A HOUSE tour is the highlight of a visit with a proud homeowner, but when one drops in to see Derek Diedricksen, who makes playful micro-shelters out of junk, it is less so. Possibly because the temperature up here on a cold winter day is less so, possibly because his square footage is less so.
At about 24 square feet, the Gypsy Junker, made primarily out of shipping pallets, castoff storm windows and a neighbor’s discarded kitchen cabinets, is the largest of Mr. Diedricksen’s backyard structures. The Hickshaw, a sleeper built on a rolling cedar lounge chair (or as Mr. Diedricksen calls it, “a rickshaw for hicks”), is considerably smaller, at 2 1/2 feet wide by 6 1/2 feet deep. The Boxy Lady, two cubes on a long pallet, is the smallest: 4 feet tall at its highest point.
For ingenuity, thrift and charm, Mr. Diedricksen’s tiny structures are hard to beat. Made of scavenged materials, they cost on average less than $200 to build. They often have transparent roofing, which allows a fine view of the treetops, particularly in the smallest ones, where the most comfortable position is supine. They have loads of imaginative and decorative details: a porthole-like window salvaged from a front-loading washing machine, a flip-down metal counter taken from the same deceased washer. Mr. Diedricksen hates to throw anything away.
Still, the structures are neither warm nor commodious, and the reporter’s note-taking is hampered by blowing on her hands. It is so cold, in fact, that in deference to the reader, whose nose is no doubt starting to run, we shall go indoors for a spell, that one might consider Mr. Diedricksen’s accomplishments in comfort.
They are many. There is his self-published graphic instruction book, “Humble Homes Simple Shacks Cozy Cottages Ramshackle Retreats Funky Forts,” the first edition of which was “hand-assembled” and “locally printed” (in his living room); having sold 1,500 copies, it will be reissued by the Lyons Press next year. There is his YouTube series, “Tiny Yellow House,” which is shot whenever his brother-in-law, a videographer, has some free time, most recently in the auto-body shop of a fan because, as Mr. Diedricksen notes, when it is 10 degrees you don’t want to film outside.
Mr. Diedricksen makes a living doing carpentry and spends a lot of time as Mr. Mom to his two young children, but he has also been a comic book writer, a D.J. and a home inspector, and is a drummer in a Rage Against the Machine tribute band called Age Against the Machine. (The World Wrestling Entertainment theme song for the wrestler Jack Swagger, “Get on Your Knees”? His band wrote that.) Even the little structures he makes, with their multiple uses — fort-guest bedroom-festival sleeper-homeless shelter — are tough to categorize.
It’s hard to figure out how to describe him, Mr. Diedricksen is told.
“One reviewer called me ‘a mad scientist with too much lumber on his hands,’ ” Mr. Diedricksen says. “Another one called it, ‘This Old House Meets Wayne’s World.’ ”
That may be because of the “Harold and Kumar”-esque, moldy sleeping-bag vibe of the “Tiny Yellow House” series, one episode of which includes Mr. Diedricksen’s real-life neighbor yelling, “Diedricksen, when you gonna clean this mess up?”
Or because of Mr. Diedricksen’s ponytail, which he has since cut. Or because of the episode that ends with him picking his teeth for the camera. “Pizza mouth?” he asks.
One should also know that Mr. Diedricksen, 33, graduated from Northeastern Universitysumma cum laude.
Is Mr. Diedricksen committed to building only tiny structures?
“I have only so much yard space and my wife is only so tolerant,” he says.
Mr. Diedricksen’s wife, Elizabeth, is a physical therapist. They live with their children and a large dog in a 950-square-foot house about 10 miles south of Boston, which they bought in 2002 for $190,000 — a fixer-upper, of course.
Stop by to visit with Mr. Diedricksen, and you’ll have to wait till the kids take their naps to talk. Having a tiny-house enthusiast for a dad would seem to be a great thing: Mr. Diedricksen made what looks like a large painting in the living room, but which can be pulled down to sprout orange flaps: an instant kid-size tent.
