By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


When I got divorced in 2014, I ended up with a somewhat reduced set of possessions. Specifically, books. The walls of books that had graced the houses I’d shared with my husband went largely to him; I took a couple of boxes of true favorites and books I knew I would want to look at again, but mostly, if he wanted something, I let it go. There’s something freeing about taking only the most important pieces, about knowing that the new version of my collection will reflect an older, more experienced, more educated self. I was moving to a smaller house; I was traveling over a thousand miles; and the man I was moving away from cared more about most of these book-as-object items than I did. I wasn’t worried; I knew it wouldn’t take long for the collection to regenerate itself. Books have a way of appearing. I have nothing to do with it, I swear. 

And so I came here, from 2,500 square feet to 700, from walls and walls of built-in shelves to almost nothing. Matthew came for a visit shortly after I arrived (long before there was any discussion of building a house) and, with his contagious enthusiasm for IKEA, it wasn’t long before we were driving north, Matthew putting together the plan while I drove the 100 miles from Tucson to Tempe. We were in and out of that IKEA in about 20 minutes, and by the time the friends I’d invited over for homemade pizza showed up at 6:00 that evening, my living room had been transformed. I had shelves! More than enough shelves! Not only that, but Matthew, never one to do the minimum, had painted the back of the shelves turquoise, so it peeks out in the empty spaces.

Perhaps predictably, it wasn’t long before not only had I filled up all the new shelf space with books and records, but I had overflowed it. Books were stacked on top of the rows. There was an increasingly precarious pile in the corner. Books collected on top of the piano, and beside my bed.

Last weekend was a bit of a tipping point. The trip to L.A. yielded quite a haul of records and books (I mean, this bookstore! It had two whole shelves of Faulkner, with volumes of criticism and letters and writings I had never been able to find! I was helpless!) Rather than let Tom Petty and William Faulkner get crammed in somewhere they shouldn’t really fit, I decided I needed to do something about media storage. The idea that I might wait to do much more book- or record-buying until I had more space might sound wise, but I know I could never do it. I’d last two or three weeks at best before some irresistible volume would insist on coming home with me.

The solution to my media storage crisis was not more space. Or more shelves. Instead, I did what Matthew and I have been doing in the design of the new house: looked for the space I needed somewhere in the house where it was being underused. I had a shelving unit in the closet in my kitchen (don’t get me started on why there is a closet in the kitchen) that held a random assortment of things—cookbooks, the box where I keep all my napkins and placemats, some bike gear, a box of electronic components and adapters and such that have not become fully useless yet—and the living room had a three-tier bookshelf. The kitchen shelving unit, though, was an Expedit from IKEA (RIP Expedit, although I hear its replacement, Kallax, is not so bad) , one of those things with with the 13-inch square openings. The Expedit holds records perfectly, wasting very little space. The bookshelf had a flat top and I had a set of bookends lying around. A little switcheroo, and I had an equally functional storage setup in the kitchen closet, but a much more efficient use of space in the living room, making room for… MORE BOOKS!


Although I’ve always been the kind of person who becomes suddenly possessed by the need to rearrange the furniture at inconvenient times, in this particular fit of organization, I realized that I have learned something. My reaction in the past would surely have been to go buy a different shelving unit for my living room. Or possibly to put a bunch of the lesser-used books in boxes and beg a few feet of storage space from my folks. With what I’ve learned through this design process, it seemed, all along, eminently possible and desirable to find the space in what I already had.

We haven’t broken ground. We haven’t even completed the plans. But already I’m living a slightly different life. The house project has subtly changed my thinking and my perceptions. Even if the whole process were to come to a halt now (but it isn’t! It won’t!) I will already have changed how and where I live. That makes all those difference on those days where the road ahead looks steep and the distance to the next weekend with any legitimate free time is unfathomable. The benefits are already drifting gently down, settling into the life I already have.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.