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The tale of one woman's radically simplified 'built-it-myself' life

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Dee Williams.

Williams' memoir, released to coincide with Earth Day. Click an image to go to a slideshow.

Ask for a tour of Dee Williams's house, and it won't take long. The 84-square-foot space is no bigger than a parking spot.

There's no running water, no Wi-Fi, the fridge is a cooler, and the toilet is compostable. Williams knows how extreme this sounds. Before she downsized, she used to worry about the mortgage on her three-bedroom home, how to outfit her kitchen with matching appliances, and the endless string of home repairs.

But in 2003, after suffering congestive heart failure in her early 40s, Williams decided to simplify. She shed most of her belongings and sold her home in Portland, Oregon.

Now 51, she moved into the miniature house in Olympia, Washington, 10 years ago. Williams describes the self-built home on wheels in her memoir -- "The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir," being released today to coincide with Earth Day -- as "a mobile gingerbread house, or a cuckoo clock on wheels." She spends her workdays teaching others how to build their own tiny houses through her company, Portland Alternative Dwellings, and also works at the Washington State Department of Ecology in Olympia.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Williams estimates that there are hundreds of tiny houses around the country. She notes that since she built hers in 2004, "interest in building tiny houses, particularly from the DIY market, seems to have redoubled every year." She adds that workshops that once drew a couple of people are now routinely sold out.

By the way: They don't have to forgo running water, Wi-Fi, and flush toilets. "But I don't regret my own choices," Williams told Yahoo Homes.

The gingerbread house on wheels sits in the backyard of her neighbor (who is very generous with her shower, as are other friends; more on that below). There's a kitchen with a sink, pots and pans, a water jug, and a one-burner stove. Most of the space is taken up by what Williams calls the great room, a living area that's about the "size of an elevator" but feels bigger due to 11.5-feet-high ceilings and plenty of light.

Then there's Oly, her 30-pound Australian shepherd: The pooch gets a lift up the 7-foot ladder to Williams's lofted full-size bed at night. A skylight provides a view of the clouds, the moon, and, often, the rain. (It is Olympia, Washington, after all.) Being more connected to the outdoors was an unexpected perk, Williams noted.

"If you're living in a house with a roof that's 5 feet, 4 feet over your head, you're going to hear it when the rain comes in," said Williams. "Nature is in your face a little bit differently. I didn't realize what I was missing before I moved into the smaller space."

After an initial home-building investment of about $10,000, Williams these days keeps warm using a propane heater for about $8 a month. It's her only home bill. Her power comes from solar panels. The frugality and low maintenance are a huge benefit of living small.

She does miss having her own shower, though.

"It feels inconvenient. It never felt horrible," she said. She has plenty of bathing options thanks to generous friends and neighbors, who all gave her the keys to their houses. "My possessions have grown exponentially small. Except for my keychain. I have this massive keychain."

When nature calls, there's the compost toilet that works without water. After use, the waste is covered with sawdust. Williams admits to taking advantage of shower facilities at her Department of Ecology office, too.

In fact, Williams has found that the smaller the house, the more she depends on the people around her, and neighborhood necessities like the local market and the public library. "I thought I would be so contained in this little house with no running water," she said. "The big surprise, of course, is the smaller you go, the more you absolutely have to lean into your community. It gets smaller and bigger. It gets to be this big, tiny thing, you know?"

Here she is talking about her choices:

Follow Claudine Zap on Twitter (@zapkidd).

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