“So, why do you want to live in such a small house?”
I couldn’t believe the words I just heard. Was the man, the chairman, positioned in the center of variance committee above me judging us? The committee seated on both sides of him at the u-shaped “throne” peered at the two of us—State of Indiana versus John and LaNae Abnet. The room resembled a bare bones courtroom with the “jury” seated on a platform while we sat alone below them on metal folding chairs at a stark metal defendant’s table, fully on display as they waited for our answer. Would our response determine whether they would pass a variance approving the building of our 750 square foot living space? (Where did we come up with 750 square feet? 25 x 30, enough room for all our possessions—we laid it out. If Thoreau could survive alone in his 10 x 16 Walden Pond cabin, it seems reasonable two people could live in something more than four and a half times its size.)
I felt like I was on trial for striving to live simply. Living with less and casting a small footprint should be a good thing, right? Let me fill you in on the events bringing us to the Council Commissioner’s Room 100A in the Adams County Indiana Service Complex staring up at the eight-person variance committee.
In November, our building contractor informed us that when he submitted our plans with the application for the building permit, an issue came up regarding the square footage of our pending living space. He explained that the requirements stipulated that no home can be constructed with a living space less than 950 square feet. Well, the last time I did math, our planned 750 square feet was definitely less than 950.
The contractor went on to explain that we had two options…
- Make our home larger.
- Pay $200 to submit an Application for Variance and make the three-hour round trip to sit in the halls of justice to argue our case.
We chose option 2. We completed, printed, signed, and notarized (that’s another story) the application by the December 28 deadline in order to be included on the January 18 docket. We sent the application, along with the 200 bucks, to the Adams County Building and Planning Office. In addition to the application, our contractor provided them with a plot plan, floor plans, and setbacks from the center of the road and the north property line. All paperwork completed and money paid, we sat back and waited for January 18 to arrive.
That brings me back to today as we were on “trial” for striving to simplify. I was surprised and somewhat angered by the question. Ever since our three-and-a-half-month kayak trip from the headwaters of the Wabash River to the Gulf of Mexico almost three years ago, we have examined our extravagant life. Don’t take me wrong, in the eyes of much of society, we already lived simply in our 2800 square-foot farm home. Most of our food came from our garden or from wild game John had hunted. Our 21” TV fit on a small stand and we watched the “farmer five,” (as local stations accessed via an antenna are often referred to in rural areas). John missed every Monday night football game. We drove our cars until they fell apart in an effort to avoid a car payment. Our only loan was our mortgage. However, after living out of two kayaks for three and a half months as we traveled to the Gulf, even that simple life seemed like too much. After talking about living with less for two years, we jumped off the bank of materialism and listed our house with the realtor. Our plan was to sell our house, give away most of our stuff, and build a smaller home. We believed living in a smaller space would force us (allow us?) to have less.
Our house sold within two days of listing. Six weeks later we had decreased our possessions to what would fit in a small corner of John’s brother’s storage barn and moved to our temporary home—a 200 year-old log cabin. We were on our way to simplifying.
The weight that was lifted from my shoulders surprised me. I had less to take care of, less that could go wrong, less to store, less to clean. Less. I felt like I was on vacation. I was going to love this way of life. I wondered why we didn’t do this sooner, it was so freeing. I felt sorry for others who were still chained to their possessions and complicated life. I was looking forward to finally moving into my small home.
Then the State of Indiana told me it is illegal to live the simpler life. If I were planning to build an opulent 10,000 square-foot house, I wouldn’t be defending my way of life. My choice not to follow society’s obsession with possessions was under attack. Why should I have to defend that?
“So, why do you want to live in such a small house?”
Sitting beside me at the long table, John grabbed my hand and provided the perfect answer. “That’s a long story, but I’ll sum it up by saying we lived in the 35 square feet provided by our kayaks for three and a half months. 750 is plenty.”
The chairman had another question before the discussion began, “Describe what it is you’re planning to do.”
John gave a detailed answer. “We own a 31-acre wilderness property on a stone road, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The majority of the land consists of woodlands and open prairie. The remaining 13 acres are under contract with the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program known as SAFE. In other words, this is not located in a municipality or even a housing addition.”
Once John provided them with our answer, I listened to the conversation that bounced around as the members discussed the situation.
“You know I’ve seen on TV there’s a trend for these types of houses.”
“Yes, they call them tiny houses.”
John interjected, “Our planned home is massive compared to most of those.” Some of those seated above us chuckled while others held their blank stares.
“How do they get away with zoning requirements?”
I was still speechless. How could living simple be illegal? I never in a million years thought I would need to justify my desire to live modestly. Wow! That says a lot about our society.
The gentleman to the left of the chairman scanned a copy of our floor plan. “I like the open concept of the layout.”
“No walls. I like the way the bedroom bleeds into the living room, which bleeds to the kitchen. Sort of like a studio apartment. I like it.”
After more discussion, one committee member made a motion to grant us a variance to build our 750 square foot home even though it was 200 feet less than the required 950 square feet. All in favor… The motion passed.
Even though it is illegal in Indiana to live simply, the variance committee granted us permission to proceed. I am still amazed we had to sit in a hearing, waiting for a group of people to grant us permission and justify our desire to simplify. I hope more people realize how freeing the simpler life is, jump off the bank of materialism, and request similar variance hearings, causing the State of Indiana to rewrite the building codes.
Here’s to Illegal Simplicity!