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Interview with Debra and Larry on Healthy Home Show
Debra & Larry Redalia
Back in March, Larry and I were invited to participate in the Healthy Home Summit. We loved this interview so much that we had it transcribed (see below). When you click on the video, if it asks you to subscribe, go ahead. You can always cancel if you want to after you watch it.
Fernanda Firman: Welcome to the Healthy Home Show. I'm Fernanda Firman, a healthy home architect.
Eric Firmin: I am Eric Firmin, healthy home contractor.
Fernanda: And today, we're here with Debra and Larry. We’re so excited to talk to you guys. We have been waiting for this interview. Thank you so much for joining us.
Eric: Thank you!
Debra Redalia: Thank you.
Larry Redalia: Sure!
Debra: We're happy to be here.
Fernanda: Today, we're going to talk about a topic that a lot of people have been asking about… tiny homes. And Debra has been a visionary and a pioneer in her field of non-toxic products for the past 40 years. So, she's going to be here now with Larry, and they're going to talk about how they are building their tiny home… which is a new adventure for them.
Debra: It is! It is… but we have a lot of experience with building non-toxic. I actually built what I think is one of the first non-toxic homes in 1985. And I didn't build it, but I remodeled it. And I did it all by myself before I even met Larry. He knows all about building. But I just went through the house, and I found everything that I thought was toxic at the time. And I hired somebody who actually followed all my instructions, and I had this great, little cottage out in the woods. And it was all non-toxic. It really contributed to my healing to have that.
And from there then, after Larry and I met, we remodeled another little cottage in the woods; and then moved to Florida and remodeled two houses in Florida.
So, we have a lot of experience. Plus, I've also been a consultant on many, many projects in the last 40 years.
Fernanda: Nice! So, we're going to read your biography. And then, we’re going to jump into your story. We can’t wait to hear everything about it.
Fernanda: So, Debra and Larry have been remodeling homes to be toxic-free for more than 30 years. Debra provides the non-toxic know-how; and Larry, the building skills. They have remodeled three homes on their own. Plus, Debra has worked with homeowners, architects, and builders to specify non-toxic homes for numerous homes across the country.
They are currently building a toxic-free tiny home on the motorhome chassis in Sonoma County, California.
Fernanda: So, as you're saying, you bring all the know-how of the non-toxic. And Larry is the builder, right?
Debra: Yes. And we create together the design. He has some really good design ideas. In one of our houses, we had a very small kitchen. And so we were walking around a corner. And the corner of the counter was there. And it was sharp corner. He just cut off the end of the corner, so that it was a smooth passage, and it wouldn't hit us as we went by. I would have never thought of that, but he thought of it.
Larry: Yeah. I thought, “Well, this is where the problem is. Let’s just take this away.”
Debra: Yeah, yeah. And he’s always creating things. He has a really good eye.
Fernanda: So, that's kind of a little bit of us as well. As an architect, I would come up with, “Babe, I have this idea… we just…”
Eric: Wait, I’ll stop her. “Just” raises the hair in the back of my neck.
Debra: Yeah, he understands that.
Larry: “Can you just build a custom closet for me?”
Fernanda: Well, with him, he’s a perfectionist, right? So everything he does, he puts his heart into it. So there’s no just when somebody is a perfectionist.
Eric: Yeah, we could totally relate. The design and the builder… that’s where we are as well. So this is going to be a lot of fun, to discover the adventures that you guys have been on. And yeah, I’m really excited to learn about tiny homes because that is something we have not explored at all.
Fernanda: And how did you guys come up with that idea of building your own tiny home?
Debra: Well, I don't remember the exact moment when we first saw a tiny house. They’ve been around for what—6 or 7 or 10 years? But suddenly, it seemed like we were seeing them in a lot of places—not the homes themselves, but seeing it in magazines or on TV or things like that. And we just looked at that, and we said, “Well, this really makes sense for us.”
But first, it seemed impossible. And one of the things that—well, kind of where we and many other people are coming from, where the world is today, especially in the last 30 or 20 years, there's been this big move to have houses that are bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And I think that’s just where our consumer culture is. And so, we're encouraged to have bigger and bigger houses with bigger and bigger mortgage payments.
And I grew up as a child not wanting a big house, but wanting to have a house… at all. And so, when I got to be an adult living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was just out of reach.
And so, I ended up buying a cottage. The first house that I bought was 700 sq. ft. So that's considered to be a tiny house by today's standards. And I also came from living in San Francisco in the city itself. I lived in studio apartments which is just—I don't even know what the square footage is, 400 sq. ft. or something like that.
Larry: Yeah, 400 to 500 usually. [As small as 200.]
Debra: Yeah. And so, the first time I had an apartment of my own, I had a living room, I had a really big walk-in closet, and I had a little, tiny kitchen. And that's city living.
So the whole idea of living tiny I think is not a brand new one. But when you're thinking about a house and putting it in the space of a studio apartment, that's a whole different concept. And when you're putting two people in that amount of space, and you're thinking of it as “How can you get the maximum amount of function out of a small space?”, that’s a whole different concept than living in a studio apartment 30 years ago.
I mean, I was in my early 20s and I had no possessions. I had a table and four chairs. I had a futon on the floor. I had one chair and I had a bookshelf. And I had a desk. And that was it! That fits into a studio apartment.
I had some clothes. I had some kitchen stuff. But it’s not like you're grown up now, and you've been coming from a 1600 sq. ft. house and you have all this stuff and two people.
This is where people are now, is that they say, “Well, we have to have this big house because that's what the expectation is.” And then, people mortgage their lives away.
Well, we just got tired of having our lives be about paying the mortgage. And really, I had a good 20 years of—the mortgage was like way out of reach for me. So, every month, it was like, “How are we going to pay the mortgage? How are we going to pay the mortgage?” But I had this idea that I had to have a big house.
