The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
I recently interviewed a candidate for a job. We discussed a common interview topic: What is a typical day like at your job? Any time I’ve either asked or answered that question, the answer has been some variation on “it depends.” Which I think is a good thing; most truly interesting jobs are varied, and can’t be described with a succinct recitation of a daily schedule.
The same question applies to the house: What do I typically do at home? Now that we’re getting more specific with the design, I have to get serious about understanding what I need in significant detail. Like work, it certainly varies day to day, but if I zoom out far enough, patterns become recognizable.
This week involved a lot of paperwork in my life – 401(k) paperwork, health insurance paperwork, and tax forms starting to pile up. So naturally I started thinking about desk space. The plan is for it to be built in with the living room bookshelves and cabinets. Hence the need to determine how big I want it during this design phase.
Like most of this project, it has turned into a larger question about life. What am I actually going to do there? What do I want to do there? Various candidates include bill paying and related tasks; work for my paying job that I do at home occasionally (and which needs a computer monitor); work that’s not for my paying work but is related, like pro bono legal projects or working on academic articles; work I do for this site; and my own creative writing, which I do sometimes in longhand, sometimes on a typewriter, and sometimes on my laptop.
Of course, I’m working on my laptop now as I write this, from my couch with dogs snuggled up on my feet. So certainly not all “work” needs to be done at a desk. I have fond memories of working at a kitchen counter in a previous house, or taking over the dining table, or even working outdoors. But still, this space needs to accommodate all these different tasks that make up various parts of myself, and given my commitment to keeping the house compact, I really want one space that can at least theoretically accommodate all of them. My various kinds of work need a home base.
These are the things an Amy-desk will be for. Some people want space for a sewing machine, or only need a landing spot for paying bills. Some people work from home full time and need a large dedicated office space. I need a space that accommodates law, literature, and the mundane tasks of running my own household, but fits in the compact footprint I have in mind. I need organization, cleanliness without starkness. I need a space for creativity that still leaves room for regimented thought, for meticulous detail.
This particular area of the house has worried me fairly consistently, perhaps because right now I have a wholly inadequate desk setup but no real space (nor, at this point, desire) to set up a better one here. My desk is very small, too small, and I have very limited storage, so it has a pile on it that takes up a great deal of the space. When I have my computer monitor and keyboard set up, there’s no room to spread out full-sized books and papers. The desk is a little too low, and the nice desk chair I was lucky enough to get from my parents when they downsized doesn’t fit under it well. Along with the lack of kitchen counter space, it’s one of the few things truly lacking from my current setup. So when I think about my dream house, it’s something I really want to get right.
Mix that with general anxiety about the balance of activities in my life (Will I ever have the time and mental space to write fiction again? Shouldn’t I really be doing more academic publishing to keep the option of a return to legal academia sometime down the road alive?) and I find this question troubles me, more than the kitchen or the bathroom or the dressing room. It really goes to who I am and what I do with my time, and it’s hard to reduce that to a set of dimensions.
Matthew suggested I take over my dining table and spread out my “laptop / papers / tea/ whiskey” to see how much space I need. Ah, the joys of working with someone who knows me well. (He told me I could wait until that evening if I needed to, to test the whiskey theory.) It turned out to be smaller than I might have thought, in terms of work space; as long as I have good storage, so that the workspace isn’t taken up by things I’m not using, the surface itself doesn’t need to be much more than three feet wide. And that still leaves room for the whiskey.
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.