On plumbing, meditation & healthful hearts

tassajara urinal

Urinal at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Oh, oh, oh, everything changes…
~ Eurythmics, “This Is The House”

I got my new wave, granola self through freshman year at college on that song. That and my dad’s stock advice whenever we were going through childhood trials and tribulations: “The tide comes in [said on a rising intake of breath then long pause before the exhalation]; the tide goes out.” It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but, as much as I was impatient for answers, there’s a certain comfort in the way it puts our small personal worries in perspective. It also is a reminder that everything is in constant flux. Apparently that holds true for the plumbing plans in my tiny house as well.

“Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink”

Water seems to be the governing metaphor of my life right now. Recently I wrote about letting go, based on a poem fragment by Meg Hutchinson. Her image of a river flowing from one person to another has continued to reverberate as I think about grief and empathy. Several friends are going through challenging times right now, which brings up similar experiences in my own life. As we share tears, I realize how much my earlier pain is helping me be with those currently in grief. Paradoxically, the more losses we experience, the more we have to give others. It is the river that connects us all.

At work I deal with restoring streams and fisheries, water in the literal sense. Water is so often taken for granted. Turn on the faucet, it’s there. Down it goes through the drain to who knows where, along with whatever we’ve put in it. We use fresh drinking water to flush our waste away. As clean, potable water becomes more scarce in our current and not-so-future world, costs will go up. Conservation will be driven by economic realities, if not for environmental ones.

Water Usage Infographic

Freddi, Sarah and Margrit’s kitten who actually fetches and is obsessed with toilets (those two things are not related). Credit: Margit Eichler

Tiny housers on wheels tend to think a lot about water, whether it’s from an environmental, financial or logistical perspective. There are unique challenges when you can’t predict your access to utilities with any certainty. But it also presents an opportunity to become much more aware and intentional in how we use resources, and how interconnected we really are.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?
~ Zen koan

[For a great discussion of this koan, see this post by Barry Magid of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York City. Strangely, I had just typed in the koan when AT&T cut the wire to my house, severing my internet connection. Hmmm…]

Evolution of my plumbing design (or lack thereof)

I should start off by saying that most tiny houses do indeed have plumbing. It varies by house and situation, but most have running water coming into the house and some way of collecting the greywater that runs out of the sink and shower. They have hot water heaters, either small RV tanks or on-demand units. Many have low-flow flush toilets and some even have washing machines and dryers. A lot of these systems require hook ups to utilities, particularly electrical for water heaters and W/Ds. Some tiny housers install water and waste holding tanks for off-grid living, though these don’t necessarily have to be built in.

So the fact that I’ve decided to go completely pipeless is a bit on the fringe. It’s purely a matter of personal choice. Since this may seem a little crazy to most people, the following walks through my thought process to find what felt right for me.

Dee sink

Dee’s “gravity-fed” sink. Credit: Dee Williams

In her tiny house workshops, Dee Williams (Portland Alternative Dwellings) talks about her decisions to go without plumbing. Partly striving for simplicity and partly a lack of confidence in her plumbing skills at that time, she has what she calls a “gravity-fed” sink (a ceramic urn that drains into a 5-gallon bucket beneath the sink), a compost toilet, and no shower, showering instead at work, the gym, or at friends’ houses. It’s worked for her for the last nine years. That kind of staying power made quite an impression on me.

As I started my own design process, I was quickly confronted with the big issues of getting water in and waste and water out. It’s all a bit more complicated with a tiny house that isn’t fixed to one location with known utilities. You also start to get really aware of quantities. Harking back to the infographic, 25 gallons for even a low-flow shower in a normal-sized house means getting 25 gallons in, heated and out, not to mention the associated utility costs and issues with condensation. You start to see why tiny housers tend to be conservationists.

The gravity sink was a no-brainer. I’m used to camping and compared to that, the set up seemed quite luxurious. I was also fine with the compost toilet, having researched them and used them. Where I got hung up on with Dee’s system was the lack of shower.

I do love my showers and definitely wanted one inside the house. But in addition to the complexities of getting water in and out, not to mention heating it, I was running up against two of my neuroses: my dislike of plastic and abhorrence of mold, both from potential leaks and from vapor condensation. I’m the first to admit I’m probably over the top in my health concerns on these fronts, but I’m building this house so that I can feel good about the materials I use. They’re my neuroses and my house – I can cry if I want to…

A solution presented itself when I read Laura LaVoie’s post on the shower system they rigged in their tiny house, involving attaching a shower head with a pause button to a hand-pump garden sprayer to pressurize the water. I decided I should make one for myself to test it out before committing to no plumbing.