And we actually moved from California to Florida because we went there on vacation and I could buy a 1600 sq. ft. house for the same amount of money as my 600 sq. ft. house.
Larry: Less money!
Debra: Less money, it was actually less money.
Fernanda: Isn’t that crazy?
Debra: It is crazy, yeah, yeah…
So, we moved there. And we enjoyed living in our big house. It was like, “Wow!” The first time we walked in, “12 ft. ceilings, oh my God! And these big rooms!” And we moved all our stuff in, and there was still all this space left.
Larry: Yeah. And so then we started collecting more stuff.
Debra: More stuff… more and more stuff.
Debra: Yeah, yes… to the point that, when we left, we actually had to just leave things on the front lawn for people to just walk away with for free because we had to take them out of the house and they wouldn't fit on the moving truck. It was a 24-ft. moving truck. We couldn't fit any more stuff in the truck.
So, what a tiny house offers for us is, number one, we can own a house. I mean, to live where we're living right now, we live in Sonoma County in California, I think probably the least expensive house, they start with a million dollars in this town. And they're not mansions for a million dollars. They're cottages for a million dollars. But we live here because Larry's mom lives here. And we live on her property. But if we wanted to then stay here and buy our own place, it's at least a million dollars.
Well, I don't want to spend the rest of my life paying a million dollar mortgage. I just don't want to do it.
Larry: Yeah, you can buy a fixer for half that much. But still, $500,000 for a fixer is pretty crazy!
Debra: Yeah, for an 800-sq. ft. fixer.
Fernanda: Right! And I think that brings up a very good and very important point. Even if you could buy, do you want to leave the rest of your life tied to that mortgage payment, to that lifestyle, where you have to work more…
Debra: No, I don't want that. That’s exactly the point. That's exactly the point. And so, it was like I made a conscious decision to sell my house. And I made a profit—not a large profit, but I made a profit that I could take a little time off and come to California and put some money aside for the tiny house. And then, we're going to build our house, and we're not going to have a mortgage.
Larry is 65. I'll be 65 this year. So now we're going to have secure housing. Our housing is paid for, for our retirement. We can live anywhere we want to live because we could move our house. And something that's really important to me is that I want to live in a non-toxic house. And if you're traveling around—which is what we want to do—and you're staying in random places, you never know what your toxic exposure is going to be.
So now, we're going to be able to take our non-toxic tiny house, which we're building on a motorhome chassis so that it's not a truck and a trailer, but it's all one piece. Then we can go anywhere we want. We could even put it on a boat and take it to Europe or wherever we want to go. And it gives us freedom to have our income go towards our life instead of our house and to have a protected, non-toxic place to live and to know that we have secure housing.
And those are the reasons why we decided to do this.
Larry: Here's another thing too. The last couple of years in this area, there has been rampant wildfires in Santa Rosa nearby. If you have a motorhome, you can just get in and take it somewhere else away from the fire.
Debra: We were evacuated last October with the fire. Then we went and spent a week in San Francisco. And it was $1000. And we didn't even stay in a hotel. That was just buying food. We went and stayed in San Francisco because we had a friend we could stay with.
It can cost a lot of money to go someplace else. And if you can take your home with you, and everything is all there that you need—your offices set up—I'll be able to go anywhere and still continue to do my work and my writing, whatever I want to do, take my things with me and be secured!
Eric: I hear this a lot. And this is one of the things I want to get into. And you said it right away. So your motivating factor is freedom, having more time to enjoy life; and then, also the freedom to travel. You're not locked down in one area.
So, my first question would be like… I remember, as an analogy just for myself to kind of grasp this, RVs have been around for many, many, many decades. I remember Jay Leno had this skit. He said, “Hey, somebody said you can turn your voice into text and send it. And then, I have an app that turns the text back into voice.” He's like, “That's a phone call.”
So, the question would be is: “Why wouldn't you just buy an RV?” What is the controller, the motivating factor, to do it yourself?
Debra: Very good question! We did buy an RV. But the RV that we bought, we actually said…
Well, first of all, let me say, we’re building a tiny house on a motorhome chassis. And the reason that we're doing that is because there are regulations about where you can park tiny houses on trailers. And so people are running into difficulties with that. That’s a whole separate issue.
But we looked at all those questions about where are we going to put it. Do we want to buy a piece of land? Do want to be mobile, blah-blah-blah…?” And what we found was that a motorhome can be parked anywhere!
You can park it on the street and sleep in it on the curb and it's not illegal. You can park it in—I know there are places like Walmart that will let you park in their parking lot if you're an RV. So RVs have a whole different set of rules than tiny houses than trailers.
But there's no rule that says what goes on that RV chassis needs to be an RV. So, that was a really big deciding factor for us. You’re building a tiny house on a platform. And it doesn't matter if it's a trailer or an RV, it's still a platform.
But the reason why we didn't just go buy an RV is—a couple of them. One is they're really, really toxic. And we didn't want to live in a toxic RV. They're really, really not stylish. And they're really, really not set up like a tiny home with all the clever things for storage.
And so, what we did was we decided what we wanted was a motorhome with a good engine and a trashed house part. And that's exactly what we found for $1500.
Fernanda: What?! Wow!
Eric: So, the biggest thing for me is—as you know we talked in another interview—about safety inside of a dwelling. My first thing when you're talking about being a motor vehicle is safety. So you guys are going to keep the seats and the engine and the driving portion of the car or the RV, right?
Debra: Right, right.
Eric: Yes, okay.
Debra: But then the house part, the tiny house, will sit where the RV park used to be. And so right now—
Well, the original idea was that we were going to leave the shell and build the house inside. But we've decided that we're going to demolish the shell tail and just start with a platform and actually build a house on top of the platform.
Fernanda: So, that actually solves the zoning regulations that usually people would have issues with, right?
