It was a stressful year for the Rev. Rebecca Rutter. The United Methodist pastor was in the final year of seminary, pastoring a church, and parenting three children. She needed something to help her relax. For her, this meant building a tiny house.
Rutter has loved house design since childhood, and as an adult studied sustainable architecture, environmentally responsible construction, and alternative ways of providing energy and water to a home. So for her, the challenge of designing and building a 98 square foot house brought together many of her interests, the perfect diversion.
After 11 months of building, Rutter had a tiny house and great insight into peaceful living, simplicity, and gratitude.
- Watch Living Sermon: Pastor Builds Tiny House on UMC.org
- Read Pastor on going green: Smaller footprint, more room for Jesus on UMC.org
- Read De Pere pastor builds tiny house from the Green Bay Press-Gazette
More resources at UMC.org
- God's Gift of the Earth: A Photo Prayer
- Christians and Creation: 'You can't love God and ignore the Earth'
- Bible verses on Creation care: A discussion starter
- Social Principles: The Natural World
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This episode posted April 2017.
In the studio
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
During a significantly busy period of her life—finishing seminary, raising 3 kids, and pastoring a church—the Rev. Rebecca Rutter needed something that from time to time would take her mind off all there was to do. For her, that meant building a tiny house!
For this, our episode for April, the month of Earth Day, I thought it would be fun to talk to Rebecca about going green, living simply, finding peace, and building a tiny house. Enjoy.
On the phone
Joe: Hey, Rebecca. Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Rebecca: Hello, Joe
Joe: Before we talk about your tiny house, can you tell me a little bit about you and your current ministry?
Rebecca: Sure. Well, first of all, I am elder in the Wisconsin Annual Conference, and I serve a church called New Hope United Methodist in De Pere, Wisconsin, which is really close to Green Bay. We are a younger church—we will be turning 9 years old soon—and I am privileged and very happy to be in this congregation.
Joe: I wanted to talk to you today because April 22 is Earth Day, and in the month of April we celebrate Easter and begin to experience spring and some warmer weather in the United States. It’s a time when our thoughts and attention sometimes turns to the natural world around us, which I thought would be a great time to talk to you about your tiny house.
How did you get interested in building a tiny house?
Rebecca: Well, my interest started way back when I was a child and I developed an infinity towards designing houses. At first I would draw up house plans for these huge mansions because as a child I thought, Well, if you live in a big fancy house that will be just wonderful.
But then as I got a little older, I started realizing that we all have limits in life. And actually limits are a good thing. So I started designing houses with more and more limits. So I would say, Let’s see if I can design an 800 square foot house that still has a comfortable space for everything. So I would challenge myself in ways like that. And I was doing this even in junior high.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Rebecca: Then after that, I kept on being challenged by different ways of sustainable architecture. I taught myself a lot of things such as environmentally friendly ways of construction, and I researched things like straw bale houses and structural inflated panels and passive solar design, and fuller panels, and alternative ways of providing energy and water and sewer and all those things that we often take for granted.
So when I found out about tiny houses, probably 5 or 6 years ago—before it became a trend—I realized this is perfect because as a pastor I felt like I could never really build something that I could stay in because I’m part of an itinerant system. But when the idea of building a house on wheels that I could take anywhere with me and would be able to be something that could be used in a variety of ways and maybe someday after I retire I could live in it fulltime, I thought this is a perfect opportunity for me to put all of the pieces together that I have been interested in.
Joe: Wow. So how is the tiny house used today?
Rebecca: Well, today it is actually in a transition time. We were having a woman who lost her job live in it for several months over the winter. Now she’s able to move out into another house.
So, right now we are determining whether we’re going to have it on Airbnb as a way for people to experience tiny house living and having a simple little getaway, or the other option is…. Our church is growing so much we’re running out of Sunday school space. So we’re thinking of parking it near the church and having a place for our adult Sunday School or covenant discipleship group to meet, since we’re running out of space inside.
Joe: That’s a really creative way to use that space. How long did it take you to construct it?
Rebecca: It took a little under a year. I built it on a trailer I bought on my 40th birthday, which was in August, several years ago. I was in my final year of seminary and also pastoring a church and parenting 3 children. But I decided I’m just going to need a way of consistently having time just for myself, to get away and go out to the backyard and work on this.
So I built it that year and was done by July which is when I had to move it because that year I was also going through the process to become a provisional elder, and we moved from Northern Illinois to Wisconsin that July.
Joe: How big is tiny? How big is your tiny house?
Rebecca: My tiny house is really tiny. It’s 98 square feet. So if you can imagine a 7 ½ wide by 14 ½ deep trailer… that’s what it is.
