Stuff and Nonsense

Stuff … we all have it.  I’m as guilty as the next person of accumulating questionably necessary possessions.

This morning I ventured down to the basement of my apartment building to retrieve my trusty tent from the building’s storage area.  In a 20′ x 20′, one bedroom apartment I have three closets liberally stuffed with … stuff.  I don’t use it on a daily or even weekly basis and yet I still ‘need’ more space for stuff in the locker downstairs.  The storage unit holds a few genuinely useful things – two boxes of winter clothing, some camping gear, assorted boxes from my last move and my bicycle (in the winter months).  But there is also a broken lamp, two printers I don’t use, a shelving unit I should give away, and a mystery bag I can’t identify at a glance.

It wasn’t so long ago that I lived 5 months in a tent just like it with everything I needed for comfort and convenience.  In 2007, I sublet my apartment in Minneapolis and packed my car packed with some work clothes, an air mattress and sleeping bag, my camera, laptop and a few drafting supplies and went to Biloxi Mississippi where I volunteered my labor and design skills to the Gulf Coast reconstruction effort.  Of all the lessons and skills I gained during that time, the most valuable was how happy I was living with so little.

stuff 2

My tent home, complete with “stuff” in Biloxi, MS

When I returned to my apartment I had a tough readjustment period.  It was hard to fall asleep with the ceiling and walls so far away.  I actually considered setting the tent up over my bed.  But gradually I re-acclimated.  I hadn’t actually gotten rid of all the stuff in my life – just taken a vacation from it – and it was all there waiting for me.  Since then I’ve moved again and accumulated more.   But still … its worth being mindful about it.

This is an issue that (almost) everyone struggles with.  Americans seem particularly prone to accumulating more stuff than we need and then being reluctant to part with it.  To illustrate, there’s a fascinating piece by Jon Mooallem in the NYTimes Magazine about the self storage phenomenon in the United States.

The United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. (The Self Storage Association notes that, with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”) According to the Self Storage Association, one out of every 10 households in the country rents a unit, making facilities like Statewide among our last national commons — places where nearly every conceivable kind of American still goes.

Mooallem says that the idea for a storage facility dates to the 1960s and was originally meant to be a short term solution for temporary circumstances created by external factors – moving, divorce, the death of a relative etc.  But although the time since then has been fraught with both mobility and divorce the amazing growth of this space indicates that we’ve turned self storage into another thing entirely.  No longer a temporary holding place we’ve begun to use it as a permament place to keep our extra “stuff” in stasis.

Its so easy to do – when my parents moved to Madison from the Chicago area in 2004, they rented a storage unit to help with the transfer.  Storing our “extra stuff” there also made the house would seem clean and clutter-free and sell more quickly.  We moved into the new house and put a number of the packing boxes in the basement un-opened and it took us 15 months to clear out that storage unit.  Some of the contents we gave away, others I took with me when I moved from a single room in a cooperative to my own apartment.  But the question remained – how much did we really need any of it if it could languish peacefully behind a bright orange sheet metal door for all that time?

A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

I guess its not surprising that Neil Stephenson imagined it as living space in his dystopian near future book, Snow Crash.

Marla Cilley, in her campy but brilliant book on organizing homes and lives, Sink Reflections, advocates regularly going through your house and getting rid of things you don’t love or need.  Her “27 fling boogie” involves taking a box or bag, setting a 15 minute timer and going through your house seeking clutter and tossing it.  For the faint of heart you can put the box in your car or garage for a week or two and see if you miss anything.  But the point is to purge and cleanse.  I feel like some people could easily “fling” an entire closet , basement or storage unit.

What does all of this have to do with sustainable building?  Everything.  In conversations with new design clients I always ell them that the easiest way to cut the cost of their future home is to cut the square-footage.  When we plan to build or to renovate, its so easy to feel that we don’t have enough room or worry that we’ll want more in the future and design more space “just in case”.  But I think the better answer is to be happy with less.  Americans could “fling” entire rooms and wings of our houses.  Small is beautiful and … its easier and more relaxing too.

This is the post was originally written for Digging in the Driftless in September 2009.  I was reminded of it when I started thinking about tent living again earlier this week so I’m re-posting it here on Dwelling Places.

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3 responses to “Stuff and Nonsense

  1. As one of your clients who sincerely wants to build small, save money for more important issues and enjoy a simpler life — I can attest to how hard it is to get rid of all this sticky stuff!
    Thanks for all your gentle help in that direction!

  2. Ironically, as I read this, the song Society – Eddie Vedder
    We were displaced for two months after the earthquake… living out of “must have” baggage as our STUFF was in 2 different garages… I often think of the value we place on stuff and things.

    • Shana, I know what you mean about re-arranging our value system. In turbulent times we get shaken out of our assumptions about what we “need” but when life slows down again we tend to go right back to accumulating more. Travel is great way to embrace the inner minimalist but that’s a voluntary choice. For you all, the New Zealand quake forced it on you without so much as a by your leave. It sounds like you haven’t yet returned to your “normal” relationship to stuff yet.
      Btw, its fabulous to hear from you. Hope all is well!

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