On the very day I was going to go purchase the materials, I came across Mariah’s post on shower options at her Comet Camper site. She had located a small boating supply business that had contracted with the maker of the garden sprayer to make the same kind of shower. It was about the same cost of doing it yourself, plus it came in all black so you can fill it and leave it in the sun to heat up on warm days. So I promptly ordered it.

I admit I was dubious. As I was assembling it, I was worried that my landlady would come in and call Homeland Security. But lo and behold, it worked. It’s not super powerful but definitely provides a decent shower, and best yet, it only took to two gallons to both shower and wash my hair with pauses to lather (and a couple additional pumpings). And hardly any water vapor.

pump shower

“Take me to your leader.”

So I thought I had my solution. My fear of leaks and mold overcame my misgivings about having a large quantity of plastic in my house, so I decided to go with a one-piece stall that drained out into a bucket or rolling waste tank beneath the house. I figured I could heat up a kettle of water, add the right balance of cold to the sprayer, and then every couple showers I would empty the bucket. Not high end, but serviceable and pretty self-sufficient.

Since I was testing this over the winter, I did learn quickly that I was reluctant to use the sprayer if the bathroom was cold. To address this, I added an Envi heater to my design, specifically for heating up the bathroom.

[musical interlude while time passes, all cocky and confident in my decision…cue up the Eurythmics song]

I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing when I went up to Portland in April. I needed to buy the stall since the exact specs were going to greatly affect the rest of my design. I did a bit of online research but was oddly reluctant to actually go to the stores. Dee gently suggested going with metal walls but I was determined to have a seamless stall.

Not long after that, still stall-less and back in the Bay Area, I had the good fortune to visit two tiny houses, both beautiful designs and exquisitely crafted. And though both have running water into the kitchen sink, neither have indoor showers.

Colin has been living in his place since last fall and kindly spent several hours with me answering my multitude of questions and explaining his building process. He’s rigged an outdoor shower on the back of his house.

Colin's tiny house

Colin’s tiny house

Colin's outdoor shower

Colin’s outdoor shower

That same weekend I drove to northern California to visit with Tammy & Logan, who were also incredibly generous with their time and helping me think through my design decisions. Their tiny house was designed by Dee and built by Katy Anderson.

rowdykittens tiny house

Tammy & Logan’s tiny house. Credit: Tammy Strobel

They too have been living without a shower but have kept options open by putting in a shower tray beneath a removable wooden floor, with a drain to the outside. Should they decide at some point, they could convert it into a shower.

rowdykittens bathroom

Tammy & Logan’s bathroom. Credit: Tammy Strobel

Seeing their set up made me hark back to Gina’s tiny house, also designed and built by PAD. I realized my reluctance to buying the stall was I just didn’t want a big hunk of fiberglass in my wooden tiny house. I tried to research whether there were any issues regarding off-gassing of shower stalls but wasn’t able to find anything conclusive. I probably would have just sucked it up but when I started really looking into the sizes that would fit my restricted space, I realized it was going to be hard to get a one-piece unit. If I was going to have a seam between the tray and the stall, I might as well go with the metal walls.

Gina's shower and bath with custom metal walls

Gina’s shower and bath with custom metal walls

Again I thought I was set until I switched to designing in SketchUp. One benefit of working in 3D is it became immediately clear that the rail that forms the tongue of my trailer runs right under the shower drain, completely blocking it. I was super glad I discovered this before I was deep in construction!

There are some work-arounds. Some trays have drains located off center, but I was bumping into more limitations regarding the overall size. I could also go the route of the washtub or wine barrel approaches, but these didn’t speak to me. I wasn’t even dealing with plumbing and still I felt like I was banging my head against the stall.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center & Hot Springs

It was with thoughts of rivers, tides, tears, and plumbing that I set off for a few days in Tassajara. A friend and I have been going for most of the last twenty years. We look forward to it all year.

The sketchy dirt road down to Tassajara. It takes over an hour to go 14 miles, assuming your brakes don’t give out!

