Erik and Fay de Buhr on life in a Hut: “We love small spaces.”
Erik is executive director of Community Supported Shelters and Fay is fundraising director. They and their almost five-year-old son Abram moved into a Conestoga Hut behind CSS’s Tine Hive shop in September.
Fay: We met at Maitreya Ecovillage in Eugene, which is a kind of alternative housing reality, an intimate neighborhood.
Erik: We’ve never not lived in a shared-housing situation. So we’ve always been dealing with multiple personalities and trying to make group situations work. Actually how we are living now is probably the least group, shared-living situation that we’ve been in but we do share our living situation because you can’t really take that out of us. We believe in sharing just about everything that we have.
At Maitreya, we quickly moved into an Icosa Hut, a nine-foot diameter circular structure that we were building before we built Conestoga Huts.
Fay: You crawled into it and you couldn’t stand up. Abram was about three months old when we moved in. We moved out when he was about two to a little shack in somebody’s backyard on River Road.
Erik: We lived there for several months and then Fay was living in another Icosa Hut down the McKenzie Highway. I was working in town at NextStep Recycling as their marketing manager. I was sleeping in all these random places. It was a really hectic time because our family wasn’t together. It felt like we were just barely holding things together and when we look back we think if somebody had already come up with the Conestoga Huts and had places to put them, that’s the kind of situation where it would have been really helpful for us, but instead we were kind of keeping our lives together with duct tape.
Fay: But through all these situations, we learned a lot about people.
Erik: We learned that community can sometimes be this naïve idealistic thing, that there’s a lot of social behavior that you need to really watch closely when you’re making a community. But, in the meantime, we were holding it together, and having all the different talks that we needed to have with the city, with attorneys and lawyers and all this stuff to reestablish our business.
Erik: Yeah, but at the time we didn’t know it was CSS. Then it was Resurrected Refuse Action Team. We were a group of salvagers who would just salvage materials and make things from them—like the Icosa Hut, that was like 90 percent industrial waste materials.
Fay: We were doing workshops and building Huts at different places for people who had land and wanted to build community and housing.
Erik: We built a Hut in the Friendly Street neighborhood. We built Huts on Route 126. We built Huts down the McKenzie Highway and in the Whiteaker. They’re really tucked around all over the place.
And I’ve always been eyeballing this building, thinking “that’s such a cool building, I wonder what’s going on inside. The backyard is full of all this material, maybe they’ll let me come back and salvage material.” And then I saw a big for-sale sign and I thought, “let’s buy it.”
Fay: We just had to come up with $200,000. Oh. We want to buy it, but we don’t have anything.
Erik: We were just being dreamy. We wrote it off. Then I was doing an animation project for Bring Recycling and I had to borrow an office to do it and that’s where we crossed paths with our investor. He asked to see the building. They had been following our actions on Facebook. They saw that we were really focused on building community and doing good things.
Fay: They had come to a couple of our workshops, we called them “Weave and Breathe.” We used to do weaving with industrial packaging waste, making baskets and jar packets[?] and other things.
Erik: After he saw the building, he said, “Let me talk to my wife,” and she’s the one who fell in love with it so they said, “yes.” They knew we built structures and they wanted to build structures out back. It took us six to eight months to move in because the old tenant here had it packed with stuff.
Fay: Then we were sleeping in the office.
Erik: That was the first place we had a bed—and that was hard because we didn’t want to live in this big space because the way our life has been we’re always living in our business but we’re always moving away from it, too, kind of like having a kid: you know you raise them and then eventually they move out.
Fay: We didn’t really know what the kid was though. We were just doing what we needed to do to get the place cleaned up. We knew that the building would eventually be something for community and that we would be living out back, and that was kind of the goal, but now it seems more realistic with Community Supported Shelters happening and that’s just happened in the last 11 months.
Erik: A lot of what we were doing before we applied to CSS. In the workshops, I learned a lot about organizing people and the kind of linear thinking around making buildings. When we were making Icosa Huts people would often say, “Oh, these would make great shelters for the homeless,” and I would say, “No, they wouldn’t.” You can make something a lot simpler. I didn’t know what it was but I knew there was a simpler way to do it quickly and now we’re building the Conestoga Huts in 2½ hours on site or even less whereas the Icosa Hut would take three or four days to finish on site.
Erik: And there’s not a right angle in the whole thing.
Fay: So, we stayed in this office space for a while, then we moved our bedroom to a Hut out back.
Erik: That was the first prototype Hut. So before we even knew what a Conestoga Hut was we were living in a Conestoga Hut. That was 6X6. It was a prototype from a structure that we built two winters ago at Occupy Eugene, with just the one cattle panel [galvanized fencing material used to form the roof and walls of the Conestoga Huts. The current version of the Huts is 6X10 and uses 3½ cattle panels]. So we built that one and we started to play with it. We learned a lot living in that—we knew it needed a front porch—and from other people’s impulses too. Opportunity Village Eugene wanted structures and we showed that one to them. I might have presented it to them as a 6X8 and they said, “Can you make it a little bit bigger?” I was reluctant because we’re kind of small extremists when it comes to certain spaces. But it did make sense to make it a little bigger.
Fay: We had to take that one down because we were getting ready to take out the asphalt out back. Then we had to get the back room of the shop ready, and we moved into that last spring.
Q. You moved into one of the latest versions of the Huts behind your shop in September. Why?
Erik: As we were building Huts for other people, every time we built one, I was starting to get jealous. I thought, “I want to live in one of these.” We love small spaces.
Fay: We like sleeping with a lot of fresh air, too.
Erik: We like sleeping outside. We keep our window open all year round. Now, that we’re in there, it’s really about developing it for me. I’m just thinking about it all the time. How do I make this work for us? And how do I develop it so it’s more usable for other people? What is this condensation issue that people talk about? Ours stays really dry. But I want to create a different layering system for the roof.