Joe: Wow. And I assume it’s one bedroom, one bathroom. Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like?
Rebecca: Sure. I’ll kind of give you a verbal description of what you would find.
You enter through a large glass door at the back of the trailer. On your left there is a shower that I actually made out of a goat-watering trough. The basin there is secured on the bottom, and I put a step-on drain plug in the middle that directly goes down below to have any water collected in a bucket that can then be recycled as greywater. Then I have a simple pressure sprayer that I attached a shower sprayer that provides hot water, and shower curtains going all around.
Then to the right there is a closet for hanging clothes that’s about 42 inches wide. Beneath that there are several drawers for storage as well as a composting toilet. That also has a curtain that covers that whole area up.
So when you walk in you don’t realize it, but you’re walking right into the bathroom!
Then going past that area, which is by the way covered with a storage loft on top, you come into a larger opening with very beautiful vaulted ceilings that give a great sense of spaciousness.
To the right, there is a kitchen with a 6-foot long countertop that includes an under-mount sink. Water is brought to the sink through a foot pump and two 5-gallon water containers underneath that. I intentionally chose not to have water come through the walls because I just didn’t want to risk that, especially in our colder climate. I wanted to make it as simple as possible and off-grid as well.
Then, I also built a homemade alcohol-fueled stove. It’s like the kind that they often use on boats. As I did my research it was definitely the safest way of heating food and also relatively fast. So I literally use Iso-HEET—the yellow bottles of HEET that you put in your car. That heats food really well. So that’s what I use for that built-in stove. I actually built the stove myself, and designed it out of parts from the plumbing and heating departments at Menards. So it’s a very unique stove.
Rebecca: Then on the other side of that 6-foot long kitchen is a 6-foot long sofa. It’s built-in and has lots of storage underneath. It’s just a comfortable place that people can sit and relax and lay out. And guests could sleep there easily as well.
Rebecca: Then further past that, there is a loft up ahead that fits a double size bed and that’s only about 5 feet off the ground. So it’s not as tall and foreboding as many lofts are.
Then underneath that there is a built-in table and 2 benches that can be converted into another double-size bed. That can easily fit 6 people.
So there’s plenty of space for people to come and hang out, though you probably wouldn’t want to have more than one or at most two live there for more than a week.
Joe: But it’s designed for one or two people to live in. Is that kind of the idea?
Joe: I’m just blown away with your ability to build your own stove and all of these other things. It must have taken quite a bit of research and time to learn these things. What were some of the fun things that you learned along the way?
Rebecca: Well, I learned about constructing with steel studs, for instance. I learned about how to think about thermal bridging and preventing that. I learned that it’s not easy to screw wood into metal studs. I mean, it took a lot of work because it’s not as simple as pounding nails or screwing drywall into studs. Every single thing is screwed in the house because, since it’s mobile you have to make sure it’s gonna stay together tightly. So when you screw into metal you have to pre-drill every hole before you can put a screw in there. So I had 2 different screwdrivers going most of the time, with one drilling the hole in, and then one screwing the screw in. And it was quite interesting to go through as many drill bits as I did.
Joe: Sure. It sounds like a ton of work.
Rebecca: Well, and it was, but it was fun. I learned a lot through making mistakes. That’s for sure. But I love the ability to be creative and think outside the box and to figure out solutions to things that are complicated and also to realize what I need to live and what I can do without.
Do I really need a stove that I can regulate because my simple alcohol stove is either on or off? It’s enough to boil water, but it doesn’t get too hot that it will, you know, burn eggs. It would be nice if I could have spent another $200 or $300 to get a pre-made stove that you can regulate. I don’t have an engineering background to figure out how to safely do that myself. But I just realized as long as I can boil water and cook eggs, I’m good.
Joe: Great. How is the house heated?
Rebecca: The house is heated through an old kerosene heater, built probably a hundred years ago. As I researched it, as long as you don’t tip them over kerosene is a very safe way to heat. But kerosene typically smells bad, and I don’t like that as much. So what I found is that I can use lamp oil in it instead, and that lamp oil does not smell and it’s very clean and it warms up very well. This beautiful, antique, kerosene heater that I put in there also has a stove top. So you can cook on that as well as a secondary cooking spot.
Joe: Wow. And you talked earlier a little bit about how you had learned early on about design for sustainability, for good stewardship of resources. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What are some of the things that maybe aren’t in your tiny house, but some of the things that you have learned about ways people make their houses more efficient?
Rebecca: Well, for one thing, when we look at the way houses are too often designed, we have long hallways. We have a lot of wasted space.
One thing for sure that I think would be a hard habit to break is we have so much dependency and use of water that is very unnecessary. We have gotten very accustomed to how convenient it is to flush our toilets and take long hot showers.
