In this interview, Sophie from RAD Tiny Home explains their journey of intentional, earth-friendly living in their custom-built tiny house on wheels outside of Duluth, MN.
Bigger is better. At least, that’s the message from mainstream America – bigger house, bigger cars, bigger yard.
But is bigger really better?
Sophie from RAD Tiny Home would disagree. She and her husband Henry moved into a 28-foot tiny house on wheels in the summer of 2019 in an effort to bring their values into focus and live more sustainably.
The acronym R.A.D. stands for Redefining the American Dream. Sophie explains their mission, “By sharing our lifestyle we hope to inspire others to live more intentionally and consider how culture influences their values.”
In this interview, Sophie explains her journey to Tiny House Living and her experience living in a tiny house outside of Duluth, Minnesota.
What made you decide to pursue the Tiny House lifestyle?
During my junior year at Luther College I took an anthropology course called “consumption and its consequences”. This course dug into the consumerist culture that most Americans have and made me start to think about what I valued most. I realized that more stuff does not equate to happiness.
After learning about the tiny house movement during my senior year, the idea of downsizing and living tiny as a way of living more sustainably sounded really appealing. After getting married my husband Henry and I went from living in a 1 bedroom apartment to renting a 400 square foot studio in preparation for our move to tiny living.
For us, living a more sustainable lifestyle was our main impetus for pursuing tiny living.
When did you first learn about Tiny House living?
Dee Williams is recognized as one of the founders of the modern tiny house movement. She visited my college as a guest speaker and shared her experience of building a tiny home and downsizing from a traditional-sized home.
After reading Dee’s memoir, “The Big Tiny,” I chose to focus my senior paper on how downsizing was one way to use less resources. I titled my paper, “Rethinking the American Dream; Downsizing as Sustainable Solution.”
Out of this came the name of our home, RAD Tiny Home – short for “Rethinking the American Dream”.
Although I was excited about tiny living, at the time my boyfriend (now husband) Henry thought it sounded terrible.
What’s been the most surprising thing (good or bad) about living in a tiny house?
I think the most surprising thing about tiny living is the maintenance required. We went from renting to living tiny, so not only was it a transition to less square footage, but also to home ownership. Since we built our own tiny house we are very familiar with the utilities which is nice, but we are also the ones responsible if something goes awry.
Because we are parked in such a cold climate we sometimes have to think twice about going away for the weekend if it’s going to be really cold to avoid the water inlet/pipes freezing. Our stove and hot water heater run off propane and sometimes we run out of propane at inconvenient times.
We also have a compost toilet that separates liquids and solids and the liquids needed to be emptied more frequently than expected (at least once a week).
Because we are not parked on a concrete slab the freeze/thaw cycle means we have to re-level the house every so often. None of these things are deal breakers, but I hadn’t really considered these responsibilities prior to going tiny.
What made you decide to purchase a Tiny Home instead of a small condo or townhome in the city?
There were several reasons we decided to build a tiny home; the primary reason was we could customize the home to our lifestyle.
The space in small apartments was not often used well. In our tiny home, the smaller square footage in combination with using high quality building materials allows the home to be super energy efficient, something that might not have been possible in a condo or townhome.
We also have a lot of flexibility with our tiny home. Previously we lived in the city and my daily commute was a 25-50 minute (rush hour) drive depending on traffic, so we were ready to live more rurally. Our tiny home is built on a trailer, so now our location is also flexible.
Where we live currently there are not many housing options other than single family homes, and the housing market has been extremely busy and a seller’s market, making it very hard to be affordable at the time. However, we were able to purchase the tiny house outright, which has been a much more viable option.
What does “sustainability” mean to you?
The definition that aligns best with my interpretation of sustainability is meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Our lifestyle choices and the business and practices that we support through our purchasing power and voting can make a huge impact. Whether that’s reducing the amount of plastic you purchase, eating seasonally, purchasing locally, supporting producers who follow regenerative agriculture practices, or voting for elected officials that prioritize tackling our environmental crisis, I believe that everyone can take steps to living more sustainably.
What are the biggest challenges you think people face when trying to live more sustainably?
I think many people don’t know where to start when it comes to living more sustainably. American society is consumeristic by nature, so it takes a lot of unlearning to try to combat some deep-seated habits. I also think there is a fear of failure. We get very accustomed to our own routines so it can be a hard adjustment to incorporate new routines.
The phrase “zero waste” can be very intimidating. The idea that the goal is “zero waste” likely seems unattainable to many just getting started. We live in a world of consumerism, constantly being bombarded with advertisements so it’s hard to break away from the norm.
In instances where a couple is cohabitating many people have asked me how to convince their partner to live more sustainably. In these instances my advice is to always go back to your “why” and try explaining why living more sustainably is important to you and your values.
People are creatures of habit and are not going to make a change unless they personally decide to make a change. I find that explaining your reasoning is the best way to convey to someone why you are pursuing this lifestyle.
Give an example of what you’re doing to overcome these challenges.
Taking things one step at a time, one change at a time is a great way to start.
Our lifestyle did not change overnight. In order for any change to be sustainable it has to work for you and your family. We had to slowly work through food and products already in our pantry, and after running out we would make the switch to a more sustainable option like swapping shampoo for a shampoo bar and purchasing rolled oats from the bulk bins rather than packaged.
