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Small spaces

Bigger is far from better for proponent of microarchitecture

Derek “Deek’’ Diedricksen and some of the small living spaces he has created. To him, super-sized living quarters just don’t make sense. Derek “Deek’’ Diedricksen and some of the small living spaces he has created. To him, super-sized living quarters just don’t make sense. (Photos By George Rizer for The Boston Globe)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / July 7, 2011

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STOUGHTON - Once upon a time, Derek “Deek’’ Diedricksen worked as a disc jockey at Boston’s legendary FM rock station WBCN. But these days, he’s making a name for himself in a completely different realm, by designing and building tiny houses. With the release of his book and new video series on microarchitecture, his lifelong love of building small structures is fast becoming a second career.

On his website, www.Relaxshacks.com, Diedricksen evangelizes about the joys and benefits of scaled-down living spaces and microarchitecture. It’s a concept that has grown in popularity in recent years as thriftiness and living simply have become more appealing - and, for many people, more financially necessary - than ever.

Diedricksen, 34, has always had an affinity for what he calls “compact living.’’ He’s a diehard do-it-yourselfer. He can swing an ax like a seasoned outdoorsman. He chops his own wood to heat his “900-or-so’’-square-foot home in Stoughton that he remodeled himself and lives in with his wife, Elizabeth, and two young children. He takes pride in using a wood stove to heat their cozy place: “Stickin’ it to the man!’’ he says, nodding, with a big smile.

To him, super-sized living quarters just don’t make sense. The larger the home you have, the more time, effort, and money it costs to maintain it and keep the lights on (and keep the place warm). His take on McMansions, which could come in at 10 times the size of his home? “I don’t feel they’re necessary,’’ said Diedricksen. “People already work too many hours every week.’’

Smaller homes are less expensive, better for the environment, and can free up your time to do other things, he says.

“I grew up in a small house, and vacationed in a small house,’’ said Diedrick sen, who is originally from Madison, Conn.

As a kid, he lived in a “very modest’’ ranch home. Building stuff is in his blood (his father taught woodworking at the high school level), and he loved making forts. He comes from a big family of Boy Scouts, and eventually achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. He worked at WBCN from 1999 to 2005.

Ten years ago Diedricksen bought a chunk of land in northern Vermont, in Orleans, a little village with a population of 800 about 17 miles south of the Canadian border. He and his brother Dustin have been building a cabin in the woods there since 2001. They’ve invested a lot of sweat - as well as recycled and curbside materials - in the project. “I didn’t have much money,’’ said Diedricksen. So whenever he drove around, he’d keep an eye out for building materials on the side of the road that people were throwing away. He said he found plenty to work with, as in: “Hey, there’s a $400 oak door. I’ll take that instead of it going into a landfill.’’

Diedricksen recently penned a tiny-house design book titled “Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Funky Forts, Ramshackle Retreats (and Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here!).’’

The book, which he illustrated himself and describes as “Mad Magazine meets ‘This Old House,’ ’’ is filled with detailed drawings and crammed with information, tips, and advice - as well as his trademark humor. He self-published the book, assembling each copy by hand using a comb punch he bought at a Boy Scout sale. It sold over 2,500 copies and ended up getting him a book deal with Lyons Press, which plans to rerelease the book next year.

Diedricksen also hosts the “Tiny Yellow House’’ TV series on YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/relaxshacksDOTcom). Since the YouTube channel launched in March 2010, his videos have been viewed over 297,000 times. In one episode, he shows off “a recycled portable cabin-shack-fort-bunkhouse’’ that he calls the “Gypsy Junker.’’

In another episode, he gives an overview of the bright orange, odd-looking, clubhouse-like structure that sits on his front lawn. He calls this the “front yard escape pod.’’ It has teeth painted on the side, and a round window that looks like an eye. There’s a birdhouse built right into it and a clear roof that lets sunlight pour in. It looks like a children’s fort, but it’s roomy enough for Diedricksen’s lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame. He’s been known to crawl inside and just hang out, leaning back on throw pillows and reading a book, sipping coffee.

Diedricksen’s brain is a virtual drafting table: He does most of the design work in his head, conjuring up ideas for zany-looking (or he’d say: “bizarre-chitectural’’) structures and conceptualizing how they can be built on the fly. He then constructs them in his backyard, which he calls his “Sanford and Son clubhouse.’’

Using salvaged materials and power tools, Diedricksen creates cozy living spaces filled with artistic touches that you would never expect to see in an average trailer or treehouse. He’ll create colorful patterns of blue and green glass circles on a wall by sawing wine bottles in half. He’s been known to incorporate pickle jars into his designs. That round window that looks like a portal on a ship? That used to be the window on a front-loading washing machine.

“Deek’s just incredibly charismatic, really clever, talented, resourceful guy,’’ said Michael Janzen, a blogger from Fair Oaks, Calif., who writes about microarchitecture on his blog, www.TinyHouseDesign.com.

Janzen said Diedricksen’s creations show that “there are no limits in what you can cobble together. . . . You can really open up and explore whatever you want in housing.’’

“He also makes it accessible by making it funny, crazy, and great,’’ he added.

The idea of microarchitecture appears to be growing in popularity, and Janzen said more people are seeking “extreme downsizing solutions.’’

Janzen has been following Diedricksen’s work for some time, and said his imaginative creations can get people to think differently about the size of their housing, and possibly inspire them to downsize and live more simply. He described Diedricksen as “a modern-day, wild, crazy Thoreau kind of guy.’’

On Saturday, Diedricksen will be holding his first workshop on microarchitecture. It will be a hands-on affair - participants will get to hammer some nails, use power tools, and meet other advocates of microarchitecture and adventure travelers. The whole thing will culminate with a bonfire.

“I didn’t know how much of a market or interest there would be in this,’’ said Diedricksen.

But the concept of microarchitecture appears to be catching on: His workshop is already booked solid.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

The Gypsy Junker 30 square feet
Gottagiddaway 20 square feet The Hicksaw 17 square feet The Boxy Lady 28 square feet
Personal cabin in Vermont
250 square feet