There are ways that, if we look at sustainable living, there is a spectrum of efforts that people can make to, you know for instance, use greywater or have, you know, a certain way of making sure that we don’t keep phantom electricity and power-sucking devices going when we don’t need to.
There are so many ways, too, that we have to look at construction and building waste as a problem.
Also, another important thing is looking at what is the most sustainable thing for your area? In some parts of the U.S. it’s quite sustainable to build with wood. In other parts it’s more sustainable to build with adobe or straw bales. Recycled building materials is also a very important thing.
One of the great things about building on a budget, which I had a very, very tight budget for my house, was I got a lot of building materials that were used or cast-offs that would have been put in a dump somewhere.
For instance, all of my metal framing for the house came from somebody’s basement that they had left over from a project. And I was able to use that for all of my metal framing for the walls and the roof of my house. Another thing is all the siding and the roofing that I have on my house were found in my parents’ barn from a leftover project. So when you can re-use things rather than having them end up in a landfill that’s a great thing.
Joe: Absolutely. You have used the term greywater a couple of times. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Rebecca: Sure. There are 2 different types of waste water. One is called blackwater—that would be something coming from your sewer. Greywater is water that you can re-use for watering plants or flushing the toilet or other things that are non-potable. So, for instance, if you are diligent about using biodegradable soaps and detergents, your washing machine water can be re-used to water a garden or an orchard. Now obviously blackwater can’t be used for that. But we waste so much greywater down our sewers that could be used in better ways to water our crops.
Joe: And you said that building the tiny house helped you learn to live more simply, I think is the way you put it. What were some of the things that you learned along those lines about simple living?
Rebecca: Well, for one thing I think the two main things I learned from a spiritual standpoint through this experience were the disciplines of solitude and simplicity.
First of all, the building process of the tiny house was something that while I did get some help from friends and family and neighbors, but 95% of the time I was by myself. As an extrovert, that was a challenge for me. Yet it was a good challenge because I had time as I built and designed and was thinking through how to solve complex problems and angles and things like that, I also had more time to breathe emotionally and spiritually with God. There was something about how I could go out there and even if I just needed to sit down and be alone for a little bit, it was a great little time to understand what God was trying to say to me in that still, alone solitude time and place.
Joe: I have talked to a couple of people on the podcast who have found when doing something that requires some solitude they have found a connection to God in a really unique way. You had a similar experience?
Rebecca: I did, yes.
Joe: Excellent. I’m sorry I interrupted you.
Rebecca: No. The other thing, with simplicity, is there’s so many trade-offs you make whenever you design or build something. You have to think, Okay, what’s the priority here? Do I want more space to have people sit down and sit around a table? Do I want more space in a kitchen? Do I want more space here or there? And so it really forces you to look closely at priorities not just for that project, but just in life in general. And the idea of simplicity is something that is a spiritual discipline that I’m still growing in, and just like I am with solitude and all the others. But I’m learning how to have that stillness in my life, to recognize what I really need to thrive and to be available to what God is calling me to do and prioritize in life.
Joe: Were there things that you decided I don’t really need that?
Rebecca: Oh, yes. Well, for instance, right now in my life I’m not forced to get rid of a lot of possessions because, I have 3 kids and 7 pets and a house that often has big dinners and overnight guests and things like that. So I’m not ready at this stage in my life to live in a tiny house.
At the same time, we look at what’s filling our closets. Is it things that we really need to represent ourselves well, or are we trying to have these luxury things with brand name labels that say, Hey, I just paid $300 for a purse, or anything like that? We have to look at what message are we sending to other people about what is important in life? Do I, by carrying this type of purse or having this type of label on my clothes, am I saying to other people that if you don’t have this that you’re not as important or have as much? And am I setting myself up to have other people think that that’s normal? And so I feel very strongly, for instance, on a practical level I rarely shop for new things unless… like shoes are kinda my exception because I think, you know, solid shoes…you don’t wanta use used shoes too often. Although I have been known to… Yeah, I buy them used sometimes. For most items, I go to thrift stores and garage sales. You know, there’s no shame whatsoever in recycling clothes and other things that still have plenty of life and wear in them.
Joe: I’m thinking that there may not be many of us who are ready to run out and build a tiny house, but we want to be better stewards of the earth and better conservers of resources. So what advice would you give to those who are seeking to become better stewards of the earth’s resources?
Rebecca: Well, first of all, I think that we have to get in our minds and hearts an inward appreciation for what we have. I think consumption is one of the key problems in what we are doing in our earth, and that we think that our lives will be happier and more fulfilled if we have more whatever it is. So to first get our hearts right with God in recognizing that, our sufficiency and our joy and our contentment is found only in Christ. That takes spending time with God and diving deep into the riches of his word, and in the fellowship with other believers and finding true joy and contentment in loving God and our neighbor. As we do that, all the other things of this world fade in their importance and we’re not as tempted to consume and be materialistic.
