Stuff (nonsense)

September 9, 2009

This is the post I wrote for Digging in the Driftless this morning.  I liked thinking about this topic so much that I wanted to put here as well.

Stuff … we all have it.  I’m as guilty as the next person of accumulating questionably necessary possessions.  I was reminded of that only this morning when I ventured down to the basement of my apartment building to get my tent out of the storage area.  In a 20 by 20, one bedroom apartment I have three closets liberally stuffed with … stuff.  I don’t use it on a daily or even weekly basis.  My 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.  But there is also a broken lamp, two printers I don’t use, a shelving unit I should give away, and a pile I’m unsure about.

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 not much else.  I 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 along the way the most important 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.

I’m not alone in this; I know it is an issue that 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 this week about the self storage phenomenon in the United States.

ustore it

via refractionless on flickr

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 easy to do – when my parents moved to Madison from the Chicago area we rented a storage unit to help with the transfer.  We also used it to house much of our “extra stuff” so that 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 – 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.

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.  I regularly tell design clients 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 and design more.  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.

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