This is an article from the spring 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Chris Cerk wrote his most important paper before the semester had even begun. It represented wholly original research, ended up bringing him no small degree of notoriety among his peers, and saw his work celebrated in outlets as far ranging as USA Today and the U.K.’s Daily Mail. But Cerk didn’t turn the paper in to a professor; he turned it in to his mom.
When the LSA junior started crunching the numbers on housing costs, he decided it would be more economical—not to mention interesting—to eschew dorm life and spend his last two years in Ann Arbor living in a 170-square-foot house of his own construction. There were, understandably, a few parental concerns.
“My mom’s pretty Type A, very detailed,” says Cerk, whose initial idea of taking up residence in a VW van was rejected out of hand. “When I had thought about the tiny house and decided I wanted to do it no matter what, my next thought was, ‘How am I going to convince my mother?’
“So I wrote a multipage paper with, you know, the reasons it was a good idea and possible reasons it was a bad idea,” Cerk says. “And she wanted a detailed budget, and by detailed I mean, like, every nut, bolt, screw, and board of lumber.”
The Next Big Thing
While the history of intentionally living simple and small in America winds down from Thoreau through the counterculture of the late 1960s, it has gained a remarkable resurgence in the past 20 years. There are a slew of companies dedicated to building tiny houses (“tiny” typically means fewer than 400 square feet), architects for hire, and a community of enthusiasts sharing their trials and triumphs on blogs and in videos. HGTV alone offers a handful of shows dedicated to the phenomenon, including Tiny House Hunters and Tiny Luxury.
So even though the most complicated construction project Cerk had undertaken prior to his current home was a wooden skimboard he uses with friends in a stream emptying into Lake Michigan, he found that a wealth of support and guidance was no farther away than YouTube.
“I spent a large chunk of time just looking, because I had no idea how you build a house,” he says. “Then I came up with a basic design. And I’m kind of a person who, I’ll keep building things and if something changes, I’ll just make improvements and keep going.”
Cerk kept going for two summers, juggling first a job waiting tables and then an internship with an insurance company. He spent parts of 90-degree days on a hot metal roof, worried over damp forecasts when he needed to finish sealing the exterior, and sacrificed summer fun in pursuit of his dream goal of living in a house he built himself.
“I couldn’t not do work on the house for even one week,” says Cerk, who estimates he spent more than 700 hours on the project. “I had to plan out my time and estimate how much everything would take just so I’d have somewhere to live this year.”
Cerk built his home with a trailer as the foundation, partly to make it easier to move from one place to another and partly because the ambiguities of regulation mean that homes on wheels straddle the line between recreational vehicle and permanent dwelling. Because of that gray area, Cerk doesn’t like to get too specific about how or where he found a place to park his dwelling. He prefers to focus instead on the experience of living in what he calls “the Humble Trundle.” Naturally, it began with a few moments of anxiety.
“I remember that first night,” he says. “My mom had helped me move down. It was really hot, and we were sleeping on these two couches I built and running two battery-powered fans. I was looking around at all of this stuff that was unpacked and it looked like a mess and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Did I completely screw up? Was this a really dumb idea?’ It was just the unknown.”
After a week or so, the temperatures began to cool and Cerk began to grow accustomed to a life where the kitchen is a camp stove, where the refrigerator is a cooler or a snow bank, and where the shower involves leftover roofing material, a pond liner, and some rocks. He did install a solar panel, but Cerk says he intentionally decided not to arrange Internet access, a move that has had surprising benefits for someone carrying an 18-credit course load.
“Not to have Internet in the tiny house has made a crazy difference in my life in terms of getting things done and just thinking about things differently,” he says. “I don’t even have data on my cell phone, and it’s a great break not to deal with this constant stream and just concentrate. I’ve been reading more this semester, and I think that’s affected my productivity.
“One of the main reasons, too, that I wanted to build the house is that I didn’t want to have a lot of stuff to weigh me down mentally and emotionally and financially. I appreciate a lot more things that I wouldn’t have originally, and I’ve realized that some things that are nice to have aren’t always essential or even the most practical in every situation.”
Cerk says he’s lived comfortably in the house even through the winter months, and as he continues to study computer science and ponder life after graduation, he plans to take the Humble Trundle—and the lessons he’s learned—with him.
“It’s opened up doors I might not have considered,” he says. “I mean, I’ve never worked so hard on one thing in my life. It’s led me to realize what can happen if you really do stick to something.”
Without Internet or cell phone distractions, Cerk says, it’s easy to see what the real priorities are.
“After I graduate and have enough time,” he says, “one of the first things is going to be putting some tile in that shower.”