Debra: Anybody can park their motorhome on their property. There are all these things about—I don’t remember all the names about “extra dwelling units” and things like that. But there are limits to what you can build. You can build little shacks and things like that. But depending on what the zoning is…
Larry: There are some places that have homeowners association regulations against having a…
Debra: Yeah, yeah.
Eric: That would be a big no-no here.
Larry: Yeah. But if you don't have a homeowner's association with those regulations, then you don't need to worry about it.
Debra: Yeah. So, we could in the future, if we wanted to—I mean we don't need to right now because we're living with Larry's mom, and there's plenty of room to park it while we're building it. And we actually have no plans to leave after it's done. We'll just continue to live here. We enjoy living here. His mom wants us to stay. So, we'll stay as long as we have the opportunity to stay. But she's 88 years old, so it's not going to be forever.
But when it's time to go, all we have to do is drive away because, by that point, we will be living there in the tiny house.
Fernanda: So, you mentioned one of the motivating factors was also to be able to use non-toxic materials, meaning how toxic the existing motorhomes are made.
Debra: Horrible! Horrible…
Fernanda: Can you name some of those materials? What are you guys choosing different? What are you guys keeping? And what are you guys choosing that is non-toxic.
Debra: We got rid of everything because, basically, as we started taking it apart, it was all vinyl and polyurethane foam. Everything was fake…
Larry: …particle board.
Debra: Particle board… particle board, polyurethane foam and vinyl. That's the whole entire interior of any motorhome.
Larry: We took about a half a ton of that out.
Debra: Yeah! So, by the time we did that, there was just nothing left.
So, what we'll be doing instead is we're going to just build using the standard materials that you or I would use to build a house…
Larry: …standard non-toxic materials.
Debra: …standard non-toxic materials.
The limiting factor, the thing that’s going to be creative about this is, because we’re going to be rolling this house down the street, we can’t use some of the materials that you would normally put in a house like tile, things that would crack as you move them.
Larry: Hmmm… or drywall.
Debra: So, we're going to be doing things like…
A lot of tiny houses use—what siding is that? The groove that they put on the wall? I forgot what that's called. Anyway, people, when they build tiny houses, they don't often use drywall. They just put wood on the wall. So, we're really looking at using things like wood, like corrugated aluminum. What else are we thinking of?
Larry: Metal siding…
Debra: Metal siding. Yeah, we're still researching all these materials. People will use metal troughs for bathtubs and stuff like that. People are really creative.
And we're even looking at “Well, do we really need to have a shower? What really are…?”
I mean, a big day in my life was the day that I sold my sofa. You go through life having the standard lifestyle that we think, “This is the lifestyle.” So, how are you going to fit that big house lifestyle into a tiny house? Well, when I'm sitting on the sofa, we really noticed that the way we lived our life in our 1600 sq. ft. house was that we cooked in the kitchen, I worked in my office, and essentially we lived in the bedroom. We lived in bed—not that we laid in bed all day. But Larry broke his back. And so his favorite position is to lie down.
So, we eat in bed. Anything that we can do, if we're talking to each other, he lies down.
And so, basically what we need is we need an office, we need a kitchen, we need a bathroom, and we need a bed because that's the way we live. We don't even need 1600 sq. ft. We were not sitting at our dining table. We were not sitting on our sofa. We had this huge living room. It was all decked out so that people could come over and we would have community meetings in our living room. But we don't need that in a tiny house.
And when we really looked at it, we could have everything that we actually need to live.
So, when you're talking about a shower, it made me also think about disposable. So, when you have a toilet, how do you keep the smell out of it? How do you dispose all the trash in the garbage and everything?
Debra: You want to answer that one?
Larry: Well, we have chosen to have a composting toilet which is made up of—I think it’s pine.
Debra: I thought it was cedar. Is it cedar? Pine? Anyway…
Larry: Pine or cedar, whatever.
Debra: It’s wood.
Eric: A composting toilet made out of pine? Wow! I just want to make sure I heard that right.
Debra: It’s all wood.
Larry: It’s a pine box essentially. The toilet sits on the top.
Debra: Yeah, a wood toilet seat on the top.
Larry: And there’s plastic buckets inside—one for the poo and one for pee. And the poo, you cover up with sawdust.
Debra: You just have a little sawdust on the side.
Larry: Just a little sawdust and cover it up. You need to empty it every now and then.
Debra: But it doesn’t smell. It actually doesn’t smell.
Larry: It doesn’t smell at all.
Eric: It is inside the living quarter?
Debra: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t smell.
And we’ve been using it because we had set up our bed just to have fun sleeping in the space…
Larry: Try it out!
Debra: Try it out!
And one of the first things that we bought was the composting toilet. That was one of the first decisions we made because we're really looking to see how can we minimize our resource use.
And so, the whole idea of a flushing toilet has all that water and the plumbing and all that stuff. And this is just a box, a wooden box, with a wooden toilet seat on top and a container of sawdust and a scoop. And really, it composts itself. And then, you can actually just put it in—like if we were staying at a campground or something, you can just put it in the garbage, or we could put it in our garden or whatever.
And so, I really liked this idea of this cycle of food coming out of the garden, processed through our bodies, the compost goes back to the earth.
Larry: A lot of the smell comes from the poo and the pee mixing together which is what happens in a standard toilet and a standard motorhome toilet. But it's not necessary. There’s a separator in the composting toilet. So the pee goes in one container, and the poo goes in another. And they don't smell bad.
Eric: Hmmm… so, just for clarification too. You guys came up with this idea. You've already got the trailer. So where are you guys in the build process? Is it completely built? Are you right in the middle of it?
Debra: We’re at the beginning.
Larry: Beginning, yeah.
Debra: We’re at the beginning. We’ve had the motorhome for a year. We got it January of last year. But you know how projects go? You start working on it, and then stuff happens.
