Does a house make a home?
It was that burning question that sent Cam Williams looking for answers.
His solution: live inside the box.
Which, as it turns out, is a result of thinking outside the box and embracing the idea of minimalism.
Which is more than just a millennial fad—it’s a solid plan that allows for individuals to live sustainably outside of societal norms.
Last year, Williams was confounded by these same societal expectations when he realized that, despite living in an ideal apartment in his ideal location, he just wasn’t satisfied.
“I was living alone for the first time in my life and I owned five loads of laundry and seven sets of dishes I’d collected through college and a series of relationships. I remember sitting in the bathtub wondering why I was so unhappy.” Soon, his mind drifted to the therapeutic powers of backpacking, and he started to make a new plan.
“I got a whiteboard and wrote down everything I’d take backpacking, and then added more luxurious things like toiletries and cookware. I spent a month trying to get rid of everything else.”
And so, from March 1 to April 1, Williams lived in his apartment with only the things he could carry on his back alongside a lot of empty space; a trial period, if you will, before committing to cutting the cord on a traditional home life.
“I’m someone who doesn’t need to live in a beautiful space, so I was comfortable having it just be a bed and crates, but I wanted to connect people who I know so that they can question societal norms—especially with paying rent, living spaces, and material things. So, I wanted to make it a space people could be attracted to, and that could be personalized.” Over the last seven months, The Human Resources Director for Hot Chicken Takeover has transposed the aesthetic he’d envisioned into a truck, which he insulated and fitted with a kitchen area and closet space.
Every individual has different preferences and priorities when it comes to the details of their living space, and minimalists are no different—Williams’ priority is stealth.
“I don’t have any windows on the sides. From the front, it’s perceived as a detached back, but it’s all one unit. However, others may prioritize having more natural light, for example.”
In lieu of windows, Williams added peel-and-stick solar panels to the roof. He connected those panels to an inverter and battery bank that supply his electrical outlets with solar-powered energy.
Williams warns those who may be interested in such considerable downsizing to know that the process isn’t easy, but it’s definitely feasible—his pursuit was done step-by-step, without a lot of capital.
His advice, in the end?
“Think through the reality of what you need to live, and do it for a month—living with only those things.”
“And use more R6 insulation than you think you’ll need,” he laughed.
Of course, there are others in town having similar epiphanies of simplicity:
‘We Live in a Van on Purpose!’
Rachael and Logan Schmitt (@littlevikingvan) looked around the west side, two-story house they rented during their undergrad days and noticed something unusual—they had an unreasonable amount of extra space that they only used a fraction of when they were actually home.
“When I graduated in May, we talked about doing an Airstream, or maybe a van or a bus … we decided to do this,” Logan said. And so, they began the process of downsizing to a minimalist lifestyle.
The couple bought a van from Logan’s mother (a Ford Econoline with a raised roof, to be exact), and they began the process of conversion. “It was good timing,” explained Rachael. “I had been looking for a year for something that worked for us.” Many who decide to go this route have a large amount of financial support, but Rachael and Logan dove in headfirst. All financial difficulties so far have been offset by their individual freedoms, said Rachael, who worked as the Administrative Coordinator of the Facilities Department at CCAD. “I really liked it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. Now, I get to help Logan in the studio.”
Freedom was at the heart of the decision for Logan, too.
“Since I do freelance illustration, this allows me to explore that craft more because we don’t have as much to lose. We live in a van on purpose!” Logan said, as Rachael laughed in agreement.
“We’re still just as busy, so we’re mostly in the van to go to sleep or to drive somewhere.”
Rachael researched mobile home interiors for months before converting their van, and was savvy to avoid the mistakes of others—like starting off with too much stuff.
“I knew these were the things we definitely needed versus things we could do without,” Logan said. “We wanted to start out with the bare minimum so that we could add if needed.”
