Faces of Home
Roger Schroeder: designs for the downsizer
Photos by kc kratt
When it comes to Americans looking for ways to cut down their living footprint, Buffalonians are right in step. Just this year, local news outlets reported on small home construction projects on 16th Street and other areas of the city. Typically, smaller homes offer increased accessibility for the elderly or those with physical impairments. They also tend to be easier to maintain and keep clutter-free than larger homes.
On Bryant Street in the Elmwood Village, husband-and-wife team Roger Schroeder, an industrial design consultant and a professor at Alfred State University, and Michele Costa, a local artist and performer, have lived in a smaller-than-usual dwelling since 2006. Schroeder, who has an education in architecture, designed the home himself and completed construction in just three months.
Buffalo Spree: Is your house technically a “tiny house”?
Roger Schroeder: Our house is probably not a “tiny house” by a strict definition. Our main floor is 512 square feet with the walls taking up about ninety square feet of that. Most architects think of size as gross square footage (including the outside walls of the building). Also, we have two sixty-four-square-feet workspaces above but they would not be considered “living” space. Our house has no basement, so the first floor has to accommodate the washer and dryer as well as our hot water and heating equipment. Our house appears “tiny” since is sits in context with much larger homes, but similar cottage-sized homes can be found all over the city.
What are the most difficult things a person encounters in downsizing?
RS: The motivation for downsizing varies with individuals but at the core is usually a desire to get control of one’s life, as they perceive it. If the attitude aligns with the idea of reducing one’s footprint, the process can be joyful, not difficult.
Michele Costa: You have to want less. And this extends to every facet of living: how many different shampoos, lotions, and household cleaners do you need? How many towels, bed linens, blankets do you really use? How about all those fancy dishes and lovely bowls, cookware, and kitchen appliances that have a single purpose? Pairs of shoes, winter jackets? We do a lot of just looking and, yes, loving objects, but not owning them. We often go out on excursions and return home to say, “Yay! We didn’t buy anything!” I love books, but once read, they are passed on.
We have only a tiny fridge. With so many markets so close, who needs to stock all that food in the fridge? Also, we are herbivores, so eating is perhaps simplified for us. We also have no stove/oven, just a hot plate and toaster oven. My crockpot is a favorite, useful tool that is used a lot.
You won’t find a couch, armchairs, coffee table, end tables or lamps in our house. There is no basement, no attic; everything we have and need is within the living space, so it better be functional, beautiful, or dearly loved.
How have you enjoyed the experience of living in a small city dwelling?
RS: Our very enjoyable lifestyle is a mix of urban energy and a lighter footprint. We can hardly imagine a better way to live in Western New York.
MC: It is the best way to live in a city! You need much less space when your “living space” extends outside your walls. We spend a lot of time out walking dogs, running and biking, going to our favorite parks, restaurants and pubs, or sometimes just plain wandering and exploring.
How much of the work did you complete yourself? Did you work with any outside contractors?
RS: All of the work we did ourselves with the help of a good friend. We had many experiences that made that easy for us, and it’s not something I recommend for everyone.
Your home was actually featured in Spree about a decade ago. Is there anything about the property that has seen significant changes since then?
RS: We have added some larger windows to the front but largely we have resisted improvements and just concentrated on maintaining. We could actually see ourselves being smaller.
MC: I am constantly changing the garden and outdoor space. My focus has changed from “making a pretty garden for others to look at” to “how can I make a beautiful outdoor space for us to look at from inside our home in all seasons?” Also, we are constantly curating and simplifying; it never ends.
Should more new home builders build tiny houses? And if so, why?
RS: The small house movement is driven by many personal ideas that are many times in direct conflict with traditional homebuilding values. Small homes are only slightly cheaper than moderately sized homes since many costs are fixed in construction. Another way of saying it is a house twice the size of a tiny house may only cost fifty percent more. In some ways, you have to pay more for less, which is true for many ecological choices. We think that living small has many advantages but that’s a personal discovery. We are not in the convincing mindset regarding such a personal decision.
MC: But, certainly, there is a feeling of freedom that can be gained from just having less. Also, a smaller home will most likely cost less to heat and cool, and general maintenance is much easier just because of its scale. Roger can stand on a stool to paint our house and finish the job in a single day!
Do you find it difficult to limit personal belongings?
RS: Our world—for all of us—has become increasingly digital and connected in ways that make the “personal belonging” thing a constantly shifting concept. We have as many personal belongings as we need.
MC: Keep only the most useful or lovingly cherished items. As an artist, I, unfortunately, have tools and materials that I can’t live without: hand tools, scroll saw, paints, sewing machine, etc. I used to collect and store all kinds of materials and scraps for creating. Now, I strive to use what I have and purchase or scavenge for raw materials only when necessary. Yearly, I take serious stock of all the stuff in my eight-by-eight-foot studio and weed out what I can live without.
How do you handle entertaining?
RS: The home is almost one big studio-like space with few furnishings and is built at ground level, allowing parties to spill easily into the backyard. We can accommodate ten people inside without a problem.
MC: Because we are extremely light in furnishings, the space is very flexible. We’ll often open up a bunch of outdoor umbrella chairs for guests.
Have you worked on any similar tiny house projects?
RS: I have assisted others in aspects of small home building. Surprisingly, the biggest problem is finding affordable vacant lots.
Steve Brachmann writes on technology, business, and legal topics for IPWatchdog.com, a blog focused on intellectual property law. Locally, he has also written for the Buffalo News and Hamburg Sun. He lives in Allentown.