A big idea in a tiny house.

Sarah Hastings ’15

By John Martins

Sarah Hastings ’15 is definitely no stranger to bold ideas.

These ideas have been many and varied, and they range from building a bicycle-powered blender to camping solo in England's Lake District. On most of these ideas, she’s followed through. (She’ll solo hike the Appalachian Trail sometime later.)

But none has been as big, or as purposeful, as striving to live her life as simply and consciously as possible. And that’s the idea that’s going to end up putting a roof—albeit a very tiny one— over her head.

After preparing for more than two years with course work, materials sourcing, and fundraising, Hastings is finally building her “tiny house,” a 190-square-foot wood-frame dwelling situated atop a 27-foot-long flatbed trailer. She plans to complete the house by April, and after she moves it to wherever she finds herself after graduation, she will proudly take up residence in it.

“I always had that interest to design where I’d be living,” she said. “I think you should live according to your values as much as you can. And I want to make them as apparent as I can so that I can inspire other people.

“It’s also a lot fun,” she added, “to experiment and try new things.”

Joining a movement

Trying new things seems like a mantra for Hastings, who said her interest in designing and building her own home goes way back to her childhood. It wasn’t until high school, however, when she was first turned on to environmentalism and sustainable building practices. And that was when the big idea began to take clearer shape in her mind.

She was first inspired by rustic buildings and earth houses, which are dwellings built into terrain to minimize impact to the environment and maximize energy-savings.

“I’ve always been interested in space, and I’m in love with nature,” said Hastings, who is double-majoring in architectural studies and environmental studies. “I’ve always tried to figure out how to incorporate nature into my daily environment.”

During her first-year at Mount Holyoke, Hastings discovered the tiny-house movement while reading a creative design blog. The discovery changed the course of her academic journey.

Knowing that she wanted to live simply and in close proximity to nature, Hastings seized on the tiny-house movement as a way to account for all the variables—cost, a need for mobility, etc.—while staying true to the underlying principle of living in “environmentally conscious shelter.”

She delved into whatever material she could find on the subject, and began to make designs and models— on paper, or with cereal boxes— for her own future home. She became increasingly invested in turning the idea into a reality, and decided to integrate it fully with her course work.

Architecting an academic experience

“I figured I could incorporate it into some of my academic studies,” she said. “As I was discussing it with my professors, they encouraged me to do it while I was in school, so I started to do that.”

Hastings navigated through course offerings at both Mount Holyoke and other Five College institutions with a specific sense of purpose and direction. She selected academic experiences to dovetail with her design and building project, extracting as much instruction and practical application as she could.

She took a regenerative design class at Mount Holyoke, where she acquired a strong proficiency in the underlying principles of green architecture. At the material-culture class she took at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Hastings used a piece of antique furniture she purchased for her tiny house — a Hoosier cabinet acquired from a store in upstate New York — as a case study.

She even put the Hampshire College course Redesigning the Toilet to perhaps a greater use than most other students. After studying historical methods of sewage disposal and analyzing the shortcomings of modern-day systems, Hastings designed a composting toilet that she will install in her own eight-foot-wide house.

“I’ve had classes at every college in the valley,” she said. “I went into most of these classes looking to expand my knowledge about micro-housing and mobile homes. The resources here have been extremely valuable.”

Hastings is writing her senior thesis on her tiny-house project, but the focus is not solely on the design and construction. It also includes a theoretical component, which uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to track the origin of the materials she is using for the construction, all of which— whether they are new, salvaged, or upcycled— come from within a 200-mile radius of the building site.

The home stretch

This semester, Hastings is taking a break from course work while she writes her thesis and works on her internship with a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Science Technology Studies program, for whom she is using GIS to map the sourcing of materials used in the construction of Gothic cathedrals.

When she’s not writing or researching, Hastings is putting some sweat equity into the house itself.

She just recently finished working with Royalston, Massachusetts-based carpenter Tom Musco, who carved from salvaged wood the trusses that support the roof of her home. Hastings is also hoping to install more windows—sourced locally, of course—before winter arrives.

For that, she’s counting on help from her father, who drives to South Hadley almost every weekend to help her.

“My hands have gotten very calloused over the last two months,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to lift a single piece of plywood on my own, but I’m there every second. I won’t let him take over.”

She’s also trying to keep the project on time and within budget. While Hastings initially set a budget of about $8,000, she’s estimating it will end up costing her between $12,000 and $14,000.

She also continues to reach out to local businesses in her search for materials and resources. Those connections, she said, are an integral part of the learning process for her.

“As much as I learned through Mount Holyoke and my own independent studying, there are things you can only get from other people,” she said. “That’s how the real world works. That’s how you learn things.”

Building support

And while Hastings’ tiny-house project has been mostly self-directed, she said she couldn’t have made the progress she has without a great deal of support— from her family and other tiny-house pioneers around the country, as well as from the faculty she’s encountered during her time at Mount Holyoke.

She pointed to the help she received from her MHC advisors, which include geology professor Al Werner, art professor Michael Davis, and environmental studies professor Tim Farnham.

Werner, who first met Hastings as a first-year student, said that her fearlessness, intellectual curiosity, and can-do attitude are what have propelled her development at Mount Holyoke.

“She’s not afraid to do or try anything,” Werner said. “Sarah is one of the most responsible and self-initiating students that I’ve worked with. She really came to Mount Holyoke with a blank slate, and she has evolved as a student and blossomed as an academic.

“I’m really going to enjoy watching her life unfold, because I think it’s going to be good,” he added. “It’s going to be interesting.”

Hastings said she is also grateful for the many co-curricular experiences she received through Mount Holyoke that contributed, in one way or another, to the completion of her project.

She pointed to the Five College Digital Humanities Initiative fellowship she received that enabled her to make the interactive material maps associated with her tiny-house project. She also received funding for a number of related experiences, including a stipend from the art history department to travel to Olympia, Washington, to meet with Zyl Vardos, Hastings’ favorite tiny-house builder.

“I don’t know where else I could do this,” she added. “The resources here are incredible. There is a freedom to create your own education, and while there are requirements here, you can meld and shape it the way you want.”

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