The Big Tiny

Woman lives large, dreams big in 84-square-foot home

Dee Williams (Karen Williams)
Dee Williams (Karen Williams)

When Dee Williams had a heart attack 10 years ago, the health scare turned into a moment of clarity. She decided she wanted to focus her time and energy on things that truly mattered.

Dusting, sweeping and cleaning the gutters of her three-bedroom house in Portland, Ore., didn’t make the list. Neither did paying a mortgage.

So she decided to downsize. Really, really downsize.

She whittled her possessions down to 305 items and built a tiny house — an 84-square-foot dwelling that can fit on a trailer and be pulled behind a pickup truck.

“I just have a lot more time and money. I feel a lot less stress and a lot more opportunity to live the life I want to live,” she says.

She’ll read excerpts from “The Big Tiny,” her memoir about her tiny house journey, at Prairie Lights Books on Thursday, followed by a daylong workshop on tiny house construction for those who might want to pursue the tiny house lifestyle.

The workshop will bring her journey more-or-less full circle. It was here in Eastern Iowa she first found her tiny house inspiration, when she read an article about Jay Schafer’s tiny house in Iowa City. Schafer and three others founded the Small House Society, which now has a national following. After reading about their efforts, Williams got on a plane to Iowa to learn more.

She enlisted the help of her brother Doug Williams, who lives here. He also has caught the tiny house bug, though in a slightly different way. A pastor at Coralville United Methodist Church, his tiny house, which workshop attendees will tour, is parked in the yard of his conventional house. He built it when he lived in rural Iowa City to serve as a hermitage — a retreat for church parishioners or anyone else who needed a place to get away.

For Dee Williams, her home is less of a retreat than an impetus to get out her front door.

“For me, my sense of home has expanded beyond my little house. It has to, because my house is so darn small,” she says. “I really do consider the library as my personal bookshelf. The same goes for the laundromat and the food co-op. The city park is my backyard. That sense of home is expanded, and my participation in my community is different because of my sense of home.”

Her space includes a sleeping loft with mattress that she reaches with a ladder, a small sitting area and a kitchen with a single burner propane stove.

She has no running water. A basin acts as her sink, and she showers at a neighbor’s house or at work. She has a compost toilet and a cooler instead of a refrigerator. A solar panel provides more than enough electricity for lighting and for her laptop, and she has a propane heating system.

Much of the building materials are salvaged, such as old-growth wood used for frames on the windows. Williams did most of the construction herself. The whole thing, including the solar panel, high-efficiency windows and propane heater, cost her about $40,000.

Now 51, she says she didn’t expect to live this long after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. She’s formed a small community with the neighbors whose yard she parks in and the family next door, and watching their son graduate from high school this year was momentous.

“It makes me feel old, and I love feeling old, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to grow old,” she says.

Not everything about tiny house life is smooth sailing. Williams admits she has her complaints. It’s difficult to host guests, for example. She didn’t insulate the floors as well as she’d like, so it gets cold in the winter. But for her, its worth it.

“It’s not going to work for a lot of people, but for some people it will,” she says. “The biggest thing is just to live your life in the way you dream.”

Learn more


•What: Dee Williams reading from her memoir, “The Big Tiny”

•When: 7 p.m. Thursday

•Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

•Cost: Free


•What: Tiny house construction workshop

•When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

•Where: Coralville United Methodist Church, 806 13th Ave., Coralville

•Cost: $125

•Registration and more information:


•What: Tour a tiny house and chat with tiny house enthusiasts

•When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday

•Where: 1010 N. Dodge St., Iowa City

•Cost: Free

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