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Author Simplifies Her Life, Builds and Lives In Tiny House

Dee Williams

Dee Williams has dramatically transformed her life. A decade ago, she was a busy professional and homeowner living in Portland, Oregon.
“I worked full-time as a hazardous waste inspector and worked a lot to make my mortgage and pay my utility bills," Williams says. "I used to be footloose and fancy free before I bought this big bungalow. I was spending all of my time and money on this house.”

Williams had a sudden, near-death experience at age 40. “I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and my prognosis was not good," she says.

After the diagnosis, Williams took stock and reconsidered her priorities. “I remember getting home from the hospital and sitting in my living room and looking at all the stuff I had in my life and it just didn’t make sense any more," she says.

A couple of weeks later, Williams read about a man who built his own little house. She was inspired.

“It clicked for me! I could get out from under my debt; maybe I can work part-time at my job," Williams says. "I decided, I can do this."

Williams "jugs" in water to use at her kitchen sink. Waste water gathers in a jar below.

Williams says she grew up building things and loves working with power tools. She designed a simple 84-square foot house – basically an open floor plan with a sleeping loft. Friends pitched in to build what Williams calls Big Tiny. They completed construction in three months, costing $10,000.

“It was a great focus away from being fearful about my health and feeling sort of like a foreigner inside my own body," she says. "At the other end of it, I decided to sell my big house move into this little tiny house and call it home. It’s the size of my mom’s and dad’s pantry.”

Williams admits letting go of most of her stuff was difficult. Today, she can list her possessions on one sheet of paper. Hardest of all was parting with the artwork that hung on her bungalow walls. Williams decided to gift paintings to friends, with the understanding she could visit them.

Williams' tiny house has power, collected with solar panels positioned next to her home; but her place has no running water.

“I pull water from a nearby tap and jug it into the house," Williams says. "I have a composting toilet and I shower either at work or the gym or at my friend’s house.”

Williams admits she fell out of her "nest" a couple of years ago and sustained a major injury; still, relishes waking up mornings with a birds eye view of the world.

Williams says  she wakes up every day to a view of the heavens through her skylight. She says you can’t see that view every morning and not be changed.

“I can very easily see that I have a lot more than most people in the world," Williams says. "Most people don’t get to sit around inside that sense of gratitude. I live in an amazing community in one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Williams did pull away from her full-time hazardous waste inspector job. She now co-owns Portland Alternative Dwellings.

“A lot of what we do is focus on the do-it-yourselfers out there," she says. "There are a lot of people who want to take on building or take a look at simplifying their lives. So we offer workshops, and plans and books. We really try to encourage people to examine what brings them joy and do that in a way that is fun.”

Williams chronicled her journey in her memoir, The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself.

"Archive" photo of William's move.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.