As the school year came to a close, 12-year-old Sicily Kolbeck needed a project. It was a key requirement at the small, independent school she attended just outside Atlanta. If she found the right project—something big and passion-driven—it could set the course for her next academic year. She thought maybe she could start a natural makeup line or dive into some type of research. Or she could just keep wasting time online.
As she clicked around, she stumbled onto the idea of tiny houses—dwellings that pack the conveniences of modern homes into a couple of hundred square feet. She found a rabid community around them, blogs and documentaries filled with DIY builders and eco-lovers and folks who lived happily with less.
This could be it, Sicily thought. She’d hardly swung a hammer before, but maybe she could build a tiny house.
She remembered “renovating” the loft in her family’s old barn to make it homier and how she’d once turned a massive TV box into a playhouse, complete with a doorbell. Building a tiny house became a bit of an obsession.
Her parents didn’t blink. It didn’t matter that Sicily was a child. She would be the architect, builder, fund-raiser, and client.
Her mother, Suzannah Kolbeck, a teacher who was the principal and founder of Sicily’s school, would serve as the project manager, guiding her daughter in creating a budget and reaching milestones.
Dane Kolbeck, Sicily’s dad, would help with the hands-on. He was a sailor and woodworker with a great collection of tools, and though he’d never built a house, he’d provide the guidance to get the project off the ground.
Sicily launched a blog, La Petite Maison, a nod to the French classes her mother insisted she take, and an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign that quickly exceeded its $1,500 goal. She drew clumsy blueprints—piles and piles of possibilities—then built scale models and a birdhouse that introduced her to using power tools.
The first few weeks of construction in January 2013 were rocky. Dane was impatient, and it was hard for him not to snatch the tools away from his daughter. Meanwhile, Sicily was exasperated when his well-trained hands homed in on her house. It took a little while, but they were starting to understand how to work together.
“He taught me a lot of the lingo—flush, plumb, even, straight, square,” Sicily says. “If somebody needs something jigsawed, I got that on lock now. There was a lot of figuring things out.”
Then everything came to a halt when Suzannah’s phone rang around 4 a.m. on February 16. She was out of town, caring for a relative. An unfamiliar voice told her Sicily was safe in bed at home, but Dane had been killed in a car accident.
In the first blank hours, mother and daughter just sat on the couch at home. There was bawling and sometimes silence. Text messages and phone calls came, then trickles of friends and family, then streams. They ate whatever food people brought, and talked about Dane, or avoided talking about him. They played, by Sicily’s estimate, 20 million games of gin rummy.
After a few days, Luke Bair, an old family friend, was desperate for another distraction. Luke was a home builder and had encouraged the family to take on the tiny house project. When he looked out the window, he saw the unfinished work of his best friend and the dashed childhood of a young girl. “We can sit around here and whine and cry and tell stories and drink beer and do whatever we have to do,” he remembers saying. “We can also start working on the project again.”
They trudged to Home Depot, bought materials, and resumed construction. It seemed everyone who stopped by drove in a nail or raised a board. Within days, the shell of a small home stood in the backyard.
But as mourners dispersed, there was no life as usual.
School didn’t resonate like before for teacher or student. Suzannah calculated that she couldn’t possibly be a single parent and a school principal. She placed her small school on hiatus, uncertain it would ever reopen. For Sicily, the academic year faded to an end. The tiny house sat untouched.
That spring and summer, Sicily’s softball team helped ground her, but she wasn’t herself. Her dad had been a coach, and she still listened for his booming voice from the dugout. She turned up at tournaments without her cleats, socks, or sunscreen. She stopped making decisions, small or large.
“She started saying ‘I can’t’ a lot,” says Suzannah, 43. “And I started saying ‘I can’t’ too. But it’s all about the try. We have to make decisions about what we’re going to do.”
On a break between sports and school, mother and daughter took a five-week trip, staying at friends’ homes from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Suzannah drove; Sicily directed. To navigate every traffic jam or country road, they needed each other.
“He used to drive, and she was the navigator,” Sicily says of her parents. “Now I was the navigator. I could no longer live with indecision.”
And when the road finally led them back to Georgia, they looked back at the plywood husk in the yard and knew it was time to start building again.
This time, Sicily and Suzannah became regular posters to tiny house Facebook groups; a simple question could draw dozens of answers. Friends and a few experts pitched in. A retiree with building skills showed Sicily how to wire the house; workers at the local Home Depot taught her how to plumb the kitchen and bathroom. A roofer donated time and materials to top the house (the only part Suzannah refused to let her teen handle on her own).
“People just showed up,” says Andrew Odom, creator of the blog Tiny r(E)volution. “They thought they were going to go at it just as a family. They didn’t know how much they needed a community. The project could easily have been scrapped. Whether Sicily ever lives in it or not, it bears the touch of everyone special in her life, including her dad.”
Finishing the house took focus, frustration, and sometimes weeping and screaming. It meant working around crooked corners, rebuilding a rickety staircase, and painting about a dozen coats of white on the yellow pine paneling inside.
Sicily labored over how to fit an oddly shaped window into the loft. She was a pro at fitting squares and rectangles, but this one was special; it came from her dad’s boat.
Over time, she says, she realized that “I’m doing it to show him that I can do stuff, to show him that I am capable.”
The house isn’t a memorial to Dane, Luke Bair says. Building it was. “It’s not dreams anymore. It’s skill. The act is more powerful than the product.”
In April, after the final coats were painted, fresh gray curtains were hung, and a few throw pillows fluffed, it was official.
“My house is DONE,” Sicily wrote on her blog. “Yes, yes, yes. I know. Who would have thought I would finish? Not me. Just kidding. (Kind of.)”
She’s 14 now and the owner of a 128-square-foot tiny home with a fully functional kitchen and bathroom, queen-size bed, closets, and cubbies. It took a year and a half and nearly $10,000 to pull it off.
This summer, the Kolbecks moved to Suzannah’s hometown of Baltimore, where Sicily attends public high school, plays softball, and is considering her next project; she’d like to rebuild an old Volkswagen Beetle.
The little house made a big move too. Wishbone Tiny Homes, a North Carolina–based tiny home builder, drove it from the Kolbecks’ backyard in Georgia to Washington, DC, in June. There Sicily and her house participated in the first White House Maker Faire, a celebration of all things hands-on and DIY. After Sicily showed off the house to crowds that included Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” and the Obama family dogs, Bo and Sunny, La Petite Maison arrived at its new location—a peaceful, wooded area near a beach in Delaware.
Home, Sicily now knows, can go anywhere.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be 100 percent great or 100 percent OK,” Sicily says. “It’s not like learning how to forget him, but learning how to go through life remembering him—and still kind of living and being happy.”
If you want to try out the tiny house life, you can start by staying in one of these overwater bungalows.
CNN (MAY 27, 2014), COPYRIGHT © 2014 BY THE CABLE NEWS NETWORK, TURNER BROADCASTING SYSTEM, INC., CNN.COM.