I also find it helpful to follow along with other people’s journeys for inspiration and also a dose of reality. No one is perfect, and if they appear to be you likely aren’t seeing the whole picture.
Understanding that the goal of zero waste is near impossible in a 21st century world, and just striving to do the best we can without carrying too much eco-guilt when we aren’t “perfect” zero wasters.
What’s the best thing about living in a Tiny House?
A small footprint means way less cleaning. With only 324SF an entire home cleaning doesn’t take long and it’s usually pretty easy to locate things as there are only so many places an item can hide!
Because we custom designed our tiny home with our lifestyle in mind there are some fun features we’ve never had before like higher than standard cabinets, custom shelving for bulk goods and integrated recycling/compost receptacle in the cabinets. I absolutely love all the natural light and all the window ledges for lots of plants!
Lower cost of living has also been great; because we were able to pay for the house as we built we now enjoy a very low monthly rent, just paying our landowners for our parking space and electricity used.
What’s the most frustrating thing about living in a Tiny House?
Living in a tiny house, especially in 2020, certainly had its challenges.
With both Henry and needing to work from home at times, if we are both on the phone or in a meeting there is not a whole lot of space to spread out. Henry and I are both night owls, but we’ve found it’s pretty hard to not disturb a sleeping person in the loft once one of us is up.
We also do not have the storage space to store foods in large quantities, and with the pandemic it was challenging as we tried our best to limit trips needed to the grocery store. Luckily for us, our land hosts are awesome and are sharing their chest freezer with us.
We also had to be very mindful to keep an eye on the weather when leaving home for extended periods of time in the winter, because the water inlet tends to freeze when subzero temperatures hit and there is no one home to run water through the pipes. This has been particularly frustrating because we expected the tiny house to give us more freedom and it is not fun stressing about whether or not we will have water upon our return.
If a friend came to you who was interested in living in a tiny house, what advice would you give them?
I would tell them to think very hard about their current lifestyle and use this process to determine what the most important features in a tiny home would be.
One of the things that I love about the tiny house movement is that homes are custom designed and built with an end user specifically in mind so that they work for each person/family. There are likely a few things that you don’t use very often that you might think are essential, but when you take a step back to consider you might discover that something like a microwave or dishwasher aren’t essential.
I would also tell them to consider the climate they want to live in. Having a woodstove as a secondary source of heat and purchasing a hyper-heat mini split unit that is highly efficient (and works down to -15F) was very important to us for where we intended to live, but would not be important for someone who lives in a warmer climate.
If you intend to purchase from a tiny home builder, do your due diligence and make sure the builder has experience building a home for your climate. In such a small space it is also very important to have an air exchanger so that fresh air is being recirculated into the home.
Do you think everyone should live in a tiny house? Why or why not?
There are families with multiple children who have made tiny home living work for them but tiny home living is certainly not for everyone.
Henry and I have always lived in relatively small spaces together so transitioning to tiny living was not a huge adjustment for us. Recognizing that it is important for us both to have some alone time is important. For example, I love getting out of the house and walking/running every day. We live a pretty active lifestyle so for us tiny living was also about having the time and resources to go on trips versus the time and money it takes to maintain a traditional-sized home.
You have to consider how much space an item will take to store before purchasing and determine where it will go or else your space will quickly become cluttered. There are definitely some trade-offs between tiny living, traditional home ownership and renting, and it truly depends on your own circumstances to determine which routes serve you and your lifestyle best.
For people who are unable to live in a tiny house, what recommendations would you give them to live more sustainably where they are?
If you want to live more sustainably, start taking steps today that lay the foundation to get you to your goal. Create a list with actionable steps that you can take to keep yourself accountable such as starting a compost, a list of sustainable swaps you can make after you use up everything you have on hand. Grab my free zero waste kick-starter guide to get started.
I find that a lot of people have many aspirations for “someday”, but are waiting for something to change before enacting the first steps they need to make to achieve their end goal. There’s a Chinese Proverb saying “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Focus first on the so-called “low hanging fruit” and the things that you can control such as the companies and practices you choose to support with your hard earned dollars.
What are your goals with RAD Tiny Home in the future?
Our goal in going tiny was to live more sustainably and share our journey along the way. We never set a timeline for how long we want to continue living tiny, but rather to live this lifestyle for as long as it makes sense for us.
Our hope is to inspire others to rethink some of the cultural norms that are embedded into American culture and realize that stuff does not equate to happiness. I would love to continue sharing our journey and tips with ways to minimize our impact that have worked for us, no matter where we call home.
When we are no longer living tiny we hope that our home can continue to be an inspiration for others, no matter if we choose to rent or sell, enabling somebody else to live out their tiny adventure.
Anything else you’d like to share about your experience?
I truly believe that living sustainably does not have to be complicated. It does have to be a lifestyle change and something that you work towards over time.
In order for sustainability to be sustainable you have to make it work for your, your family and your unique circumstances. You do not have to live in 324sf or get rid of all your possessions to live sustainably or buy a bunch of the latest “eco swaps” to be sustainable.
For us, living sustainably centers around lifestyle changes, conscious consumption and making the decision to live a life that aligns with our values. There is no one right way to live sustainably!
Thank you for sharing, Sophie!
For more information about small steps you can take towards eco-friendly living, check out these related posts:
Happy Eco-Friendly Living!
Ann from Peas and Hoppiness & Sophie from RADTinyHome