Tassajara is a Zen Buddhist monastery located deep in a rugged canyon in the Santa Lucia Mountains in central California. During the summer, they open it up as a guest retreat. It’s a curious combination of luxury and simplicity, with gourmet vegetarian meals but no electricity. There are a variety of accommodations. We always stay in the Japanese-style tatami cabins. They are very simple, with just a sink and a toilet. You shower about a quarter mile upstream at the baths, which pipe in hot water from the natural hot springs.

I’m admittedly a total Zen dilettante. I don’t formally meditate or practice, but go there to rejuvenate in the baths and setting. The bells, gongs and chants of the monks, accompanied by the babble of the stream, the wind in the trees, and the descending trill of the canyon wren, is immensely soothing. For three days I did nothing but soak, sleep and eat, my body going all rubbery and my mind stilling. It’s just so beautiful there.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.
It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
tassajara baths

Tassajara baths. Credit: Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (Facebook page)

The wabi-sabi aesthetic

A large part of what I love about Tassajara is the architectural style. It’s a lovely blend of rustic California Arts & Crafts with the simplicity of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. Great use is made of stone, wood and metal, highlighting their natural features and tying in to the surrounding environment. Wikipedia has this to say:

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes… In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.”

Wabi-sabi lends itself well to tiny houses. Andrea Tremols wrote this nice piece about wabi-sabi in her tiny house, particularly in how they incorporated salvaged materials. Wabi-sabi is meant to remind us of the beauty of imperfection and continual change in nature.

tassajara wc

Unisex toilet outside baths at Tassajara. It was built recently after the wildfires, which stopped right at the edge of Tassajara a few years ago, destroyed the last one.

urinal shelf

Close up of rough-hewn shelf above the urinal. Very wabi-sabi. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a remnant from the previous structure.

I returned from Tassajara with shriveled fingers, a sunburn, and an unusual peace of mind. While away, I realized that what I really wanted was to create a small, water- and energy-efficient version of the Tassajara baths, complete with all their wabi-sabi-ness. It will depend upon where I end up, but I could create a simple or elaborate bathhouse, perhaps even on its own trailer, that could be located near utilities. Or maybe it’s just an outdoor shower. This would free up my tiny house to be anywhere on a property. It’s counterintuitive, but I would feel much better about having actual plumbing if it wasn’t in my living space (and I can always use my pump sprayer to wash dishes!)

This requires trust that I will find a location where this will work, which makes me nervous. But I think that’s the lesson in here: being open to the unknown. And it will probably work out just fine.

So with that I held my breath, gripped the mouse, and turned my shower into a closet. An enormous wave of relief washed over me. Guess Dee had the right idea all along. 😉

Carrying water

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water;
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
~ Zen saying

carrying water

Gathering water last summer at Loon Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Returning to whence we started, I have a few last random thoughts that somehow all seem related, and seem a fitting way to wrap this up:

— The first time I heard the phrase “chop wood, carry water”, and my first introduction to Zen Buddhism, was reading Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and later works) when I was young. Her detailed observations of nature and tying what she saw to a larger discussion of our place in the world was one of my biggest early influences, rippling out to today.

— GiraDora is a human-powered washer and spin dryer that is being developed to alleviate health issues associated with carrying water and manually washing clothes, and to help break the cycle of poverty in third world countries. They’ve won numerous awards for their project. More information can be found here and on their Facebook page.

— At Tassajara, we shared of a couple of meals with Dr. César Molina, a cardiologist  and the Medical Director of the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California. He has developed a four-pronged approach to prevent and successfully manage heart disease among men and women of South Asian descent. A link to one of his presentations discussing the scientific basis for using transcendental meditation in the treatment of heart disease can be found here.

— Some of the physiological benefits of random acts of kindness and giving:

  • Increased immune system
  • Improved cognitive performance
  • Increase in energy
  • Lower heart rate
  • Balanced cortisol levels, resulting in less internal stress
  • More likely to live a longer and more satisfied life
  • Laughter and inner joy resulting in decreased stress hormones; lower blood pressure; diminished pain.

— From the Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley:

A 1999 study led by Doug Oman of the University of California, Berkeley, found that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits like smoking.

Giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone (also released during sex and breast feeding) that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.


To be yourself, Grasshopper, feel the heartbeats of others above your own.
~ Master Po, original Kung-Fu television series


And one last thing ~

Now that I’ve softened you up with big thoughts on the meaning of life, a Kung-Fu quote and a cute kitten picture, I’d like to remind you about the fundraising campaign to rebuild Kim Langston’s tiny house that was destroyed in a fire. I haven’t met Kim but have been very moved by both her tragedy and her determination to rebuild.

