Friday, September 9, 2011

Small Home Living ... Afloat

Originally Posted in the Annapolis Capital: September 6, 10:05 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)

One Saturday afternoon last month found us at the Gangplank Tour of Boat Homes as I described in an earlier post along with 300 other people for the sold-out event. I was looking for inspiration in ideas that other liveaboards had incorporated into their boats that I could incorporate into our own; but mostly, I was looking at people. I thought the folks at Gangplank had an interesting idea in trying to educate others into their way of life, now I was curious about how it would be received. Of the people who attended, you could see some folks just got it, and were thinking yeah, I could live like this. You could see others just didn’t get it at all, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in such a small and seemingly precarious space. David and Paulette Craig came from Bowie just out of curiosity and fell into the former group. I met them aboard the Sara K, a 1972 Trojan 34-foot houseboat owned by Kenneth Gill and Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill. The Craigs commented that they were surprised that the Sara K was so bright and airy, expecting boats to be cramped and dark. They joked that after the tour, they were ready to go home and start shopping. But although I had come with expectations of people-watching the other attendees, the most fascinating story I heard that day was that of the hostess, Nadia, herself. Ken was overseas during the tour, but we later had a wonderful email exchange.

P8131159 - nadia [Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill at her desk aboard the Sara K]

One day Nadia, a lawyer, decided she had just spent far too many hours in windowless conference rooms full of other attorneys. She wanted to live somewhere with light and connection to the environment. She was perusing Craigslist when “something lit up in my heart and my head,” she said. She hadn’t really known what she was looking for, but she hadn’t expected to find a boat! She had never even been in a houseboat before, but it instantly felt right. That same evening, she introduced the idea of living on a houseboat to her husband Ken, and a week or so later she asked him, “Do you mind if I start selling and giving away the furniture?” The furniture they had was good quality, but wouldn’t be needed anymore – they were moving aboard. When Nadia came up with this crazy idea of living on a boat, Ken did not find it so crazy at all. “This would be an ideal chance for us to create ourliving space together,” he said. “It also satisfied my need to be a bit ‘alternative.’"

sara k interior 2a [Sara K interior - upper level - entry and home office. Photo provided by Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill.]

sara k interior 1a cu [Sara K interior - main level - kitchen and living. A lower level contains the sleeping area. Photo provided by Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill.]

They faced some initial challenges. They moved aboard in the middle of winter, February 15. Considering that Ken had spent 39 years in Copenhagen, and Nadia had lived in Sweden and Denmark, it seemed hard to imagine that they would complain about the cold in a Washington, DC winter. But Ken reminisced, “Our first night on the boat was one of the coldest I have ever spent! We'd spent the whole day moving and were totally whacked out so we just cleared a space in the saloon, piled all the mattresses and blankets we had on the floor and passed out fully dressed with our winter coats on and just our noses sticking out. We woke the next morning to the sight of a whole army of shivery looking seagulls marching past at eye level on the very solid looking ice! I must admit that I did have a second thought or two [about what they had gotten themselves into] then, but hey! I'd never experienced anything like this before in my life and it's amazing how a steaming cup of coffee can make even the stiffest seagull look welcoming.”

Living on a boat for a while can really make you reevaluate your perceptions of what you “need” to have a good life. After just 6 months aboard, they did more than just adapt to life afloat. The experience of living in this efficient but not cramped space inspired Nadia to consider a dramatic career change from law to designing / building very small houses. She and Ken are on the leading edge of a growing trend; almost every architectural magazine and website I’ve seen recently includes one or two very small dwellings along with the very large and elaborate ones. Reasons people give for their interest in very small houses range from spiritual/religious yearnings for simplicity, to concern for the environment and desire to minimize their environmental footprint, to finances.

Ken, a retired elementary school teacher, brings some construction skills to the planned venture – among other credentials, he’s a qualified woodwork/metalwork teacher in Denmark and says he has always loved doing things with his hands. He moved about 10 times and has lived in and owned both houses and apartments. Most of them he has renovated or improved – “not always in strict accordance to the building codes!” he admits. He has also worked as an instructor/demonstrator and volunteer at a historical/archeological research center at Lejre in Denmark, where he helped with some reconstructions of typical farm cottages from about 1850. But his involvement with the small house design idea is also philosophical. “It is very important for me to be able to physically form my living space with my own hands - to make it as I want it to be so that it becomes part of me and I of it,” he says.

Nadia loves interior decorating, designing rooms and dwellings, and creating gardens. She has found her legal career satisfying, but she realized that she was not willing to do it for another twenty or more years. “The reason we have decided to primarily design small homes is that we want to assist people in having satisfying lives, in homes that they can help design (perhaps even build), in ways that will make them love to be there, yet that are priced so that they can pay off their mortgages in 6-7 years. We want to assist people in getting out of the debt cycle, and in enjoying life at a more natural level.”

sara k table flowers [kitchen table on the Sara K. Photo by Kenneth Gill.]

In addition to the boat, they have a place in the Appalachians a few hours’ drive west of DC, in a forest half way up a mountain ridge looking east towards the Blue Ridge. Ken has a workshop downstairs and Nadia is creating a garden with her bare hands up the mountain side Their need to be a little bit alternative shows up there too. “We sleep out on the screened balcony among the tree tops,” he says.

When asked about future plans, neither of them can imagine leaving the boat - having the water and the mountain is a perfect combination, they say, and a tremendous asset in developing their small-home visions. Nadia says they get plenty of practice at smaller living, and dual use of things on the boat. “We're going to try out some of our small house designs in the back yard [of the mountain home] and live out our small dwelling dreams on D dock [at Gangplank Marina],” adds Ken.

sara k stern smcu

sara k heron sm [The Sara K in her slip at Gangplank's D-dock, and a visitor aboard! Photos by Kenneth Gill.]

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