Small Space Living

Tip 06// The Most Sustainable Couch

I am thirty, and I have still yet to own a couch of my choosing. Every couch that has permeated my living space has either been already provided by previous tenants or handed down to me by someone I know. What does that say about me, exactly?

While it is quite obvious that our personal successes are not defined by an ability to own a couch, I think it is implied that a medical professional of thirty would have been able to afford one by now. But buying a couch is no easy thing. In fact, buying ANYTHING for me is never an easy thing these days. The entire process involves a hefty amount of serious pondering and a mild case of deep-skin writhing.

In this line of work, I am approached by others in general for my thoughts on stuff. In a sense, my job here is to help make a value judgement. I am presented with the following questions: Who made it? How is it made? Where is it made? What materials are used? Why is it necessary? Which option is best, in terms of sustainability both in terms of the environment, the social implications, the global effects, and least importantly, my personal repercussions. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a matcha whisk, or a set of pajamas. It’s even more pressure on large scale purchases, such as a brand new couch.

I have been in search for a sustainable couch for years. Ever since my husband (then-fiance) and I moved into our own place two months after I graduated dental school in 2016. Specifically, I have looked for a couch wherein I can trace exactly where it was made, whose hands were used to make them, and in what environmental conditions. I have yet to find one that comes close. Most furniture companies don’t even bother to tag couches as sustainable, and those that do only involve a small level of sustainability (like using reclaimed wood without any consideration for the fabrics of the upholstery) that I cannot even take them seriously.

So then I started to reach out to acquaintances about possibly fabricating a couch. Our favorite piece of furniture in our home is a 12 foot dining table hand-made by the two girls who provided our wedding furniture. We thought maybe we could do the same with the couch. I reached out to a fellow wood-worker-baker and an at-home clothing seamstress to ask about making a sustainable wood frame and sourcing end-of-the-mill fabrics. But sourcing the fabric will take lots of work researching jobbers and the wood-worker friend was busy with current projects as well as a baking schedule. It wasn’t the path to take.

So we turned to the next sustainable option, which is to buy a used and unwanted couch from Craigslist, which would prevent an additional item from entering a landfill. I know that it would put us in the same spot as before, owning a couch that’s a hand-me-down of sorts, but at least it would be a couch of our choosing. When we went to Melbourne in January, we stayed at a really nice AirBNB, and we fell in love with a mid-century modern couch in their living room.

airbnb melbourne
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I was surprised to find a similar couch made by West Elm selling at Craigslist for $800. The same couch is still selling at West Elm for double the price. While West Elm sells some sustainable products, couches are unfortunately not one of them. But sustainability as defined by environmental impact is achieved with this option, and the fact that it was already owned means the buying of this Craigslist couch does not have an ADDITIONAL social impact or global effect, except for the positive effect of side swiping it from the landfill. So where’s the hitch?

It all came down to sustainability as defined by my personal life. $800 is no chump change. Maybe  in proportion to brand new couches (why do they cost so much?) $800 seems like a steal. Perhaps it is. But in terms of my personal financial goals, $800 is almost double what we set aside each month for travel. $800 is almost three months worth of groceries, or eight months worth of dining out. $800 is a year’s worth of cat food for Theo, and probably all the Christmas and birthday presents we want to buy. It is one-third of our portion of the mortgage, which is helping us build equity – can a couch do that? It is 12% of our monthly loan payment, which is buying us freedom. How much freedom can a couch buy you?

In the end, we chose the most sustainable couch, which is the couch we already had. It buys us freedom from the cycle of continually searching for something better. It helps build us equity by not taking way from our ability to build equity. It fuels our financial goals, without taking away from our time. In the end, it came down to the answer of not which couch is best, but which couch is good enough. That’s what sustainability is all about.

I  sometimes wonder how well these superlatives, and our quest for the best of something, end up serving us. What about the possibility of replacing better or best with good enough? The reality of my own day-to-day life is that living simply and keeping a pared down collection of well-loved items often isn’t about having the best. It’s about making the best of what I already have.

Erin Boyle, ReadingMyTeaLeaves, Simple Matters

Like Erin, we search for ways to make the best of what we have. It’s the ultimate way to live without forever needing to chase. In our space, we have shades where walls should be, wooden panels where doors should be, and a bed where some might put a living room. But it IS enough, and there we still sleep soundly.

Small Space Living: We’ve Joined the Small House Movement!

It’s likely apparently obvious to those who enjoy this space that I have a slight infatuation with decreased consumption, which stems from a cognizance regarding third world countries, from whence I came, and the less-ness that exists (in terms of material goods) in correlation to the comparative abundance of happiness levels. So when the small house movement came into my radar, as I was exploring theories of minimalism, essentialism, and frugality, I was on board like a runaway child on a boxcar train.

The small house movement is embraced by those privileged enough to have an interest in reducing their living quarters to something more practical than the escalating housing  trend in the early 2000s. Technically, small housing is defined as a space less than 1000 square feet (still grand enough for a family of deux), whereas a tiny home is defined as one having less than 400 square feet. The more I browsed adorable photos of RV living and tiny guest homes, the more I thought to myself, “Why don’t we do this?”

