FREEPORT, Maine ― When newcomers move to Maine, their arrival is often paired with a cautionary “Just wait until winter.”
But Nic Ledoux and his wife, Robin Bienenstock, are not only taking on their first Maine winter, this winter is their first living in their 220-square-foot house on wheels.
When the couple began living in their tiny house in August 2016, day-to-day life was relatively easy. They didn’t have to think twice about simple things such as getting water or heating their small space.
“The only things that make [tiny house living] kind of harder is in the winter time,” Ledoux said. “In the summer, it’s completely fine. In the winter, it’s more of a challenge.”
Winter poses some difficulties when a house doesn’t have traditional plumbing ― water freezes unless homeowners take extensive preventive steps. And while heating a tiny space may seem easier than heating a 2,500-square-foot home, it’s tough to find the balance between maintaining a cozy temperature and one reminiscent of the tropics.
Going on month six of their tiny house adventure, the couple has learned a few hacks to adapt to their alternative housing choice, and they are more dedicated to their new lifestyle than when they conceived their tiny living dream over a year ago.
From tent to tiny house
Adjusting to the size of their tiny home when they moved in this past August was a breeze for the couple, considering they had spent months over the past year living in a tent while waiting for construction of their tiny home to be completed.
“When we got in here, we’re like, ‘It’s a mansion,’” Bienenstock said. “If we had gone from a 1,000-square-foot or bigger home to a hallway, I think it would be a big transition.”
Bienenstock, 30, is from New York, and Ledoux, 34, is from Vermont, but when the couple married in 2012, they moved to Utah, securing a spacious apartment and acquiring furniture and knick knacks to fill the space.
“Don’t you find that people fill their space? Whatever size house you have, you fill your space. If it’s huge, you fill it. If it’s small, you fill it. That’s just how we are as people,” Bienenstock said recently, sitting on her tiny home’s stairs that double as storage.
Tiny house living first entered the couple’s minds when they were on a four-month backcountry trip, exploring 14 of the U.S. National Parks and living out of a two-person tent. Realizing that they could live on a small scale, and in such close quarters with each other, the couple stoked their curiosity and began looking around at tiny home options.
But their serious pursuit of getting a tiny home of their own didn’t occur until three years after moving to Utah, when a family obligation required the couple move to New York, prompting them to sell all of their belongings so they could make the trip back East in their small Pontiac Vibe.
“When we were moving [from Utah], it was just seeing all the stuff we bought that we ended up having to turn around and donate,” Ledoux said. “It’s hard to let go of those things you have attachment to … but when you realize you don’t miss it, it becomes a lot easier.”
After arriving in New York the couple began looking around for a tiny home builder. They ultimately found one in upstate New York who was willing to work with the couple on the design and was accustomed to making tiny homes that could withstand Adirondack winters.
Bienenstock and Ledoux didn’t want to make too many sacrifices when designing their approximately 220-square-foot home. Being a chef, Ledoux wanted a custom kitchen with as close to full-size appliances as possible. And not wanting to let go of their vagabond lifestyle, the home ― like many other tiny homes ― needed to be on wheels.
In August 2016, their dream home was ready. They replaced their small car with a new truck capable of towing the tiny house, and the couple set out for Maine where Bienenstock had found physical therapy work. Their destination? A campground in Freeport that would let them park their tiny house.
Tiny living D.I.Y.
Surrounded by a snow and ice landscape, the quaint green tiny home looks like a natural fit among its winter neighbors, which include a yurt and an RV equipped with solar panels.
Stepping inside the couple’s home it’s easy to forget the structure is a tiny house. With skylights, stainless steel countertops and appliances, pine walls and a miniature woodstove, the atmosphere is more modern cabin than tiny living.
Ledoux said he and Bienenstock often forget that they live in a tiny house. But during the winter, the small-scale living presents a few quirks that bring the couple back to their reality.
“[Winter] is much more challenging. Summer you plug in your electric, you plug in your water, [and it] runs like nothing is different,” Bienenstock said.
While some tiny house dwellers opt to build a foundation for their home on land they own, which would allow for a traditional plumbing and electric setup, Bienenstock and Ledoux are among the tiny house inhabitants whose homes are built on trailers. This movable setup makes the internal functionings of the home, such as electric and water hookup, more like that of an RV.
To winterize, first the couple needed to make sure they were protecting their house from winter’s strong, cold winds. During the summer, the open air is fine underneath the trailer of the home, but in the winter, the wind would cool the floors and potentially freeze the home’s water system.
After checking out a few tiny house blogs, and making numerous trips to Home Depot, the couple devised a plan to construct an insulated foam board skirt around their home.
Scurrying to winterize their home late this fall, the couple spent three days in freezing rain custom cutting the foam boards, wrapping them with reflective insulation tape and securing them to the frame of the trailer.