Larry: We had stuff!
Debra: We had stuff that we had to handle that had nothing to do with that. But now, the way is clear. And we've also spent a lot of that time just getting ideas and researching and starting a blog called TinyHouseToxicFree.com. And so, we're collecting ideas and watching videos.
And a lot of times, people will say, “Well, we planned it for a year before we even started building.”
There’s one video that I'm going to be putting up probably next week. This woman, she actually built her tiny house in a van. It's even smaller than ours. It's just in a van. And she said that she wrote down everything that she did for a period of time, so that she could make sure that she had space for everything that she wanted to do inside her van.
I mean some people will go and buy tiny houses. And they're just kind of like buying a subdivision house. Somebody else designs it. You move in and you fit yourself into it. But then, there's the other whole philosophy of you're building this house for your life.
Larry: It’s highly customized.
Debra: It’s very customized to you. And that's what we're doing.
Fernanda: That's what I hear. Basically, your house, it’s built based on your habits.
Fernanda: …which makes a lot of sense. Like for us, having a big house, my mom lives with us. So, we have to have that spare room because part of our life includes having my mom with us.
Debra: Us too… except we're living in her house.
Fernanda: And that brings me to another question. A lot of people have bad habits of—or not even knowing—using toxic chemicals to clean their home. So, in a tiny house—
Eric and I were talking to Debra yesterday. We had an interview with her. So, one of the things that’s huge for us, that's what helped me getting better when I got ill, was the air quality, like having fresh air and removing all the toxic products that we had in the house, changing our habits on how we clean, for example.
In a tiny house, how do you work with the air quality? And how do you store your products?
Debra: Well, first of all, we won't have any toxic products because I haven't had any toxic products in 40 years. So, I'm not concerned about having to protect us from anything toxic because it's not going in in the first place.
But the thing about air quality, that’s an interesting question because the thing that brought all these toxic issues to the fore all those years ago was the whole issue about saving energy and tightening our houses.
And so, in the past, people had a lot of leaky cracks in houses. And so there would be air exchange. When you start closing up all those leaky cracks to save energy, and you start getting indoor air quality problems from all the toxic stuff… that's how the whole field of indoor air quality started.
Now, you go into a tiny house… and it's smaller. And so, there's less air to dilute whatever it is. But there's not going to be anything that needs to be diluted.
But we're breathing… so we do need to have oxygen. And so we'll have ventilation. We'll have air exchangers. We'll have those kinds of things. We’ll have vents in the roof and things like that, so that there will be air exchange. But there just won't be toxic chemicals, period.
Larry: Yeah. We’re not using toxic building materials which is what most houses… especially tiny houses!
Debra: We don’t use toxic cleaning products. We don’t use toxic pesticides. Nothing is toxic in our house.
Eric: So, excuse me if I come off as the devil's advocate here. I really am curious. But a lot of my questions, I just keep thinking safety, safety, safety. As a contractor, it’s like a lot of the codes were written because someone died or got hurt in the home. And so, the tiny home movement is kind of the wild, wild west right now. Nobody is really regulating it. I’ve got my opinions on regulation too. But a lot of it is for safety.
So, I think about things like air like you mentioned. For example, in California, as you probably well know, we’ve even got this huge buffer of air. In a leaky home, carbon monoxide poisoning was almost non-existent in California up until recently because now, the carbon monoxide that you would need to be lethal, we’re talking like 8 to 10 hours in a very confined space (which is just not going to happen in a California home). Now, it is becoming an issue.
So, those are the things I think of in a tiny home. Even storing poo, there's methane, there's toxic stuff from that, anything you do. Even just simple things like what we’ve noticed from cooking, for example. Even if you don't have a gas-fired stove, just the carcinogens and the particulates that are released from combusting materials… I mean, that's huge. And so, you could build a very toxic environment within seconds as opposed to minutes or hours in a tiny home.
Debra: Well, that's where there needs to be a ventilation. And that needs to be designed in. One of the things that I'm concerned about because I watch a lot of videos and tiny home shows is that people are just not aware of toxics in the tiny home communities. And especially if you watch a show where somebody has hired a contractor, and they just say, “This is what we want,” and then they come back six months later or whatever, “Here’s your beautiful house made out of oriented strand board.”
People just are not aware of how toxic those houses are. And this is part of what we're trying to do… show that you need to be concerned about these things. And I don't know if people are getting sick in these houses or not getting sick in these houses. They're probably spending a lot of time outdoors… some of them. But this is absolutely something of concern. And the tiny house community needs to be addressing it more. I know we'll address it because we're aware of it. But it's something that the tiny house community needs to get more attention on.
Fernanda: Yeah. And I think that's why it's so important to bring up this conversation because just building a tiny home, it will fit your needs, but how is that going to affect your health if you don't choose the right materials?
So, having somebody like you and Larry, and people can go to you and consult and getting you as a coach, helping them through the process I think is very, very important.
Debra: Thank you. Thank you! I think it is too. And I think that we're going to find that—
Well, one thing that I'm excited about is that a lot of people need to have non-toxic homes. They either need them because—like you, you know from your experience that you got sick. And so you need to have a non-toxic environment to live in. There's a lot of people who are in that situation. They’re not working, they don't have enough money to buy a big house or build a big non-toxic house. But this makes non-toxic living affordable for almost anyone.
And I don't want to assume that anyone could come up with the amount of money it would take to buy a tiny house. But if there were a foundation that wanted to provide housing, providing a fleet of non-toxic tiny houses would be amazing!
And it just cuts down the cost in order to have safe housing. I mean, I know here in California that some cities are building tiny houses to help with the homeless problem. Are they non-toxic? No! But absolutely, absolutely tiny houses are the wave of the future and a solution to housing. But they also need to be non-toxic.