He himself grew up in Madison, Conn. His mother was an elementary school teacher, his father a shop teacher; every great tool in the world, he says, was in his basement. He built a backyard shed where he played Nintendo with friends, and constructed a bridge across a creek as his Eagle Scout project, along with countless forts and tree houses.
“I’ve always been obsessed with tiny architecture,” Mr. Diedricksen says, sandwiching in his life story between rounds of playing with the kids. “For my 10th birthday, my father gave me a book, ‘Tiny Houses,’ by Lester Walker, an architect. On a side note, when my book came out, I e-mailed this guy. Nothing ever came back. It was crushing. He was one of my idols.”
For a while, Mr. Diedricksen drew comic strips for Boston’s alternative paper, The Weekly Dig. Then he was hired as an evening D.J. at 104.1 in Boston in college, and was the youngest D.J. in a top-10 market at the time, he believes.
“It was a legendary station,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “They broke U2, the Police. It was the kind of place, if you went in the back room, certain vinyl records had scratches from when they were doing the cocaine.”
In 2005, after five years at the station, Mr. Diedricksen was fired following a management change. This did not grieve him, he says, as he believed that the station had become soulless. That’s when he began working as a housing inspector, making about $330 a house.
He was also busy with his own projects, building a 250-square-foot cabin in Vermont with his younger brother, Dustin. About a year ago, he put the sketches he made of these tiny buildings together in a book, bound with a $10 comb binder bought at a yard sale. (He had no intention of going to established publishers, he says, because they ignored him when he tried to write children’s books.) His first run was financed with refunds from the beer bottles and cans he picked up on the trails he hiked around town with his dog.
“Every time I went out, I took a trash bag and picked up the cans and kept a tally,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “It was something like $100. That went to the mom-and-pop printer.”
His “Tiny Yellow House” series, which debuted a year ago in January, was a way of promoting the book. The first episode, on the Hickshaw, got about 7,000 to 8,000 hits the first week, he says. At this point, Mr. Diedricksen’s wife arrives home and takes over the child care, enabling Mr. Diedricksen to go outside and show the reporter his tiny structures — a good thing, as it is now late afternoon and the weather is getting colder.
“I put down two bags of salt for you,” Mr. Diedricksen says, leading the way along a path in his front yard that cuts through three feet of icy snow.
Only two bags?
The first little structure, which is shaped somewhat like a builder’s triangle, rests on a trailer. One side has been painted orange. Four square feet at its base and four feet tall at its highest point, it is proportioned generously enough so that the reporter has more than enough room to stick her head in and turn it. There’s a yellow-and-green cushion on the floor, and a stained-glass window with images of tropical birds contributed by Stephanie Atlee, an artist whose work Mr. Diedricksen saw on Etsy. A large round piece of glass salvaged from a washing machine serves as a window; an empty pickle jar, which juts out of the structure near the door, functions as another window.
Inside, a $6 wooden owl sits on a rough shelf not far from a red lantern. It seems wrong, in the face of such whimsy, to ask what the practical applications of such a structure might be, but this is the reporter’s cold and sorry lot.
“The idea was to see if I could build a homeless shelter for under $100,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “Or you could make it into a tree fort.”
What is it called?
“The $100 Homeless Hut,” he says. “I made up the name right now.”
He points out its various features.
“The pickle-jar window allows in light, but it could be storage. Or if you capped it, a horizontal terrarium. You can’t mount it yet, because it has to be with silicone caulk, and it won’t cure in this cold.”
If you fill it up with stuff, how is it going to function as a window?
“You’d have to leave some space,” Mr. Diedricksen says.
He leads the way down the hill to his backyard, where there are three structures of diminishing size, and shows the reporter into the Gypsy Junker. With a roof height that ranges inside from 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 10 inches, this is one that Mr. Diedricksen, who is 6-foot-4, can almost stand upright in, at least in some places. Like many a fancy camper, it also has a bump-out — an 8-foot sleeping pallet — although this bump-out is permanent. Guests can sleep on the four-by-six-foot floor, although if they are tall, they would have to sleep diagonally.
