Small house is good fit for Island couple

🕔May 28, 2007

“This is what luxury looks like,” says artist Vernal Bogren Swift, from the second floor of her 310 square-foot dream home.

Perched on a slope above the harbour, she has a view toward forests, mountains and the ocean inlet, but just as important is the access she has to the comings and goings of Queen Charlotte, the “sweet as a story” village where she and husband Eric Bogren have chosen to build their tiny—but comfortable—home.

They call their spare living space the Treehouse. The structure doesn’t sit in a tree, but it is as tall as one, and Eric had to climb a Douglas Fir on the property to get a sense of the view they would have once the clearing and construction was done.

It started with an idea, says Vernal, whose batiks and paintings often explore interaction of landscape and memory, be it human or other (geological, chemical, spiritual). Vernal and Eric have been to a lot of places—Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Nass Valley—and have seen a lot of things. Somewhere along the way, she decided all life’s needs could be met in a 12 × 12-foot space, and her Queen Charlotte home embodies that concept. She admits the size of the room was arbitrary, but the concept of living small was not.

“It’s a luxury to have shelter,” she says looking up at the locally-milled cedar beams in her Haida Gwaii treehouse. “And to have it so pretty.”

Their home boasts a common living area (upstairs), Vernal’s studio (downstairs) and a 50-square-foot bathhouse. The kitchen includes all the modern conveniences: sink, stove-top, oven and bar-sized refrigerator. The bed is a fold-up piece of foam that forms a couch during the day and is laid on the floor at night. The couple’s closets are outside on the wraparound veranda under a wide overhanging roof.

The bathhouse includes toilet, sink, laundry and shower in one tiny space. The water drains through the floor and with nothing separating the shower from the other facilities, Vernal says bathing presents an opportunity to clean everything else in the room too. Eric operates a little differently: he uses a crouch-and-douse method of bathing that keeps all but himself unsplashed.

And that is the way it has worked for this couple, who have been through 43 years of marriage—many of them raising two children in an old hand-hewn barn on a dead-end road in the backwoods of Minnesota. They each have their own take on how to get things done, but each respects the others convictions. How else could they so easily glide through the series of compromises and philosophical explorations that brought them to this tiny home? She wanted the vibrancy of living in a town, and he wanted to live with less.

A nurse by trade, Vernal agreed that she would work to pay for the project. Eric agreed to build it. And so began their search for the perfect community. They both agreed the population had to be less than 1,000, but must also have a church, a coffeeshop, and be by the sea.

Eric was rooting for Newfoundland, where houses in small fishing outposts, already built and furnished—including a picture of Jesus over the bed—could be bought for $30,000.
Vernal, who had been to Queen Charlotte in 1991-92 for a year’s stint as a nurse, was aiming for the Pacific Northwest.

Once they agreed on Haida Gwaii, Vernal was tasked with finding the perfect spot. At first she fancied living on the water, so they could interact directly with the sea.
She intended to buy a flat-bottomed herring punt, upon which Eric would frame up a house. But after a few conversations with fishermen, who suggested she watch what happens to the boats at the dock during a heavy wind, they decided land was a better option.

They found an overgrown and unwanted property that caught their imagination, and the building began. Eric, who in a former life was a metallurgical engineer, started with a tool shed built with lumber hewn from logs off the beach. Inspired by the shape of forest fire watchtowers and a picture in an architecture magazine, he decided to challenge himself by exploring timber-frame construction. The closest he’d come to constructing a house before was acting as a go-fer for his son, who built with standard stick frame techniques.

With timber frame, the main beams are pieced together and then, in this case, raised to the full 20-foot height. With his technical knowledge, he was confident in the strength of his structural principles, but “once it’s up, it’s up,” he says.

He liked the challenge of building the house, working on his own plumbing and wiring, and being able to incorporate some other ideas about design too. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s theories that the structural components should also be aesthetic; that buildings shouldn’t have layers that aren’t meant to be seen. That’s why his tongue-and-groove flooring on the upper floor is also the ceiling for the lower studio.

Of course, building small suited the couple’s lifestyle for practical reasons. Working to pay for a big house would have kept Vernal away from her art longer, not to mention that building big would take Eric, who was the lone carpenter on the project, a lot longer to complete.

Still, Vernal says, the choice to go with a diminutive design is also a reflection of her desires. “It’s not to show I can get by with less…it is much more positive than that,” she says.

For one thing, living in such small quarters has made her freshly aware of not taking the presence of her husband for granted, she says. She likens their living space to travelling on a train or a bus. “You have the option to live like you are on the road with your love,” she says.

As for Eric, compared to their 100-year-old barn in Minnesota, where they hauled water, used an outhouse and heated with wood only, he still thinks their use of electric heat, along with town water and sewer, mean they are living a little too large. But he, too, relishes the chance to live in a way that challenges and explores his desires. He can also spend more time exploring his surroundings, especially on the solo kayaking trips he likes to make
“We all have a need for solitude and society,” says Eric, who embodies the hermit archetype, compared to his wife’s more social role as an artist. When you live in a 12 × 12 room, the trick is being able to find quiet in the company of another, he says.

If Vernal is reading, Eric is conscious of that and doesn’t turn on the radio or make random observations about life in the village as it passes by. Vernal does the same.
And if any symptoms of cabin fever crop up, the healing air of Haida Gwaii is just outside the door.

“All you have to do is go outside and it blows the containment out,” she says.