Eric: The other thing talking about that—Fernanda and I have this conversation a lot—is the amount of homes—especially in California as you’ve mentioned. But it’s the same thing down here in Southern California. I mean, half a million, you can't even really find a house for that.
So, a lot of existing homes, not a lot of homes being built, so there’s definitely a housing shortage with the amount of people that are of age to live on their own. There's way more than there are places to live unfortunately. Yeah, that could definitely be a possibility.
I'm assuming, at some point, some regulatory agency is going to get involved. We have little children. And so I’m thinking of things like electrical issues and fires. And there's reasons why things like fire retardants came out and all of these, going back to the codes. I don't want to squash anything. But at the same time, I definitely have a concern for people not like yourself that have probably way less experience getting into it, thinking it’s going to solve these problems, but then they're exposing themselves to potentially many other problems.
So hopefully, you guys , through this, will be able to share and develop some…
Debra: Well, that's the point. That's the whole point because we do see, as I said, the potential of tiny houses. And we want to make sure that people can do it safely because there is a greater possibility for the toxic exposure in a tiny house as we've said. So it needs to be done right.
Fernanda: Talking about square footage, what is the tiniest tiny home you have seen and the biggest tiny home have you seen? At what point is it not a tiny home anymore.
Debra: Okay! So, we've watched a lot of shows and read magazines and stuff. So what's considered to be a tiny house, I think we saw one that was under 100 sq. ft.
Larry: Yeah, really tiny.
Debra: It was really tiny. I mean, I've seen people like build them on the back of a pickup truck or in a van. And this includes a place to sleep, a little tiny kitchen, some kind of bathroom.
I'm going to put up I think next week this one where this woman did it in a van. And her bathroom was in a kitchen cabinet—you know, how big is a kitchen counter, the lower cabinet. It was maybe about 6 ft. and as wide as a cabinet.
It had a countertop on it. She lifts the countertop. There's a toilet inside. There’s a drain. It's all corrugated metal around on the inside of the cabinet. She's got a hook, and she hangs up the shower. And she pulls this shower curtain around. And that's her bathroom. So, that's in the back of the van.
So, people are really, really clever about what it is they're doing in order to be able to fit all these functions in. That would be too small for me. We're using our space very judiciously. We're having an office. It’s big enough to be my office. And we're having a kitchen that's big enough for me to cook. The bathrooms are going to be small. We're really looking at like how much of a bathing area do we need and how much water do we need.
And then, there's going to be the bedroom. And that's the whole entire house!
Fernanda: And even the way you buy groceries changes because you don't buy in bulk anymore. You just do your weekly, I would assume, groceries at the farmers market. And then, as you start getting rid of stuff, then you buy more, right?
Debra: Oh, yeah. So right now, we're kind of in this interim state where we went from the 1600 sq. ft. house to coming to mom's house. And so, where we're living now, we share a bedroom. And it's not the master bedroom. It's the child's bedroom. It’s that size. And it has a little deck off the back.
And then, there was an office. Where we are right now is in the office room. And it's in a separate building.
Larry's parents built this house themselves. And so, it met their needs to have a house and then have outer rooms. They have a woodshop and a cattery and things like that.
So, I don't know the size of this room. But a little corner over there is the kitchen. And so, if you just imagine the corner of the room, there's maybe 8 ft. that way. And then, we have a little island. And that divides it from the office. And so it's maybe 8 x 6 ft.
Larry: The kitchen area.
Debra: The kitchen area… and that’s our whole kitchen.
Larry: Yeah, yeah.
Debra: And we’ve got a little sink and shelf thing from IKEA that is designed to go into a little tiny apartment. Then we put up shelves on the wall. And we have this apartment-sized refrigerator and a bookshelf that we got for free on Craigslist. And that's our whole entire kitchen.
So, we do go once a week to the farmers market. And we have bulk things like brown rice and stuff like that in big jars. And that's what we eat.
We don't have a stove. We have an induction cooktop, one. And we have one toaster oven. And we can't run them both at the same time because we don't have enough power.
Larry: It wasn’t set up for…
Debra: And we actually borrowed a tiny house idea from tiny houses. Our cutting board flips up and down like they have in tiny houses. And so, when we want to cut something, it flips up off the side of our island. And then, we flip it back down.
So, it's totally changed how I cook, but not for the worse. I have plenty of space to make simple food. But we don't roast turkeys… we don’t. I’m not baking cakes. I’m not running a catering service. I sold my Kitchen Aide Mixer. I mix everything by hand. I have a knife. And I have poles.
It’s very simple, but we’re eating really well. We have plenty of space for food storage for a week.
Eric: Yeah, storage… my other question is you’ve got this planned…
First of all, we definitely want to stay in touch with you through this whole journey because, definitely, in my mind, it’s looking like a journey of discovery and how you’re going to accomplish these things and deal with every day life in a much more confined space, especially when you guys get on the road.
Obviously, having less is sometimes more. But even simple things, I think about—and going back to the safety thing—let’s say you have things that you really need that are potentially toxic or off-gassing even if the lid is closed like paint, for example, or something. What are you guys doing as far as having storage in the envelope of the space? Or are you going to have something maybe separately that you guys can leave outside?
Debra: Well, first of all, I'm going to go back and say again that there's nothing toxic that has to be stored. We don't use toxic paint. We do paint things, but we don't use toxic paint. We will use milk paint to paint this house. And we've done that before. In Florida, we painted a room with milk paint. And it was fabulous. So we're never going back to toxic paint. It's not necessary.
So, I don't see any reason to have anything toxic that needs to be stored.
We're still working out…
Larry: There is storage underneath the motorhome and various compartments.
Debra: Oh, yeah, yeah…
Fernanda: So, for the audience, let’s say they’re not in the same mindset, or they’re trying to become this toxin-free, even in our journey to have this toxin-free living, we didn’t know all the things that were toxic on the way. And we’re still learning a lot about the toxic products.
