Along our daily walk, Shawn and I pass an old tow behind camper...perhaps it’s an old Boler or something akin. It’s a wreck. The side is falling out and the roof is rumpled and the poor thing has just been abandoned in a field where plenty of rain and UV aren’t contributing kindly to its dereliction. I don’t know what it is about this sad little guy that caught my attention. I guess it’s partly that, having lived in a small and technically portable space for the last couple of years, I look at campers, rv’s and even sheds and can’t help but start to imagine how they might be transformed into viable living spaces for the short or long term. Certainly I have a sorrow of seeing perfectly good things abandoned to early decay. Shawn and I once entertained the idea of camping all over the country in a little Boler, with flats of soil strapped to the top so we could stay a while here and there and grow some lettuce in the process (it’s tough to balance a wandering spirit with one that thrives in a garden and thus needs a home plot somewhere!). So even this poor old decaying thing has a friendly look to it and deserves my pity, though it’s certainly in need of more repair than I (and probably anyone) can give it.
We recently had a conversation with a friend in town who runs a busy contracting service. Many of his clients are looking for low or “no” maintenance solutions to their homes. I’ll admit right away that I tend to be very leery of low and especially “no” maintenance products. So is our contractor friend, frankly. The fact is, maintenance is required. Most low and no maintenance products are lower grade and you will end up paying one way or another in the long (or short) run, especially if you enter a relationship with them expecting to do no work to keep up with their integrity (or lack thereof). We all have active lives, but putting work into a thing has an intrinsic value, to my mind, that has been aggressively downplayed by a modern world that wants things done immediately and “cheaply.” Possibly this is just aberrant thinking on our part, and we should work to be more rational in our approach to things relating to our structures and our relationships with them.
That said, I can understand the need for materials that last and don’t require a ton of expensive labor to maintain. These products do exist, and for a reason. This is also why small homes seem logical, sustainable and just more fun to me. When we built in Maine, the home was larger than we expected for various reasons. This was actually a difficult situation to remedy because we had to use a product (vinyl siding) that we really didn’t want to use, for reasons both environmental and aesthetic. This was a case where I could clearly understand the value of low maintenance, though. This particular home partly turned out larger than expected because it had a daylight basement, adding height. It was also fully two stories and had an attic space that was habitable. You can imagine that this was a pretty tall home. We were unable to do the siding work ourselves because of this. That meant having to hire out the labor, which was expensive and well worth the money, since it was skilled work that we weren’t able to perform ourselves. However, the cost savings had to come somewhere, and vinyl was significantly less expensive than the base price of wood, which would have required further labor dollars to be added in terms of painting crews after installation. In terms of our long term considerations, too, a material that didn’t need to be repainted, sanded, and otherwise maintained by persons other than ourselves was a requirement we had to observe from a financial standpoint. It was also a lesson that we learned a great deal from. We want all of our homes to be ones that we can finish as we desire and we want our homes to be ones that we can, so long as we are physically able, do most of the maintenance on ourselves so that our finances can remain as healthy as our bodies. Thus, another beauty of the small house. I mention this experience of having to observe the “low maintenance issue” though because I want to let the reader know that I understand that it’s needed and necessary to consider. Even on a small home, not everyone has the time, inclination, interest or skill set to do all the labor required. The building trade exists for good reason and there is a lot of valuable skill, intelligence and experience out there for us to be able to draw on by supporting that economy. I’m a believer in that. However, the ethos of small also helps in this scenario. At least where I live, builders, carpenters and most of the other trades relating to construction command high wages. Keeping things small can be pretty important when you consider how common it is for someone you are paying to be earning $25 to $50 an hour.
Most of all, though, I look at the natural way that things fall apart and realize that every time we build something, we are working against the inimitable strength of impermanence. As soon as you set a foundation, you begin to think about what can damage your work. Frost, termites, ants, hydrostatic pressure, mold...the list goes on and on. It only expands with every piece of timber that gets nailed so painstakingly into place. Once you are buttoned up, the rain might not fall in through the ceiling (well it better not!), but your siding, roof, windows and everything else exposed is helpless to avoid the daily beating of the elemental world. Paint, and lots of it, sealing and caulking, maintenance. It becomes a requirement. It’s a joy and a privilege, as well, but it’s definitely work and all work has associated costs, whether you hire it out or do it yourself. A small home or even a little camper can rapidly become rubbish if not maintained, so for me, keeping things small is some guarantee that I will have the ability to keep up with things. I want to and frankly am one of those people that takes great joy from working hard. I even love to weed. And yet, I know that if something is too big, it can and perhaps unavoidably will at some point, become too much for Shawn and I to do on our own. So to indulge my preferences as well as hedge my bets, I will be delighting in a small home that won’t require excessive labor to maintain and also won’t require excessive amounts of “low” and “no” maintenance materials to trick me into thinking the labor won’t be required, somehow. And I know that when we sell this home, it will be easy for the next family to take care of as well, because small is a “low maintenance” that I don’t have trouble believing in. By keeping size in mind and doing the maintenance on the way (and barring all mega disasters, of course) this house will take a long time to break down and wear away. No one during my tenure here and hopefully for many long decades to come will pass it on their daily walk and marvel at the decrepitude of it. The good care we give it will also make it appealing to others, when the time comes, who also love and take care of things. What a relief that feels to me.