Fay: It’s research about the surroundings of the Hut, too. We want to develop it so it’s like a jungle, that you can’t see the Huts but they’re engulfed in a really beautiful outdoor environment with all kinds of little places that could be covered or to sit, to have your sleeping space but to have your life be more integrated with the outside. We can’t see that yet but we’re working toward it.
Erik: I think we really look forward to going to bed every night because we get to go there and it’s out of our workspace. When we’re in the shop, we never get away. It’s a little bit weird being in a Hut, too, because we’re still thinking: “Oh, we really should be staining these 2X4s” or “Gosh where are we going to put more ventilation.” Always thinking.
Fay: He’s laying in bed, feeling for condensation.
Erik: I’m going behind the insulation and feeling and thinking, “Oh, gosh, . . .” thinking about all the people who don’t have the new insulation because that Styrofoam really helps your Hut stay dry. And just by looking at the situation I now understand why condensation is happening. You know, we’re learning from our failures big time. It’s a trial-and-error structure but it’s developing nicely and it’s still evolving and growing just like a child would.
Q. What has your experience in the Hut been like, especially with three of you in there?
Erik: It’s the only one we know of with three people in it. We have two layers. The bed is really high. The mattress comes right underneath the window sill and most of the time, I sleep up there with Fay and Abram, but there are nights when I need more space and Abram is getting bigger, so I have a little space underneath the bed, on the floor with a little mat.
Fay: He can sit up.
Erik: I worked on a fishing boat and I really liked the small spaces, so I like it underneath there and I think about how to develop it and make it meet my needs. We realize that the three of us won’t be able to sleep in there for very long because Abram’ll need his own room, but he’s basically a Hut-raised child.
Fay: He’s always lived in little tiny places. We’re hoping that it just kind of keeps going.
Erik: And we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have all this other space [in the shop]. But the other space is part of the vision of where we want to go. We want there to be substantial common space for people. Our office in the shop is the only heated room in the whole warehouse so we call it the warm room. And a warm room is an essential place. We have a son and his mother from Whoville here now. They wanted to get away from that and so somebody asked us, and we said, “sure,” and they’re in a tent back there and every morning they come in and sit in here and get warm. We’ve learned through our experience that if you don’t have a place to just get warm during the day basically you’re spending a lot of time and energy just trying to stay warm.
Fay: It’s kind of cool living in the Hut to get ideas. We were thinking we really needed a rain fly and someone volunteered. He called us up and wanted to get involved and he designed it.
Erik: It goes in front of the Hut and hangs down. It makes the porch a very dry usable space during the winter. It’s like a little mudroom before you go in and everything on there will stay dry, so you can hang up your coats, you can take off your shoes.
Q. How does living in the Hut figure in your bigger visions about housing and community?
Erik: Our dream, what we’re working toward, is to have more substantial tiny house something that might be 150 to 200 square feet, that would be our home. That’s our American dream. There would be a campground-style bathroom and food court kind of kitchen—a big kitchen—and then lots of other houses. We would have our one little house that our family could live in. That’s our dream. And I’m also trying to not make it an intentional community, more like a campus: meals are at scheduled times and if you want to eat there, you can. Community will naturally form if you put people in the right setting, but I think it’s easier to grow community organically than it is to give it too much structure, just enough structure to keep it together and then the rest will happen.
Another aspect of our overall vision is to have units that are like Conestoga Huts but a little bit bigger that would be looked at more as relief housing instead of transitional housing.
Fay: I was talking to one lady at the First Church of Christ Science where we just put a Hut. She has a very full and busy life. I was telling her about our vision and she said, “Wow, I would love to go someplace and not have anything but just a little structure to live in and just to be in that and just to have that experience for a few weeks.” Life is so big and kind of stretched that to just have an experience like that can shift people’s way of being in the world.
Erik: We’d offer relief from our consumer existence where people have just gathered so much that then you are a slave to your stuff and you can never get away from your stuff.
Fay: Most people don’t even know that they would benefit from relief
Erik: And one strategy would be to first go into a Conestoga Hut where it’s very small and they would have the things that they need and then they would go back into their house and they would kind of check their anxiety level and how they are feeling. The Conestoga Hut wouldn’t be what they settled in. It’s still kind of a transitional use but it’s also kind of a revealing use to find out what you’re missing when you have so much. So that fantasy has always been there and then last winter the Huts just took off when we brought them to the City Council meeting. Ever since that meeting, it’s been Conestoga Hut, Conestoga Hut, Conestoga Hut because we finally figured something out that was valuable enough to the community that we are still doing that, and through that process we have built this other community with the people who live in Huts and the churches that host them. It feels really good to us to be valuable in the community. That’s something that I’ve always strived for and I know Fay has, too. We just want to do work that has value and have a meaningful existence in this day and age. I think we still have our pipedreams, though, of the drastic downsize, simplifying fast-track organization.
Q. How long do you think you’ll live in this Hut?
Erik: Hard to say because we live life as it comes, just kind of surf the rapids.
Fay: We don’t really know what will happen.
Erik: We’ll live in it as long as we need to see what opens up next. We’ve been going back and forth on buying a property down the street and if our nonprofit was to lease the property and then manage it and eventually develop it, to start to play with some of these ideas, that could be a three-year process so we may be here for two or three years, living in the Hut.
We don’t want to get ahead of things. We really want to bring a lot of people along with us. I think that’s how we feel about every Hut we build, that it’s a potential for all of us to live a very rich life if we can change our ideas about what it means to live with richness and that’s kind of a complicated thing to do, so we keep trying things and wanting to keep experimenting with how we influence ideas and beliefs and behaviors.