For us, we thought that, “Okay, this paint is low VOC and it's covered. So that's fine,” which later on, we found out, it was not. So, for people that are not totally aware of it—and there are people using Myers products still thinking that they're safe—I guess that's where the question is, not even like you were aware of them. A lot of people are not aware for the kind of products.
Would you advise to put them outside or like Larry was saying, under?
Debra: Well… yes, of course, I would tell them to do that. But I consider my job to be to help people find the non-toxic products so that that's not an issue. So, I wouldn't say put your toxic products outside. I'd say let’s find a non-toxic products.
Larry: There are some things that are toxic like motor oil or gasoline and stuff like that. But it's not going to be in our living space.
Eric: Yeah, that brings up a good point since you are on the chassis of a motor vehicle, it’s just like a home, we store things in our garage, and we just found out recently from another speaker that, even if it's in your garage, it's still getting into your living space.
Debra: Yeah, it is.
Eric: It’s going to find its way in. I would assume vapors from the engine, gasoline potentially, at some point, will end up migrating in potentially if you're going to be on a motor vehicle chassis.
Debra: Well, we're going to do our best to seal those things out and still have ventilation. So, yes… yes, that's a concern.
But it would be a concern if we had a truck in front spewing gas towards the trailer…
Eric: Yeah, sucking in all those…
Debra: Yeah, yeah. So there are certainly things to work out. And we’re not at that point on our journey to have all the answers.
But we have our goal in mind. And we're doing our research. And the one thing that we bought is this unit called the Yeti that’s very small and has this new battery technology. It’s just this very small unit. And it will meet all of our power needs. And it only costs like $3000 to buy the whole thing. And we still need to buy the solar panel, one solar panel. But right now, we're actually using it now, so that we have more power in the office. And we just plug it into the wall.
I run it all day. And then, at night, it recharges.
But the amount it takes to run my computer is so small. We’re actually getting the reality that we could power our whole entire life on this little box. I mean it's like this thick.
Larry: It’s a little bigger than that.
Debra: …a little bigger than that. It's heavy. It's heavy, but it comes with wheels on it, so you can cart it around.
It’s just finding those kinds of solutions that you don't even look for if you're living in a big house.
It’s just become a lot of fun to do the creative work of saying, “Well, how can we perform this function in the smallest and least toxic and most environmentally-friendly way?”
Fernanda: Right! And I think it also—you know, like Eric and Larry, they brought up the thing with the oil. And I think once you start removing toxins from your life, like all the other toxins—the building materials, the cleaning products, the makeup and the hair products and all that stuff—the exposure, it's way less. And yeah, as you’re saying, you’re going to have ventilation.
And I think the most important thing I think is for people to be aware that there is a concern and there's a way of fixing it.
Debra: I really found in doing this for 40 years that there is pretty much a way to fix everything. The thing that I can’t fix is that outdoor environment. I always say that there’s so many more toxic chemicals in indoor air than outdoor air. And so, at the beginning, I thought, “if I could just open the window or bring the outdoor in, or spend more time outdoors,” or whatever, but that's not really the solution. It is in a way because indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air. But I think it's misleading to think that outdoor air is clean.
One of the first houses I did, the first houses that I made non-toxic was for a friend of mine who we were both recovering from multiple chemical sensitivities at the time. And I didn't have the money to have a non-toxic home, but he did. And so, we did his house. I should put that on my list too because we totally remodeled his house, a little bungalow in downtown Oakland, California.
And at the end of all this time and money, what we had was a non-toxic house in a toxic outdoor air. And he couldn't live in it.
So, I would say that the first thing is pick a place with good outdoor air. And so, places that we're going to be going and parking our tiny house are going to be in better outdoor air places. So we’ll be going to the mountains and the beach and things like that, so that we can step out.
And we're already keeping our eyes up on places that we can be parking a motorhome. And there's some beautiful places like right on the coast of California. You’re just right there overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
And so, those are going to be the kind of places that we're going to want to hang out. One thing that I saw recently was an article that said that they have now measured dangerously high levels of mercury in California coast fog. And that's like my favorite. I mean, it just crushed me when I read that.
Eric: One of the things you mentioned, parking on the coast, I also just read a recent article that they're having—I would use the word “epidemic” of people in tiny home type of scenarios where it's an RV on wheels type of scenario. They're parked on the coast. For some reason, we can't do that here. But in LA, they can. And being a good steward, a lot of these people, their motivating factor for doing this is helping with the planet, but they’re dumping all of their sewage onto the road, onto the rocks which…
Debra: Well, they shouldn't be doing that. They should know better.
Eric: But where do you put that realistically though? There’s not yet, from what I've seen—when you're parking in an area that's not a designated RV type of scenario, practical things of removing sewage or waste just don't really exist yet . So, it’s got to be fixed.
Debra: Well, I have several answers to that. The first one is that people need to be considerate of neighbors first of all—neighbors being neighbors like you have neighbors on the side of your house. But I'm talking about global neighbors. And so, people shouldn't be dumping anything by the side of the road, tiny house or not.
But there are places—and I think that they’re not too far between—where they're public places like campgrounds. You could drive into a camp ground, we could dump our compost or whatever otherwise waste we have in public designated areas. We wouldn't just leave it by the side of the road because we're considerate.
Larry: That’s disgusting.
Debra: Yeah. And I can see that it could be a problem.
Eric: Oh, it is a problem.
Debra: …because the users are just not saying, “Where are we going to put this?”
Eric: Yeah… well, we just think about the reality of, if you’ve driven in LA traffic, especially down on Malibu, I mean it could take you an hour to get to one of those areas. So, I just don't think people are going to have the mental capacity or the courtesy to be able to dispose of that stuff.
So, I think it'll grow. But it's definitely something that needs to be brought up.
