Scaling Down: an artist’s vision for sustainable living

As rents rise in major cities around the world, alternative lifestyles become increasingly tempting. For many, the solution lies in the tiny house movement. Fed up with ridiculous rents and bolstered by a devil-may-care attitude, artist Isabelle Tellié challenged herself to build her own tiny house in just one month. She was a novice in construction but was undeterred, driven by her desire to find something more meaningful in the space she was creating: liberty.

Words

Erika Clugston

Photos

Soheil Moradianboroujeni

Freedom is a vague concept, a modern-day cliché, constructed and repurposed to fit multiple agendas. It slips easily through our fingers when we try to shape it to our liking. And yet we seek it out, idealising a version with crisp air and the wide-open spaces of the Wild West, disconnected from the concerns of today’s complex world. Of course, freedom today is not the kind found in a cowboy’s dream, but perhaps there’s a way to create a space where meaningful expression and joie de vivre can flourish.

Isabelle Tellié, artist and adventurer, is daring us to do just that. ‘I’m building my own freedom and everyone can do it,’ she smiles, a wide-brimmed hat shading her eyes, crowning her a modern cowgirl. She’s quick to laugh and speaks passionately about her vision with a soft, lilting accent: Isabelle was born in Germany and is half-French. We’re sitting at a wooden picnic table along the Spree at the artist collective, KAOS. Isabelle squeezes fresh lemon into our water as we discuss her audacious plan to build a tiny house in a month. A ‘tiny house’ is generally defined as a free-standing residential structure that is less than 46 square metres, and tends to be built with concepts of sustainability, community, and anti-consumerism in mind.

Okay, so it’s taken Isabelle longer than a month. She’s building a house, after all. ‘No, I was so naive to think, “Okay yeah, for sure, in one month you can make your own house,”’ she laughs. But the challenge is part of the process for Isabelle. ‘I pushed myself because I really wanted to have this struggle and I really wanted to know if I’m able to do it on my own.’

Isabelle’s background in the arts and her desire for independence led to this unusual project. After graduating in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design from the Artez Institute of Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands, Isabelle found herself disenchanted with the reality of the industry. So she made her way to Berlin, like so many artists before her. ‘I found [KAOS], this amazing place, and I had the feeling that I really wanted to get out of fashion and just try new things.’ Surrounded and inspired by artists at the KAOS collective, Isabelle began experimenting with various types of materials and techniques, and was particularly drawn to creating large sculptures out of steel. ‘I was really inspired by metal,’ she says, excitedly, ‘because you can draw in the air, you know? There is no gravity.’

‘The size of the space is not really important. It should be a place where your mind can also rest.’

While she found freedom in her new artistic practice, Isabelle did not yet feel at ease in her day-to-day life. ‘As an artist, it’s quite hard at the beginning to get along with your living,’ she explains. ‘I had a really low income and I didn’t need much money but I wanted to be free from all that I didn’t want to always be focused on money.’ This is a struggle that is a reality for most millennials: putting a huge portion of each month’s income towards a place to live. ‘Even though I had a nice apartment, I was never actually there. I was spending €400 every month and then only sleeping there. And then I realised, “Fucking hell! Why should I do this? Why should I spend so much money and then in the end, I don’t even use it?”’

With encouragement from friends, Isabelle decided to build her own tiny house and free herself from rent. ‘My naivete just brought me to that step where I said, “Okay, yeah for sure! Everyone says that it’s possible to do, why should I not try it?’” And so she got started.

Isabelle had experience in sculptural metal work, but building a house is something else, so she utilised any resources she could find. ‘YouTube was a big inspiration a way for me to learn all these things,’ she says. ‘How to install your electricity, for example.’

This hands-on discovery of how things work, and the do-it-yourself mantra, is part of Isabelle’s definition of freedom. ‘I really wanted to get back to the roots to know where all these things come from, and to know that when I want it to be warm I have to make my own fire.’ She sees it as a path to self-sufficiency. ‘You’re paying for your electricity, you’re paying for your water, and then you are paying for some extra additional stuff and you don’t really know what you are paying for. It’s not transparent. I really wanted this romantic feeling again that I need to care about all these essential things that we consider normal. So I really wanted to get back to this origin.’

‘I think my house should be like a tabula rasa. Then I can work on these things that are weaving in my head, so I think it should be a calm place as well.’

This thirst for knowledge is not only essential to self-sufficiency but also to sustainability, which is a deep concern for Isabelle, and an important part of the tiny house movement. ‘For me, it was really important to only use natural fibres to build it,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to put plastic in it or things that are chemical.’ Isabelle picked insulation made of wood fibres, using an old method for insulating buildings that is more eco-friendly and prevents mould. So while most renters will have no idea what materials have been used in their walls or what’s under the floorboards, Isabelle has knowledgebly selected each material, every step of the way.