So please take a moment to chip in a buck (or more) & help spread the word. You’ll feel great afterwards! 🙂

tiny house big heart

Click to learn more about how you can help…

Categories: design, PAD, tangents, thoughts on tiny | Tags: , , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “On plumbing, meditation & healthful hearts

  1. Thanks for your link, Kate to one of my articles. I posted a reply, but here it is in case you miss it. Love your Tiny House blog! Our students have been learning to build tiny houses too. You may enjoy seeing this article http://wp.me/pD0BA-7wj and TV news report http://wp.me/pD0BA-7vX on the last course. Heather Caldwell http://tinyhouselivingorg.blogspot.com/ who’s going to live in it with her 2 kids, 4 cats and a dog for a year would love to discover what you’re sharing. Here’s an article on the first course http://bit.ly/153RLVy.

    • That’s excellent, Ken! Thanks for letting me know – I’ll have to check them out. I love all of these intersecting circles!

      • Yes, it’s a small world, and getting smaller–a global village, with some living in tiny houses!

  2. Joan G

    Kaaaate, not only have your given me a good justification for drinking beer in place of milk (15,000 gallons of water saved)—but you school me every time you post.
    (Schooled in the good sense of the word).
    Thanks for sharing your journey. Yer awesome.

    • Ha – I wondered who was going to pick up on the beer recommendation! 🙂 Thanks for the sweet comment – really appreciate it. ~ K

    • And, by the way, just about everything I know about greywater I learned from you at the PAD workshop – so thank YOU!!

  3. Kate,
    I love yer blog so much! Thank you for sharing your process! Though i do have plumbing in my tiny house I also felt a sense of relief once i took the bathroom out of my house design. I love experiencing your inner conversation as you try to untangle what you want from what you need. I hope that we get to meet this summer during your build in portland.

    Cheers, jenn

  4. Thanks so much, Jenn. Definitely looking forward to talking tiny with you. I will be up there end of June and am planning on doing the Tiny House Pedalpalooza, which it sounds like you’re also doing. Will see you then if not before!

  5. paula

    Kate, I really enjoy reading about your design process. We are in the process of thinking through our tiny home as well. Thinking about what systems (electrical, plumbing, cooking, heating) is central in my mind. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on other systems. I appreciate how you are really examining each philosophically.

    I wasn’t thinking we would do without plumbing but I am starting to see how it may be a positive thing. Now could I do without electricity? I like the idea of it, but the reality is that I would like a fridge, lights, radio, and computer.

    Also in the area of cooking, I am torn between a wood stove being so natural and primal, and the fact that a propane stove is probably more practical (maybe?).

    What else have you eliminated from your design? I will look forward to hearing more as I follow your posts. Thanks for all you are sharing.

  6. Hi Paula – last night I was writing a long reply describing my system decisions and then managed to delete the whole thing before I could post it – argh! I decided that maybe it was a sign that I should do it as it’s own post. I’ll try to get something out in the next week or two. Stay tuned 🙂

    • paula


      I’m sorry to hear you lost your post, but I will look forward to reading whatever you have to say on the topic in the future. I really like hearing what your thoughts are.

  7. ET

    I’ve been living in my own tiny house and it has no plumbing for the same reasons you chose not to include it.

    When I was designing my house first I tried to fit everything into a tiny space but it ended up feeling like a closet. Once I started thinking about what I really wanted – open space, uncluttered, beautiful rather than what I thought I needed – plumbing, bed, loft, cupboards, table, chairs etc the whoel design came together really well.
    I love my house and there are only minor changes I would make if I were to do it all again.
    Good luck with your project!

    • That’s great to hear about your experience – very encouraging in terms of following your instincts (once you start listening to them!). Thank you.

  8. Meghan

    I’ve really appreciated reading about your thought process. I’ve enjoyed reading all of your posts, you write in a gentle, clear manner. I dream about our future tiny house and hope to design ‘sparefully’ when the time comes. I’ll be on the pedalpoolza tiny house ride, perhaps I’ll be brave and introduce myself!


    • Thanks, Meghan, that’s very nice to hear. Please do introduce yourself if we cross paths at pedalpalooza, though my building plans have shifted slightly and I might not make it. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions as you think through your tiny house plans. Best of luck following your dream!

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