Debra: It does need to be brought up. And also, usually, there's some kind of storage outside of the living area, like down underneath. People could certainly carry it with them until they get to an appropriate place to dispose of it.
But these are all the things—you know, you move into a house or an apartment, and there's a standard way of handling all these life things. And you don't even think about it. You put your garbage in the garbage can, the garbage man comes and gets it, you don't know where it goes, blah-blah-blah… this all makes it much more immediate. It makes it much more like, “Here I am, a living being. And there is a living ecosystem. Now, I don't have an account with the garbage company. What am I going to do with my garbage? What am I going to do with my body waste? Where am I going to get my food from? How am I going to start?” You really start looking at how you're going to do your life intentionally instead of just being part of this larger system.
Eric: Yeah, I think it's a great exercise in humanity.
Debra: It is!
Eric: I wonder, at some point, it'd be really neat—this might be something else you guys could do—see the percentage (obviously, this would take like a decade or so) of the amount of people that go from a traditional home and way of life to a tiny home and maybe back to somewhere in between at some point. I would imagine probably 50% of people are going to get those skills and kind of bring them back into what we call “normal” suburban type of living, but still bringing some of the things that they learned.
Debra: They might!
Eric: It’s a big challenge. It’s not impossible. But to have a family… I’ve seen people do it, but it’s definitely not for us.
Debra: And I don't think it's for everybody. And
It just occurred to me, I didn't answer the second part of your question when you asked about the smallest and the largest for a tiny house. If you watch a TV show with the word “tiny house” in the title, they consider it up to 600 sq. ft. And so, they're showing their clients bungalows and things like that that are small cottage kinds of houses in suburban areas.
Our house, we’ve lived in two cottages. And they were like 650 to 700 sq. ft. So, that would still be considered a tiny house. I think of it being a house when it gets to like 800 or 1000 sq. ft. That's regular house living.
When you're at 600 sq. ft., especially if you have two people, you have to be thinking about minimalistic living. But I don't even think of minimalistic as the concept anymore because minimalistic means that you have this big-ness, and now you're trying to make it small. And what I'm starting with is nothing.
Larry: Yeah, that’s a great analogy, yeah. I'm starting with me. I'm a person. And then, what do I need? And what's the maximum that I need in order to have a happy life, to accomplish what it is that I'm accomplishing?
So, it's not like “how am I going to make my shower smaller?”; it’s “how am I going wash my body?”
Fernanda: I love that! That’s fantastic.
Debra: I love it too.
Fernanda: And you don’t have to work on your relationship with the people that you live with.
Fernanda: Because in a big house, when you get into each other's face, you go to your bedroom, he goes to his bedroom. And then it's like…
When you live in a tiny home, you need to solve the conflicts immediately. You can't just pretend…
Debra: We definitely do!
Larry: Yes, good point.
Debra: Yes… but you see, as I’ve said before, we’re in this transition zone right now where we're living in this very tight space. And so, I can see, “This is how much space I need.”
I came from an office that had 17 ft. of windows. And then, it was about 10 or 12 ft. Then back, so it’s like 12 x 17 let's say. That’s a big room. I had three desks. I have this big desk here that was—I don't know, it's 6 ft. long. I had three of these desks in a square. And I was using all of them. All the walls were covered with books and filing cabinets, all this stuff.
And now, really, my whole workspace is this 6 ft. desk. And then, I have another 6 ft. desk behind me. And so I'm like in this little 8 x 6 corner. And really, not having a lot of space, I'm working in an essential way instead of all these possible stuff that I don't even use.
And so, we go through layers of all this stuff that we brought with us. And I've been paying $200 a month for the last two years on a storage unit. And I finally said, “Wait a minute! I'm not using all that stuff. I haven't used it for two years. Let's bring it over. Let's bring it over here.” And we're rearranging, we found a little space that we could put it in in the corner of a storage room, so that I can go through those boxes and say, “Well, they're not coming in in the tiny house.”
But it's a matter of taking this this big materialistic life and saying, “I don't want that anymore. I don't need that anymore. What I need is what's essential to me. I need for me to be me.”
Debra: “And I need those essential things that I need in order to be alive so that I can function and do the things that I love to do and like.”
Fernanda: Yeah, it's like when we go travel to Brazil, what do I need? And the next thing I know, I have all those luggages with a bunch of stuff. And then, it's over the way. And then we're like, “Okay, what can I leave behind?”
I think living in a tiny home, as you said, you need to also start with the mindset.
Debra: It’s exactly where you need to start with. You need to be able to see yourself not as a minimalist from the viewpoint of this overwhelming huge amount of materialism, but as having everything that you need, having everything that you actually need, and looking at your needs.
Now, I was laughing when you were talking about your luggage because you should have seen the first time I went to Europe… I was carrying so much stuff! I couldn't carry it all. After that experience, my traveling, I didn't take anything I couldn't carry. And so, my traveling weight got much lighter. And my life is getting lighter.
But I love it! It's like I actually feel less weighed down.
And I had an experience I just want to tell you about, about having things versus not having things. I used to have 2000 books, around 2000 books. And of course I had to have bigger places.
Larry: A library…
Debra: And when I moved here, and a lot of my books started sitting in the storage locker for $200 a month, I realized that I didn't need to buy books. I could go to the library.
And I know that that sounds like a funny thing. But they don't always have books at the library that I want. But what I discovered here, having really fabulous librarians here where I live now who are willing to do anything for me to find the book I want, is that there are literally international systems where you can walk into any library and connect with those systems and get any book from any library.
And so, my sense of books is that I now have an abundance of books. They're scattered all over the world. And I could get them anytime I want to! I can't walk over to the shop and get it. But I can order up any book I want for free.
And that was sense of abundance, what a sense of expansion…
Larry: You have access to all the books!
Debra: …to know that I have access to all the books on the planet.