Another exciting element of the tiny house is its mobility. Isabelle’s house currently sits on a trailer at KAOS, and it can be driven by a normal car, and potentially parked anywhere. But Isabelle has taken mobility a step further. She explains that with her knowledge in metalwork, she constructed the frame of the house out of steel, so that it can be lifted off the trailer with a crane and placed onto anything, such as a boat or pontoon. This versatility is key to Isabelle’s vision of cutting ties with traditional living.

In reality, however, Isabelle can’t simply place the house anywhere. Whether on a boat or trailer, many places in Berlin will charge for the location itself. Because Isabelle is a member of KAOS, she pays a monthly fee that also entitles her to keep and build her house on their property. When the house is finished, she plans to move it to an artist community in an industrial area of Berlin.

Three months into the construction, the house still lacks running water and electricity, but for Isabelle, who currently has access to basic amenities at KAOS, it’s liveable. A large, red, tapestry-like rug covers the main living space, with a record player and books adorning a small trunk. It’s surprisingly spacious, approximately 20 sq metres in total, Isabelle says, and could easily accommodate small dinner parties or gatherings. A queen-size mattress fits in the loft area above, and the bare layout for a kitchen and bathroom are a few steps below the main living space. The house is approximately 3.9 metres high about as high as is allowed due to legal requirements for tiny houses in Germany and 6 metres long by 2.5 metres wide.

Isabelle was fortunate to find sponsors for the insulation, paint, and other materials by pitching her project to them directly, but this is not a cheap endeavour. In order to build a durable and sustainable house, she tells us, one would need to invest around €20,000 in the project. This hefty sum takes into account the gear, solar batteries, or other materials one might need for construction, but it’s fair to assume that most of us don’t have that amount of money at our disposal. For Isabelle, backed by her sponsors Gutex, Keim, and Pro Clima, building a tiny house was feasible.

‘It feels as if you are throwing the rent money out of your window, and getting nothing back.’

A better question might be, is it worth it? ‘I was calculating: when I’m paying €400 a month for rent, I need four years to get it all financed for the house,’ Isabelle explains. ‘I’ve been living in Berlin for three years, so by now I could have done it easily. It feels as if you are throwing the rent money out of your window, and getting nothing back.’

Isabelle has chosen to pursue only what she feels is essential to live well. But as an artist, what is essential for creativity? ‘I think this idea, to live this alternative life and just to get back to your roots and to these essential things, I think these are really ways of questioning your normal life and your system and everything around you,’ she reflects. As an artist, Isabelle feels that the sense of displacement she is now experiencing is inspiring. ‘I’m feeling really light, and in between where do I belong?’

The environment of the tiny house is certainly conducive to creativity. ‘The size of the space is not really important but it should be a place where your mind can also rest,’ Isabelle suggests, in reference to her previous habit of collecting odd items she found across Berlin that cluttered up her old apartment. For some, a house filled with knick-knacks is a source of inspiration, but Isabelle has realised that she needs a space for her thoughts to settle. ‘I think my house should be like a tabula rasa. Then I can work on these things that are weaving in my head, so I think it should be a calm place as well.’

The tiny house movement has inspired many people with thoughts of grand adventures. For Isabelle, building her own home proves that you can live the life you envision for yourself. ‘That’s what I want to show people I want to give them this little kick that really changes their life, maybe. Because I know that a lot of people have these things in mind and they really dream about that, you know? But they never dare, and it’s really a thing about daring.’

However, taking such a risk comes with a warning: ‘I think it’s really important to say that it’s really not easy to do it. You should really take it seriously.’ And perhaps it’s best to avoid taking it on as a solo project, Isabelle adds, laughing, ‘because alone it was such a pain in the ass.’ She stresses that without the skills and assistance of Martin Löli and other friends she would never have been able to build her own home.

With this in mind, Isabelle plans to take all the knowledge she has acquired and pass it on to others who are ready to build their own tiny house. She is planning to teach classes and create what she calls a ‘Tiny House Lab’ alongside Martin to help others begin their own construction journey, because the first steps toward a solid foundation are crucial. 

Isabelle has yet to finish her house, but when she does, she already has plans for another project she calls Tiny House Sessions. ‘I will make a monthly event and invite artists to make little music concerts and jam sessions in it,’ she explains, animated by visions of people gathered in her garden in the summer, or snuggled around the stove in winter.

The ability to not only own your own house, but to have built it yourself and know how to fix it is a path towards independence. This independence is about ‘the financial freedom, but it’s also freedom of mobility. I can ride everywhere, I can go everywhere; I’m not fixed on one point,’ Isabelle emphasises. ‘I have the freedom that I have my own space, and I don’t need to share it with anyone. I have the freedom that I can listen to music out loud without annoying neighbours. So in all kinds of senses, it’s like I’m building my own freedom.’

We hug goodbye and Isabelle jumps on her motorcycle to head off to her next meeting. She’s a modern cowgirl, revving up for her next adventure, wherever her inspiration takes her.

Stay updated on Isabelle’s projects on her website or follow her on Instagram. You can learn more about the co-working community KAOS here.