Sawed-off yellow, blue and green wine bottle bottoms make for a colorful lower-level window in the guest area, and there is a heating unit with an exterior vent built from a frying-pan base, with a broken brass cymbal that serves as a heat reflector. (Vegetable oil is the suggested fuel.) The most expensive items were the four sheets of corrugated plastic on the roof, which came to $80.
What did Mr. Diedricksen envision the Gypsy Junker as being?
“Originally, it was going to be a place to brainstorm for my book and my designs,” he says. “There’s no better place than inside someplace that is unconventional and bizarre. It helps you think outside the box instead of sitting in some white-walled room. And my son’s first camp-out was here.”
Heartwarming, though since Mr. Diedricksen has not offered to demonstrate his heating system, it is not heating any other part of the reporter, so we move briskly on to the next structure.
The Hickshaw is considerably shorter and smaller, with a slanting roof between 3 feet and 4 feet 10 inches tall, a width of about 30 inches and a length of 7 feet. Scrunched inside with Mr. Diedricksen, the reporter finds she cannot move her elbows more than a few inches from her body.
“The Hickshaw was the first one I built,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “I built it thinking it might be a place for people to stay who were drunk or annoying, so I didn’t want them staying in the Vermont cabin with me. I had envisioned all these microstructures as places to sleep for the people who say, ‘Oh, I forgot my sleeping bag.’ Almost like the Ewok village, all these little micro-shelters dotting my land. Or you could use it as a greenhouse. At one point, I was going to caulk it up real good and use it as a hot-rock sauna because of the cedar flooring and because it is so small it would be easy to heat. Or for music festivals, where people bring these wacky small structures. You have to put it on a trailer. It doesn’t have road legs.”
Do any of the windows open?
“No, these don’t,” he says.
It could be very nice in the spring, the reporter notes, but in the summer you’d bake like a brisket.
“Oh, yeah,” Mr. Diedricksen concedes. “It’s meant as secure sleeping place, a micro mobile shelter. For festivals, it’s a single sleeper: a tent alternative, but one that is not going to tear as easily and offers a little more security.”
The reporter is starting to lose the feeling in her fingers. Has Mr. Diedricksen ever slept in the Hickshaw, she asks?
“Yeah, I slept in here once, up in Vermont. It was fine. I’ll sleep anywhere. It’s narrow, but you have to sacrifice space if you want to make it movable by one person in wheelbarrow fashion.”
Small as it is, it does have some pretty decorative touches, like the Mexican vase. But it is impossible for the reporter to turn around.
“It is cozy, I guess you could call it,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “Womblike.”
On to the Boxy Lady, which is even smaller: two plywood cubes mounted side by side on a slab of wood, with a post leg and two wheels. The larger cube, which one might think of as the living space, is just under 4 feet square. The smaller is 2 feet high, 28 inches wide and 3 feet long.
There is a hole in the smaller box to accommodate one’s legs, if one wishes to stretch out — say, perhaps, to expire. The reporter squeezes in, Mr. Diedricksen follows. The reporter wishes she could remember how this was physically possible, but she cannot, possibly because of that Jack London thing where your mind drifts in extreme cold. Mr. Diedricksen gallantly holds the door shut as wind whips through an authentic knot hole.
The window has lettering on it, the reporter notices, but she is unable to lift her head to read it.
“ ‘Not to be filled with any other liquid,’ ” Mr. Diedricksen reads. “It’s a water cooler jug. One of those things that are always curbside. This is more for craft fairs as a traveling-sleeping-sales kiosk. Or if you want to get noticed: who is the freak with the rolling box with windows? That’s why it has a rope that drops down, with a table on the outside.” The reporter’s fingers are becoming too numb to take notes much longer.
“The original idea, I had a brainstorm, how could you build something that one man could tow and pull and park but affordably and quickly,” Mr. Diedricksen says. “A lot of these were, what could I build for homeless people where they could sell their own street-wares, as outlandish as it sounds.”
No, no, not outlandish at all. Very original. Just wait until spring.