In downsizing possessions, couple enhances their lives

In downsizing possessions, couple enhances their lives

Michele Ellson

Photos by Cece Reinhardt; Airstream photo by Y Studio Photography.

Cece Reinhardt and Brenda Daugherty were living the California dream in a cottage in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with two cars and “all the things that most people get excited about.” But having all of that didn’t really make them happy.

Daugherty was commuting to San Francisco for work every day, and even though both had good jobs, they were unable to save the money they wanted to for retirement or for the travel they wanted to do.

“We felt like we were just treading water. And we weren’t happy,” Reinhardt said. “The more stuff we had, the less happy we were.”

That realization marked the start of a journey that saw the couple selling their home and buying a used Airstream trailer, which served as both a home and rolling showcase for a “green” remodel performed with the aid of a host of sponsors. Now they’re moving in to a 438-square-foot former train ticket office on Pacific Avenue which they also hope will allow them to educate people on healthy, sustainable design and to offer visitors and example of how they, too could live in smaller spaces with only the things they need, and how they might redesign their lives around the things that matter to them most.

“When time is taken away from doing the things you’re passionate about and you’re filled up with all this other (stuff), it really sucks your soul,” Reinhardt said.

The couple sold their Santa Cruz home in 2009 and rented another in Alameda, which allowed Daugherty to ride her bicycle and the ferry to work. They paid down debts with the money they were saving and, as they began to shed their former lives and to think more about how they really wanted to live, purchased a long-dreamed-about Airstream trailer from “a biker dude named Ken.”

They had planned to become “weekend warriors,” Reinhardt said, remodeling the used Airstream as time allowed. But then fate intervened.

Reinhardt lost her job with the state during a massive round of downsizing in 2010, and she threw herself into the Airstream project, contacting hundreds of companies to gauge their interest in sponsoring a green remodel. Daugherty talked to her employer about telecommuting from the road.

Ultimately, the couple spent over a year traveling around North America in the Airstream, taking in the sights and conducting open houses to show off a green remodel that included natural earthen plaster walls and ceiling, a 500-watt solar power system, natural flooring and counter tops, an eco-friendly mattress and a composting toilet. They chronicled their travels – and their efforts to live smaller and more simply – on their On the Green Road blog.

“Our quest to live outside the lines and explore what it means to be sustainable, comfortable and bold has led us here,” they wrote.

While on the road, the couple took in a laundry list of locales, showed their rolling home to thousands of people and made a number of new friends, Reinhardt said. Downsizing to the Airstream forced them to get rid of three-quarters of their stuff, Reinhardt said, and on the road they made a rule: They couldn’t buy anything new unless they got rid of something else first.

“We got really good at that,” she said.

The couple came back to Alameda in October and began looking for a home base. They put an offer in on the Pacific Avenue property a month later and closed in January.

The four-room, 483-square-foot home sits on a 3,800-square-foot lot that includes a 38-foot driveway for the Airstream. Reinhardt said the couple is hoping to be able to remove some of the home’s interior walls in order to open up the space and also to enclose its front porch, which could add another 100 square feet of space. A 110-square-foot bonus building in the back yard could serve as an office and guest space, Reinhardt said.

“It’s all about how you utilize the space. It’ll be a nice little setup when all is said and done,” she said.

The couple is also planning to perform an eco-friendly remodel of the 100-year-old home’s interior; changes they’re considering include reclaimed hardwood floors, energy efficient lighting and nontoxic paint. They have already secured their first sponsor, an Italian home appliance manufacturer named Smeg, and Reinhardt is working with one of the couple’s Airstream remodel sponsors, EcoCraft, to develop small-space cabinetry.

Having a home has made it harder for the couple to resist the impulse to shop, Reinhardt said, though their most recent foray ended with fresh plants for the yard. Of the items that remain in the 10-foot-by-10-foot storage space the couple left their things in while they traveled, she said they will keep paperwork, pictures and gardening items. The remaining furniture pieces they kept are too big for their new home and will be replaced with functional, high-quality pieces built to last.

“So much if it is what you have room for,” Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt said she’s hoping to share what the couple is doing by placing the home in local home and garden tours or offering workshops there.

“The whole concept is about sharing what we’re doing,” Reinhardt said. “That’s as important as living here.”