Dee Williams downsizes to a tiny house, opens a bigger world


Ten years ago, a heart attack prompted Dee Williams to reexamine her hectic lifestyle. “My heart made me look at everything differently,” she said recently.

Sitting in a doctor’s office, she spotted an article on Jay Shafer’s tiny house on wheels. “What if I sold my big house with its rats in the front yard, the mortgage, the hours of dusting, mopping, cleaning, vacuuming, painting, grass cutting, and yard pruning? How would it feel to live so light?” she writes in her new memoir, “The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir” ($26.95, Blue Rider Press).

Faced with her mortality, Williams sold her three-bedroom home in Portland, Ore., and built an 84-square-foot house on her own. “When I first saw an image of Jay Shafer’s little house, there was some sort of ancient DNA strand that clicked in and said everything is going to be OK,” she said.


Williams will present a slide show and share a life-size floor plan of her house at a book signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena at 7 p.m. Thursday. In an interview, Williams shared what it feels like to live unencumbered by a mortgage, bills and possessions.

You chose to write a memoir instead of a DIY book. Why?

Writing a book for me was similar to building a house. It seemed really unfathomable to put together. I also wanted to articulate what I love about my house and why the backyard works for me.

No matter what our station in life or how much money we have or religion or politics, every single one of us wants to be happy. A lot of people suffer unnecessarily because they miss these really subtle beautiful moments that make you so happy. I would hope that in reading my book, people would have a chance to notice the world around them and their neighbors and the soft, ephemeral nature of their heart.

And it’s not about needing to downsize to be happy. It’s more about stripping away the veneer of your life so you have a clear image of how damn lucky you are. That is really the name of the game: Taking a bite out of your life. We’ve got to have fun.

In your book, you write, “My guess is that my ears and limbs, back and butt would be less mangled if I’d had the courage to ask for help.” Any regrets?


I think I was stubborn to a fault. Especially when I’d go through the lumber yard and try to pick up wood. I’m completely different now. If I can lean on a shelf and have someone else flex their muscles, I’m fine with that. I think I had a lot that I needed to prove to myself about being healthy and capable and not collapsing into my fear of trying something new.

What is the key to designing a space that is small but not claustrophobic?

Have varying ceiling heights and a common color scheme. Think about how your body moves through a space when you walk in the door. In another little house that I designed, you enter through the side and your body rotates on an axis in the house, so all of a sudden, instead of being linear, there are all kinds of things that apply to make it not feel spartan and claustrophobic. It’s actually warm and inviting.

You took months to get rid of all of your stuff. Any tips on letting go?

Set a goal for yourself. How about a grocery sack a day? Tell yourself, “I’m going to get through one thing at a time.” More than anything else, give yourself time. We want to hang on to stuff. You can’t be cruel to yourself. Set it up as a game, and see what happens.

You live in a cabin the size of an area rug. What do you consider a luxury now?

A really awesome hot bubble bath. Or a hot shower on a drizzly day. Getting used to not having a shower is humbling. I splurge on really nice rain gear and jackets. I spend a little bit more on good quality stuff. I bought three pieces of artwork recently. I gave myself permission to bring them in.

We have built houses that give us an opportunity to lock ourselves inside. I have to branch out from my tiny house. I have to shop at the food co-op every day, for example. I have a different relationship with people because of it.