They tore out the two back rows of seats along with the carpeting and lining on the ceiling of the van, and painted everything white. To finish off the look: they added accent rugs for the comfort of home; built a bed from pallet wood; and added a counter and sink that they purchased from Habitat for Humanity. They also installed a hand pump faucet, which was only $10. Under their sink are two tanks: one for clean water, and one for what’s called “grey water,” water that’s been used for bathing or washing dishes.
Like Williams, they’ve added solar panels to the roof. The panels aren’t high capacity, but they can handle the general needs of modern device essentials.
“It’s small and we can really only charge our phones, but it’s effective for what we’re doing,” said Rachael.
The couple remains committed to their new lifestyle, although the first day the temperatures hit triple digits inside the van was certainly a test of faith. Still, being able to lessen their footprint while also improving their own sanity is more than worth it.
“It made us think about what we take in; we don’t consume as much,” Rachael said. “There’s definitely a societal and environmental impact that we want to make.”
“It’s essentially like camping all the time.”
Less Debt, Dishes
Eileah Ohning started exploring minimalism when she looked at her hectic schedule working as a photographer for a local creative agency. The price of rent and the monthly cost of her student loan payments were growing, and it made the thought of purchasing a home seem daunting. So Eileah decided to take a step back to imagine what her life could look like if she were free of debt.
“I was paying almost $1,000 a month in rent and realized I wasn’t really building anything in life. I started researching what it would take to buy a home, and I didn’t see that happening for me in the near future. A friend told me about tiny houses. That led to researching minimalism, and then I found people who were living in campers, buses, vans, RVs, and cars. My lease was about to end, so I had to make a decision about whether to renew or try something new. The worst that could happen was that it doesn’t work and I need to find an apartment.”
Ohning knew it was going to be an experiment, and having never done something like this before, she was anxious about selling all of her belongings. She rented a storage unit—in case the whole thing “crashed and burned”—and stored big-ticket items like her bed and dresser in the unit. “I looked at my house and realized I have an entire room full of furniture I never use. My apartment was 600-square-feet, but I only used maybe one third of that.”
She noticed something interesting while downsizing—the reason she’d held onto the majority of her possessions was because of their sentimental value. But when she re-examined them, she realized they were just things.
Prior to the departure from apartment living, she spent two weeks brainstorming ways to prepare her car.
“I tinted my windows for security. I did that myself, but I probably shouldn’t have,” she said with a laugh. “I took the bottom part of my backseat out to give myself some more storage space and got some plastic storage bins to store toiletries and things. I also recommend bags as opposed to boxes because they’re more stuffable, and boxes can be awkward to arrange.”
Everyone asks the question, Ohning said: Where do you shower and… stuff?
Being a gym member does have its perks.
“There was one right around the corner from work, so I park there a lot for added security. Also, living in the city, you’re never really without a public restroom. Was it annoying? Yes, but what I gained financially and what I was contributing environmentally were worth it. As we grow up in a certain kind of comfort culture, we assume we need something because we’ve always had it. But, when you strip everything away you start to realize what your own basic needs are.”
You also realize that you can get out of a big hole that some remain in their entire lives.
Ohning had $42,000 of student loan debt when she started living in her car, and in just one year, she eliminated it. Now she’s debt-free—and dish-free.
“I had a bowl and a spork, and that was it,” she laughed.
Ohning also said the experiment, due to less comfort than traditional home, made her more extroverted. “You have to get out of your car to stay sane, so it kind of forced me to be around people more often. I invested more consistent time in relationships with people.”
As for other people out there possibly considering living off-the-grid—but not off the map—Ohning has this advice:
“The one thing you have to ask yourself about a thing is, ‘Does this add value to my life? Does this give me joy?’ and if the answer is ‘no,’ or ‘sort of,’ it’s not worth the space it takes up in your life. I would just start purging the little things and take a real inventory of what things and activities add joy to your life. The journey is more about figuring out who you are and getting down to the things that really matter.”