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Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For

My essay, ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For,’ is about to be published in the Concord Saunterer: The Journal of Thoreau Studies. I sent out a draft to some of you a few months ago but have been given generous permission to post the final version here (see link below).

The essay gives an account of the two years just past that I spent living in a small, self-constructed, inner city ‘shed’ in the backyard of a rental property tenanted by some friends of mine. In the final 12 months of this ‘simple living’ adventure I meticulously kept account of how much money I spent, which came to a total of $6,792. In the essay I try to summarize the main lessons I learnt on this journey, while also acknowledging the limitations of my experiment.

My living experiment in the shed came to an end a few months ago when the landlord ended the lease (for reasons other than my presence, I should add). By then I had already written and submitted this essay, so it is written from the perspective of my life inside the shed, looking out. The editor of the Concord Saunterer has suggested that I write a follow-up essay too, which I hope to begin work on sometime in the near future.

The essay can be downloaded here: Deconstructing-the-Shed-Samuel-Alexander

7 Responses to “Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For”

  1. A Human says:

    Thankyou for sharing this

  2. Samantha in Legal Limbo says:

    Thanks for sharing the details of your interesting experiment in simple living. Your essay provides much food for thought.

    I can strongly relate to certain aspects of your story. My partner and I have been living illegally in a corrugated iron shed since 2008. But, we own the land our shed is built on (when we got sick of being at the mercy of suburban landlords, we bought our block of water-affected land in rural NSW from our local council in 2007 at the bargain price of $9,000 for 3/4 acre).

    In the beginning, we had no access to a bathroom or kitchen of any description, so we purchased water from a friendly neighbour, and quickly learned to enjoy the invigorating nature of cold sponge baths, and to safely compost all of our own sewage on site (on that subject, I can recommend the excellent “Composting Toilet System Book” by Del Porto and Steinfeld). We also bought an old electric stove, and a kitchen sink, from the local tip shop for a few dollars. These items became the nucleus of our “makeshift” kitchen which, in turn, became the nucleus of our very cheap, and very comfortable (but still technically illegal) home.

    We chose to install a pitched roof and serious insulation around our living and sleeping areas from the outset – investments that we feel have paid off handsomely (we’ve since added a 22,000 litre water tank, and a solar hot water system, so we now feel like we’re truly living in the lap of luxury).

    Over the past 18 months we’ve slowly been building a council-approved straw bale cottage on our land. This cottage is roughly 4 times the size of your shed (it’s 3.5m x 7.5m), built by us from locally-sourced straw bales, and clad in clay and lime render, with a corrugated iron roof. The cottage includes a bathroom, laundry, kitchen, dining, and sleeping areas. This cottage will act as guest accommodation when it’s finished, because we’ve decided to remain living in our (now very comfortable) shed. BTW, we’ve never needed to connect to the town sewer or water – even with the council-approved cottage. We just upgraded to a govt-approved composting toilet, and a reed bed system for greywater treatment.

    The subject of legality is a bit of a mine field. For example, I recognise the huge irony that I trust myself to dispose of raw sewage safely and sensibly – but I wouldn’t trust many of my uneducated neighbours to do so. Hence, when it comes to promoting illegal housing options, I’d suggest that the old adage of “Be careful what you wish for” applies. If backyard squats in cities happened to boom in popularity, city dwellers could end up with very poor living conditions (including an increase in fires, and outbreaks of the diseases that tend to accompany overcrowding) in short order.

    Finally, an obvious but surprisingly uncommon solution to the problem of shoes is bare feet. Walking safely and comfortably on bare feet requires practice and conditioning, but the advantages are numerous and significant, including: your soles re-grow (i.e. they never wear out); feet are easy to clean (easier than shoes); and they make a great conversation-starter about simple living (the colder the weather, the more comments you get). Many people (including many who’ve already shifted to voluntary simplicity) seem to think that bare foot living is either impossible, or that it’s some kind of weird joke, but it’s actually a fairly serious movement, with plenty of passionate participants: http://www.barefooters.org/

  3. Jessica says:

    What a wonderful, inspiring read! Although you noted that you didn’t aim to provide a ‘template’ for simple living, there are some great insights and ideas in this essay that I’m sure many people will find of value applying to their own lives. Good on you for efforts, sounded like an amazing time.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks for these comments Robin, Samantha, and Jessica. Thanks especially for sharing your inspiring story Samantha (and the interesting website!).

  5. Lee Bones says:

    Thanks for sharing info with us regarding living in the shed. It has been inspiring. In fact, I discovered you site by watching your music video on youtube which featured the shed. Keep being inspirational!

  6. Holly says:

    Great article! May I point out that Thoreau, also, lived in his “shed” for just about two years. Maybe experiences such as this of “extreme” simplicity works best as a kind of rite of passage, or maybe rite of purification, enabling the individual to reenter “society” as a teacher.

    Now in my late ’50s, I have been happily downwardly mobile for about 15 years, having given up city-life and academia, for rural life and working 4-days a week. It is amazing to me that I have sold, bartered, or given away what seems like a house-full of stuff and still have more than I need or want! I would love to reduce my needs to only that which could be accommodated in a small shed, but for now must be content with a plainly-furnished 100year-old farmhouse.

  7. […] Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For (my account of living in a self-constructed shed for two years and spending very […]

  8. Quinton Blue says:

    Very interesting. As I read it, I couldn’t help wondering if the doctoral track was truly a different choice than the law track. It seems like so much of mainstream life is built on validation, which seems to be a way that we give up our freedom voluntarily. … Yet, Thoreau did go into business at his father’s pencil factory, and I believe Holly is right that the two years at Walden were a transition. I’d like to hear the rest of this story, the post-shed years when you are ready to write about it.
    Latest post from Quinton Blue…Five Answers From Blue on The Sun Tea Chronicles

  9. […] Alexander, ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For’ 18 The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies (2010) […]

  10. […] S. 2010. ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For’ 18 Concord Saunterer: The Journal of Thoreau Studies […]

  11. […] it for two years. It was an amazing experience, and a surprising one, which I wrote about at length here. The main lesson I learnt was that I could live happily with very little. In the final year of that […]

  12. […] Alexander, ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For’ 18 The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau […]

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