Off course, extreme as I am, I immediately jumped to the thought of tiny house living. I approached Mike with talk of buying an RV, and posting up shop at a parking lot by the ocean. Imagine hanging macrame holding plant pots, a teeny kitchen with an oven big enough to make my own bread, a fold up dining table that double serves as a desk, and still room for a king sized bed. All thoughts of which were resisted heavily by a six-foot-three giant with claims of not being able to stand tall inside a camper. Fair enough. Just because I can fit inside a hobbit home, does not mean that a hobbit home is livable for my tall husband. So there goes that idea.

So then I started looking at homes bordering tiny. I set limitations on my Zillow searches for homes 600 square feet or smaller. Unfortunately, very few searches came up in Southern California, and unless we wanted to co-live in someone else’s backyard, zilch came up in Orange County. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my desires came from something external, specifically, from the appearance of tiny living. The homes that I was searching for did not move us towards the life we saw ourselves living. It may keep us away from over-consumption, out of necessity due to lack of space, but I realized we didn’t need to buy a tiny home in order to do that, too.

Once I saw that, I started to go back to our original idea, which was to buy a live/work loft like the one we were currently renting. The dream is to one day, wake up and walk downstairs for work. To work together doing something that seems mundane, but involves creating something as well, to share with the community. In order to make this dream a reality, we started looking at properties that would set us up for a future business. So that’s what we ended up doing.

We bought a 1,500 square foot live work loft in the heart of downtown Santa Ana. The greatest part of all? We technically joined the small house movement too! Our living space resides on the second floor, and the downstairs is partitioned specifically for a business, or a roommate for co-housing. Since the business has over 500 square feet of space, it leaves us with around 900 square feet of living space on the second floor. I’ll pretend that counts as small house living! It has everything I need and more, but without the excesses of a typical home. For example, there’s not closet on the second floor. There’s not even a bedroom or bedroom door. In fact, it’s an open floor plan, with no doors at all, not even a bathroom one. Minimalist to a high degree, but made even more functional in its sparseness.

floor plan

In this new series, Small Space LivingI hope to delve into the pros and cons of living with less. Some of the things I look forward to most about living small include:

  • Increased cash flow – When we were searching for a live/work loft, we had the choice of accepting a counter-offer for $650,000 and a counter-offer for $499,900. We obviously went with the latter. Now imagine if we were going to compare this place to a stand-alone home! Smaller homes might afford you a smaller mortgage, but there is the added benefit of lower property taxes, decreased homeowners insurance, and less maintenance costs. Imagine if you took the extra money you saved to improve on your home insulation or invest in solar roof panels and skylights to reduce energy consumption. Or you know, funnel that extra cash into paying down student debt, or creating the life you want to live.
  • Less Maintenance – Nothing excites me more than the fact that I will not have to spend hours of my days off keeping a large house clean. I recall my mother sweeping the floors day in and day out, and wondering to myself if she would have more time to relax if only we had a smaller home. Cutting down the hours needed to maintain a home leaves more time for enjoyable activities, furthering a business venture, or simply spending time with loved ones.
  • Lower utility bills – It costs less to cool down a small home in mid-summer’s heat than it is to cool down a large mansion, especially in deserty California.
  • Reduced consumption – The thing I love most about limited storage is the limiting effects on gaining even more stuff. Gone were the days when I would go rogue at a shopping mall, and there’s hardly a purchase I make now that does not involve hefty consideration. I avoid the cycle of buying more things, and then buying more storage for said new things. So many Americans use their garages as storage space, and when that isn’t enough, rent out a separate storage unit to store even more of their stuff! What’s the point of owning things that you never use? Currently, I have made a habit of getting rid of something that no longer serves if I need the room for something that adds more value to my life. So yes, I guess you can say I am pretty excited about the limited storage space.
  • More time with family – Have you ever left a family gathering and realized that you never saw Uncle Bob, or didn’t have a chance to catch up with your cousin Joe? Less space means that more room must be shared. When I was growing up as a teen, I thought having my own space was the most amazing thing ever. Now, I realize that we humans are social beings, and there is so much to be garnered from our togetherness. I’m all for a space that encourages bonding over group activities and dinners, strengthening relationships and creating memories. I now know the truth, which is this: Our dreams will end once we achieve them, but our memories will last our lifetime.

Off course, all this isn’t to say that small house living is entirely fantastic, let alone easy. Easier for some, but still, there is the question of where the clothes will go, and how to make do. Hopefully during the journey, I’ll share some solutions, and reveal some tips, that even I have yet to discover. What I do have to say about it is this: thinking about all that we already have, rather than what we don’t, leaves plenty of room for gratefulness to abound. For example, vaulted ceilings and 25 foot windows that grant me an abundance of natural light (and joy). A balcony for escaping, when spaces are not enough. Working appliances, and a roof over my head. An opportunity to celebrate our home with both sets of parents tonight. You know… the basics.