Fernanda: Right, right. And for us, we are in a time in our lives that clutter, especially in the office where there's so many papers, so many boxes, so many receipts, when we moved to this bigger house…
Debra: We know! We’re laughing because we know.
Fernanda: …right? And then, there's the boxes that we’ve never even touched, but it's like we need them. So, it just is that thing that makes you feel—like it's an uneasy feeling until the day that we realize the clutter—
Like our house is very organized, very clean. But just looking at the amount of stuff that we have around really made us feel like, “We need to get rid of this…”
Eric: It brings the anxiety.
Fernanda: It brings anxiety.
Debra: It does!
Eric: And I think that's where you guys got to. It sounds like, listening to you—and I think a lot of people, they get that calling—you get almost like sick and tired of this. It's like it's too much, “I just need to decompress” kind of thing. And it's almost like when you felt the toxic load as you were talking about when you got sick. It's like, “Okay, something's got to change.”
Debra: Yeah, yeah. And it did change. I’m not wanting to have to pay the mortgage. I’m not wanting to do the upkeep of the house, having things around me that needed to be maintained, or we're just sitting there.
I mean, even now, I realized it's taking me all this time, I've been working for a couple of years on all these things, and I still have things. I'm still going through the process. I look at them and I go, “Oh, well… my father gave me that” or “Oh well, this is mine.”
Larry: “I’ve had it for so many years.”
Debra: “It’s mine! It doesn't matter that it's sitting in a box. It doesn't matter that I’ll never use it, that I haven't used it, that I even forgot I had it. It's mine!”
Fernanda: Yeah, I know you said something yesterday that was very, very good. You said, “I'm not my things.”
Debra: “I'm not my things,” that’s right!
Fernanda: I love that quote: “I'm not my things.”
Debra: Thank you.
Yeah, well, I finally got to the point where I actually do feel like I'm not my things, that I can be separate and say, “I'm Debra. And I’m all these good non-materialistic things. I'm creative and I'm loving and I'm aware and all these things. And that's me. And then, there's the material world. And that's separate. And you could take all my things and I would still me.”
And that's what allows me to simplify.
Fernanda: So, from what I hear from this interview is that, tiny homes, they have a lot of pearls, a lot of good things. They help with the environment. They give you that sense of freedom. They help you live more for you and your life, less for things. They can save you like financially freedom that you can invest in yourself.
But there's also cons that you need to consider especially when building a tiny home, that it would be very important before you even start the process to work on your mindset and also hire a non-toxic tiny home consultant to make sure your health is not being affected by the tiny home. Is that right?
Debra: That's totally right, totally right.
And also, to allow the time to do the process before you start doing the build, so that you get your planning in and know what it is that you need and can then, once you start building, build and do it right.
Fernanda: And find a safer outdoor air quality place for your tiny house.
Debra: That's right, that’s right.
Eric: Absolutely, yeah.
Actually, there's a couple websites. And most of the phones have the outdoor air quality numbers. I'm sure you guys wouldn't want to be anywhere near where you guys were during the fires. I mean, all that…
Debra: I think it’s called Air-something-Now.
Fernanda: Air Now.
Debra: AirNow.com I think it is. And during the fires, we were just looking at that every day. We don't look at it every day under normal circumstances because it’s not like Los Angeles. It’s pretty much the same every day unless something changes.
But also, for a while, I had an indoor air quality monitor on my phone. And I had a monitor in my house. And I could see where the indoor air quality was changing through the day as it was changing. And the thing that I found, it was like I had no indoor air pollution until I turned on my gas stove. And whenever I cooked, it spiked.
Debra: And so, I really got to understand that. So I think that's a good thing for people to do too, is to get that kind of service for a period of time and just seeing what's going on inside their house.
Fernanda: Even with the electric stove… like our house is a lab, so we test everything. So, if I do something with my hair, my nail polish, anything, Eric will test the air quality.
Debra: Good for you!
Eric: Yeah, I think that’s a good point to really lock in and is a great takeaway from this. Even if you build a “green, healthy, super low-tox or no-tox environment, a tiny home, afterwards, what are you doing during your activities that may disturb that environment?
Debra: That’s right, absolutely. But you see, we’ve already figured all that out in our bigger house.
Eric: And that’s why we need you guys. So we’d really love to follow you guys in your journey. Hopefully, you guys are going to be taping this.
Debra: They’re all going to go on our blog which is already up at TinyHouseToxicFree.com.
Fernanda: Awesome! So Debra and Larry, they have a generous gift as well. It’s Debra’s Guide to Creating a Green Bathroom. It’s a case study of a non-toxic bathroom that they built in their home in Florida in 2007. So that’s going to be available.
And from there, you’re also going to be able to follow them, follow their journey, and see what they’re doing, what they’re finding. Throughout the journey, when you decided to create your own tiny home, things might change…
Debra: Oh, yeah… I’m sure they will.
Fernanda: Yeah, that’s construction, right?
Debra: But also, another thing that I’ve decided to do is when I send out my newsletter—it’s probably not going to be every week, but maybe every week or two—every time I send one out, I’m going to include a video about somebody else’s tiny house build, whether it’s non-toxic or not. I’m not looking at the non-toxicness. I’m looking at the ideas of how they constructed things, so people can see the design ideas.
And these aren’t going to be necessarily non-toxic tiny houses because I don’t think there are many of them. But I’ll do my best to show what other people are doing that are like the cream of the crop videos.
Fernanda: Well, thank you so much. Thank you, Larry and Debra, for sharing your experience and your journey with us.
Eric: Thank you.
Fernanda: We appreciate it.
Debra: Thanks for having us.
Larry: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Eric: Thanks you guys!
Since blogs typically give most recent posts first, it can be difficult to read a chronological story from the beginning on a blog. So here is a list of the blog posts starting with the first post and moving forward in time: