Deciding to build The Nook, a tiny house on our property, and how we went about it is a layered story that goes back about a decade. That’s when I began a long term documentary photo project about a community called Wild Roots, living in the woods in Western North Carolina with no electricity or running water in small huts built from materials harvested from the land. The more time I spent there, the more it became about learning and being part of the community and less about photographing. My girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to incorporate some of the skills, knowledge, and passion for nature that we were gaining from Wild Roots into our daily lives and found a treehouse in the woods for rent outside of Asheville. We jumped at the opportunity and lived there for three and a half years before buying our current property. Our new house would be considered small by American standards, but certainly not tiny. We enjoyed having the extra space, but there was a special place in our hearts for the treehouse and everything that we had learned from our time there. We came up with the idea to build a tiny house, partially inspired by Wild Roots and the treehouse in a wooded section of our property.
This was never intended for us to live in. It’s a vacation rental, but also a collaborative art project, with the guests as the audience. As a photographer, much of my work over the last decade has been about living with the land incorporating themes around connection, but the truth is that I find the medium disappointingly limiting when it comes to communicating such themes. I was learning about connection through my experiences, but the viewer only gets a pale relic of that. It falls so short compared to the lived experience. So The Nook was a way to tell some of the same stories, but thorough providing an immersive experience rather than a relic of someone else’s experience. An important piece of what made Wildroots and the treehouse special was the act of whaling through trails in the woods to get there rather than pulling your car right up. There is a mental shift that happens through this simple act and makes you feel like you are leaving one thing behind and entering into something else. So that was an important starting place for The Nook, but it meant no machinery. I had to make an exception early on for Septic, but after that, all materials, concrete, etc were brought in by hand, as well as any necessary earthmoving or digging for footers. I only cut down the trees that were in the actual footprint of the house.
We had plans drawn up by our friends at Shelter Collective who continued refining and adjusting plans depending on materials acquired. I spent almost a year before breaking ground gathering materials, mostly wood. I’m passionate about woodworking and trees, so there was no room for compromise when it came to the wood. I cut a few standing dead trees from my property and had them milled (A few Oaks, a couple cherry, and a mulberry tree), then I scavenged other places searching for standing dead trees where I could either get permission or somewhere remote enough where I could just take it. I acquired a whole lot of walnut and some ashe that way. Then the real game-changer when a friend offered a huge stack of seasoned oak boards from his farm. These were absolutely gorgeous 2″ and 1″ boards, some of the most beautiful white and red oak I’ve ever seen, and I never could have afforded that much of those species.
With materials ready to go, we got started building in November of 2019. I pretty much put everything on hold indefinitely. I stopped taking photo assignments and dedicated 100% of my time and mental energy to The Nook. I had two great builders helping out with the framing up to the point of being dried in, then got another friend to come work with me full time after that. Once it was time to finish work, we started collaborating with some of the most skilled craftsmen in the region for the fine woodworking that was beyond my ability, and metal, textile, and tile work. In all, we worked with over 20 collaborators between the building, art, stone wear, and products offered which were all local to Western NC.
The story being told in The Nook has three main threads: First, the story of the creative community of Western North Carolina. Second, personal background involving the origins mentioned in the first paragraph, family history, and other inspirations and relationships. Third, the ecology of the region. Each of these threads is developed in a number of ways and is all documented photographically. I photographed each collaborating artist or craftsman as they worked on the pieces commissioned for The Nook.
These story threads are interwoven at times. For example, the ecology and arts community threads overlap in the use of black walnut as a material. We wanted to show this wonderful tree in all of its gifts, not just the beautiful wood, so we offer a black walnut liqueur made by our friends at Eda Rhyne Distillery, which sits on a black walnut shelf. Black walnut husks are used as a die in two woven wall hanging pieces in the house, one is Cherokee made from Rivercane and the other is wool made by a friend who raises her own sheep and makes her own dyes from materials from her property. The tea tray which can be lifted up to the tea loft above the kitchen incorporates family history and the arts community by incorporating three different stories of “Japalachia”, the cultural and aesthetic blending of Japan and Appalachia. This starts with my parents who lived in Japan for a year in the 70s to learn to make miso, then moved to Appalachia to start the first American miso company. The wood for the tea tray comes from the cedar boxes my Dad had made for part of the miso process. Inside, two beautiful ceramic teacups are found made by Akira Satake a Japanese man living just down the street using a blend of Japanese and local techniques. The handle of the tray is fastened to the tray using kudzu fiber made and threaded on by our friends at Kudzu Culture, a company applying traditional Japanese techniques to the use of southern Kudzu. These are just a few examples of how the story is woven into all aspects of the design of the house.
Aside from these story threads, the main theme of the house is right there in the name. It’s easy to see why it’s called the Nook in one glance at the interior. Because space was never intended to live in full time, we actually didn’t have to do many of the unique problem solving around storage that usually comes with tiny living. Instead, the focus was on creating as many individuals and special experiences as possible in a tiny space without feeling clutter and while remaining aesthetically cohesive. Some of the spaces, like the tea loft above the kitchen, lose a little bit in terms of practicality to make way for whimsy and magic. Much like the idea of the trail leading to the house, it’s a little bit of extra effort for the payoff of a unique and intentional experience. The other loft is dedicated to cozy movie time. A simple ashe wood swing hangs from the 17-foot living room ceiling which can face into the house to interact with someone else on the couch or bed, or you can face out and take in the view of the deciduous forest canopy. As you look around the same tree species used inside the house can all be seen in the surrounding forest from the windows. The space is very layered each loft creating its own tucked away experience and the space under it also utilized for the cozy nooks created. The breakfast nook is the most Japanese inspired space with the table, benches, and walls all made from black walnut-shaped around the large circular window.
Because every detail was so intensely considered, the process of building this house was way more involved than I could have anticipated, especially the woodworking which was often done using hand tools or just not the right tools based on what we had access to and how much shop time we could afford. It took a year total and we pretty much doubled our original budget of 50k. Aside from some mistakes that were costly in time and money, there is nothing I would change about the experience. My own sense of my ability and self-worth has grown significantly through the process of taking on something so involved. I will likely build another house at some point in my life. Maybe another rental, or maybe a house to live in. For the sake of my own sanity, it would be nice if I could figure out how to slightly remove myself, but it’s hard to imaging being able to do that. I get pretty one-track-minded, so it’s hard to think about continuing my normal work or just about anything else with a building project underway.
I’ve been asked for advice by a number of folks hoping to embark on a similar journey. My advice is to start with a designer/architect. Shelter Collective was so instrumental in the whole process and we felt like we got more than our money’s worth. Secondly, I think if the material is important to you like it is to me, you have to start really early and get very resourceful. Even if you don’t have the knowledge or machinery to find your own trees to mill, if there is a local tree service near you, they might have a stockpile of tree trunks that they will sell for pretty cheap and if you can find a local with a portable sawmill, you can get some really nice wood for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to buy if from a mill. You have to have the space to stack it and a good year or so for drying, but that’s the only way we could have done it. I also think it’s great to be as involved as you want to be, but know your limitations and know when to bring in someone more experienced and budget that in. Most of the time that I was working on The Nook, I was working together with someone with more experience and skill than me. I could have really messed a lot up if I tried to do too much of it myself.
You will find more photos on our IG page @thenook
Or book a stay through Airbnb airbnb.com/h/thenookavl