession to make.  I'm disorganized.  

I work hard at hiding my chaos from the viewing public.  It's there to see, of course -  the haphazard receipts in my purse, the lack of coherency in my closet, the socks (and more) under the bed.  Even as I have tried to reduce and simplify to get a handle on the disorder,  I admit none of it comes naturally.

I cannot tell you how it was to own and operate a five star B&B and keep this part of me squirreled away indefinitely from the viewing public.  It's one thing to start each working day at point zero and bring everything to a high standard.  It's an entirely different thing to start at point minus twenty and do the same thing.  It ate up a lot of my life force to do that.  More than I care to think about. 

I am not going to sit here and say I didn't enjoy it.  I enjoyed a great deal of it.  But I spent too much time fussing about all the things that were not, in my mind's eye, perfect. To complicate things, the property was 400 years old.  If there's something that's never going to be perfect, it's a 400 year old stone house.

I have often considered the irony of that. 

Why people really came to our B&B.   

Why people really came to our B&B.   

I missed, in those days, the big glaring elephant in the room.  And the elephant knew this:  People were not coming to our B&B for perfection.  They were coming there because of us, our story, and what we had created.  And the warm, inviting atmosphere came, in large part, from my sense of chaos and willingness to throw things together in such a way that they felt comfortable but not planned. They were coming for the creative energy on our little hill in the wine country. 

The part of me that shames me was actually responsible for creating the very thing people loved.  It wasn't perfection they were looking for after all; it was rather the magic that came from whirling creativity that expresses itself on occasion as a hot mess.

 Now, all these years later, I consider the ultimate irony in that and feel grateful for it.

I learned from this.  Changing my basic nature is not going to happen. And I find that I no longer want to. I am accepting that there is only so much order I can demand of myself without being self-destructive. And while I'm pretty sure I'll never completely get away from the small voice demanding some kind of unattainable perfection, I will learn to hush her as I choose my paints and clay and messy sock draw over the dust rag and Swiffer one more time. 

Aging 1

Life is so unreasonably fascinating. 

No matter how hard we try to bend and shape it into a form that works more conveniently, it follows its own formidible, self-determined path.  Doors open; doors snap shut.  Age takes us, uncannily, by surprise.  I suppose that's the vanity in us humans.  We see ourselves in mirrors and our eyes correct what photos cannot deny.  We find out that wrinkles don't hurt, even when they appear in multitude.  We become softer.  We look, well, more vulnerable.  The edges are more rounded - worn down by time and experience - sometimes gently and sometimes with a harshness like a sandstorm on a piece of soapstone.  

I get tired, so exhausted that I can't really think.  My brain hurts. It's part of being 58 and having juggled too many balls for too long.  It seems the only solution I can find for dropping balls is to find new ones - new, more complicated, shiny ones. 

Because I'm still so damned interested in just about everything I do.  I love thinking, engaging, meeting new people, discussing, trying new ways of creating art or working on a start up or designing a house.   I love all of it so much.  I think, much more than a passion for one thing, curiousity about many things has helped me negotiate a complicated and sometimes precarious path. Sometimes my energy level can't keep up with my curiousity.  That's when my brain hurts. 

I'm lucky.  I've done many things that have thoroughly interested me.  I've taken risks and plunged into very diverse lifestyles in different countries doing different things. I became a student who never stops learning. The same things that taught me wild and beautiful lessons have also  flooded me with anxiety and pain.  They've pushed me over limits I never thought I would supercede. I've faced enormous fears that I fully believed were not survivable and survived. These are the lessons of this path that I was meant to learn. 

As hard as it's been at times, and it's been ridiculously hard, I never want it to stop, because it's absolutely magical.

When we shut out what naturally sparks us, we kill off pieces of ourselves.  And as we age, that's dangerous.  Because engaging with our own spirit, our own nature, however insanely difficult that might be, is what this aging process is to meant be about.  Pulling back will happen naturally as aging moves into out-of-life transition - but until then, engaging is something that keeps us in expansion.  

When I look around at people older than myself, I am most touched by those who continue to engage with the things they love right up until they can't.  People for whom the word "retirement" doesn't really exist. Grandfathers who help their granddaughters in the vineyards.  Older artists and scientists who still read, create, and challenge their own set of beliefs. People who know they don't have all the answers and allow for input and change. People not permanently stuck in their own ideas of religion or dogma or ideology. These are the people who move me the most and who I want to emulate as I advance in age. 

I know this means I'll have to continue to take risks and continue to make mistakes.  Those things have been scary enough up to this point - I am quite sure they will continue to terrify me as the years go by.  But the alternative is to contract and whither.   For whatever it's worth, I don't think that's an option for me.  Not as long as I have the strength to fight on. 

I will, however, allow for more naps.  I will definitely do that. 

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So many have asked me why we sold the B&B and left Italy.  Here's my first blog post about this.  

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