Joe: Wow. I think you’re absolutely right. It’s that idea of getting this sense of gratitude for what we have rather than looking outside of ourselves for what we lack.
Rebecca: I really, for instance, like the idea of simplicity being a cure, or at least an antidote, to all the consumption that we are faced with. So often we allow our lives to be cluttered by influences that tell us we need to buy this or we need to have that or we need to keep up with the Joneses. That sin of comparison really is a problem for our society.
Another term that is often used in the world of spiritual discipline for simplicity is frugality. But that carries some more negative connotations because we think of tight wads. But I’m gonna just read this definition of simplicity from the Renovare’s Bible on Spiritual Formation, and it really doesn’t talk much about the outward things, but it focuses on the first thing, which is the inward heart that we have. It says, “Simplicity is the inward reality of single-hearted focus upon God and His kingdom, which results in an outward lifestyle of modesty, openness and unpretentiousness, in which disciplines are hunger for status and glamour and luxury.”
So I think really it’s all about, you know, are we purchasing things, or we building things, are we using things in a way that just is feeding us because we’re hungry for God and we don’t recognize it as a spiritual hunger? So we’re trying to feed it by having things that we really don’t need and that really leave us feeling spiritually empty? Or are we going to say, this is an inner hunger that I have for God that I’m going to see filled by God and being in community with other believers who are trying to know who God is and love God and experience his grace?
Joe: Wow. That’s really profound.
We like to ask the guests of Get Your Spirit in Shape for a spiritual discipline that they use to get closer to God. Is there something that helps you feed that need for God in your life that you would recommend to us?
Rebecca: Sure. You know, I’ve been talking a lot about simplicity, but I’m gonna go back to something that is related to that, and that is solitude. I think what solitude does is it allows God to speak to us in a way that we can hear what God’s priorities are for our lives and our world, and to come to the place where we can realign ourselves in that way. I think so much follows from that. Christ gave so many wonderful examples of the need to be in solitude, whether he was going to the desert to pray or up to the mountain to pray, we have to discipline ourselves.
Just as an example, I’m not very good at that all the time because I love people, and I love being around people even if I’m not talking. I’m definitely not a life-of-the-party type of person, but I love being around people. And yet, I’ve found myself that the only times I could really have that inner witness of the spirit is when I went to the bathroom because that’s the only time that I’d be alone.
So I realized, that’s not helping my spiritual life. So intentionally finding that quiet place in our souls. We might have people around us but really intentionally spending time not just praying to God, but listening and being still before God. We can find ourselves learning and growing and being challenged a lot if we are open to that.
Joe: So are you trying to set aside time every day to just be alone?
Joe: Is it going in a room? Is it going for a walk? What are some of the ways you find to be alone?
Rebecca: All of the above. All of the above.
Oftentimes it’s the time of day when the house is quiet and I’ve got 30 minutes before the kids wake up. So I’m gonna go sit and slowly read a passage of Scripture. If I only get through a verse or two and find that God is working and reminding me of what I need to know through that, then I just sit with that.
Maybe it’s going on a walk. It’s a little too cold in Wisconsin to do that right now, but that’s another thing I often do. Sometimes maybe if people live in a more urban environment, having some headphones as they commute back from their jobs can still all of the noise and the hubbub out and re-center ourselves.
So I think each person can find different things at different times in their lives that will allow for that. But it’s a very essential part of our health and growth as people and Christians.
Joe: I think a lot of time we try and fill every moment, and finding that time to just stop and allow God to speak to us, I think is vitally important.
Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. It’s fun to learn about your tiny house and the things that you have learned from it, and the ways in which God’s speaking to you. Thanks, Rebecca. Thanks for being with us today.
Rebecca: Thank you, Joe.
Back in the studio
Joe: That was the Rev. Rebecca Rutter, a United Methodist pastor in Wisconsin, talking about lessons learned through building a tiny house. Since our conversation, I have been thinking quite a bit about simplicity and solitude.
If you have thoughts, go to UMC.org/podcasts and find the page for this episode called Peace, Simplicity and a Tiny House. There you will find many more resources about all we talked about, and my email address where you can write me your experiences with going green, living simply, finding alone time or whatever else you want to share.
While you are there, subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape using iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher so new episodes will automatically download to your device as soon as they are available. Like next month’s episode where I will be talking to a United Methodist mom, pastor, and author of a new book called Stepping on Cheerios: Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life.
Thanks for listening and subscribing to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.