“We winterized before we knew anything,” Bienenstock said. “That’s a big tip for anybody doing something new, learn about it before you think, ‘I got this.’”
Making the transition from summer to winter did not have an impact on the electrical aspects of the home, which plugs into the electricity offered by the campground. However, making sure they could still get water into their home throughout the winter was the biggest learning curve the couple needed to adjust to. The couple never went without water transitioning from fall to winter, though they installed their winter water setup just before the campground shut the provided water off after the first freeze.
The solution to the winter water dilemma came in the form of a 300-gallon bladder that is now set up under the home, being fed into the house with a small pump. Though getting that system in place and functioning was easier said than done.
“These are the things you should research first, you should set up the water bladder before you put the skirt on, otherwise you’re army crawling under the house with no way out except the two little doors,” Bienstock said.
On top of the insulation created by the newly installed foam skirt, the couple needed to make sure the bladder and the hoses that fed the water into the home also were well insulated. More trips to Home Depot ensued.
The crafty bladder insulation project ― done entirely while under the tiny home ― resulted in heat tape being zig-zagged across the top of the bladder, which was then wrapped “like a burrito” in a sheet of reflective insulation.
Between the insulation of the skirt and the insulation of the bladder of itself, Ledoux said their water setup has not yet frozen.
Once per week the couple has to refill the bladder so that it doesn’t run dry — that’s necessary to prevent an air bubble from getting into the water system. This process entails going to a neighboring house, whose owners let the couple use their well water to fill up a small bladder that stays in the bed of their truck. A hose from the truck bladder is then connected to a pump, which also is connected to a hose from the tiny house bladder. It takes about 15 minutes for the pump to transfer the water from one bladder to another.
“Even though we have unlimited water, we just have to get it and bring it back, and it’s hard,” Bienenstock said. “You think about it, and it makes you a little bit more green.”
Getting their home to a comfortable interior temperature has been another winter adjustment for the couple. The home is heated by a hobbit-size woodstove, and a small propane heater serves as back up, though it has only been used once this winter.
Having lived in a house in Vermont with a woodstove, Ledoux knew he wanted one in their tiny home. Bienenstock was skeptical about having a woodstove in the home, her thoughts on the traditional home heating method were tied with the idea that the stoves cause a sooty mess, and that in a small home, this would only be intensified.
While the hobbit-stove has proved Bienenstock wrong on the mess, the stove emits much more heat from its place in the kitchen than she or her husband anticipated.
“The one thing that we didn’t think about is, with the woodstove being [in the front of the home], all the heat is trapped right here, or it goes all the way up into the loft,” Ledoux said.
Placing a fan next to the stove has helped them circulate the heat more evenly throughout the home, preventing it from being 100 degrees in their sleeping loft while it’s 60 degrees in the bathroom.
The couple bought one cord of firewood to get them through the winter, and so far have used only about a quarter of it. In order to fit in the small woodstove, 14-inch long pieces of firewood need to be cut in half and then split.
When Bienenstock and Ledoux have guests over, the added body heat in the small space will require them to open the home’s skylight and windows to let the additional heat out ― a small price to pay for the couple who didn’t want to sacrifice having guests just because they’re living tiny.
Cabin fever free
The couple doesn’t feel that living in a tiny home has forced them to make any sacrifices to their lifestyle. They still can entertain, rearranging the living area affords space for gatherings such as a neighborhood taco night.
Further preventing the onset of cabin fever, the home has wireless internet, allowing them to stream things such as Netflix onto their 40-inch television, which Ledoux was adamant about having fit into the home’s design.
Aside from substantially less space, the day-to-day going ons of living in a tiny home are not all that different from a full-size home, the couple said.
“We still do the day-to-day, go to work, come home. And then when you come home, you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to do something outside,’ fill up water, get some wood, chop it down,” Ledoux said.
After six months of sharing only 220 square feet, Bienenstock and Ledoux have learned that there are ways to get away from each other despite living in close quarters. The living room located in the middle of the home has a curtain that can divide the kitchen from the couch area. When they need even more space, one of them will retire to their bedroom in the loft.
But being able to spend more time outdoors was a big incentive for the couple to go tiny. Living in a smaller area, the couple has more incentive to get out and explore.
“Part of the thinking when we thought tiny house is we like to be outdoors. We like to go hiking, we like to go snowboarding, biking, kayaking, all that stuff,” Ledoux said. “Our thought was if we have a very tiny house, we’re not going to want to always be inside.”
Their logic was correct. Having moved to Maine for their tiny house adventure, they’ve grown to love the state and its outdoor offerings. While it’s their plan to move back out West in September or October, they intend to tow the tiny house back to Maine one day.
“We love it,” Bienenstock said. “[The tiny house is] one of the best places we’ve lived.”