How to Live in a Teacup

First an apology. I promised the next post would be about juniper jin, and as you can tell, this is not that. Since this summer, the construction of a house has been my focus, which is partly why my posts this fall have not had their usual frequency. In lieu of the usual bonsai offerings, I thought I owed you at least the story of what I’m doing, and why.

About a year ago I was ruminating on several things. The first was that I had another apprentice arriving soon (which would make 2), the second was that the rents in Portland, Oregon, USA are on the far side of ridiculous, and the third was that I lived alone in a suburban home with three bedrooms in it. The math wasn’t adding up.

Years ago, when I was just entering graduate school (for ceramics, a former life) I thought that it would be economical if I built a small home for myself, bigger than a capsule room in Japan, smaller than a villa, and mobile. I never did that. Later, before buying my current home, I reinvestigated the idea of a micro home. The small living industry had made some leaps but for several unrelated reasons I didn’t make the leap then either. But the idea of living as a bonsai does, in a small space, and having everything you care about within reach, has appealed to me for a long time.

This year I realized there was a win-win in the making. With apprentices I have often felt like I was in their way by living at the studio residence. Apprentices should have full access to the bonsai and be immersed in the life of trees. And as I wasn’t interested in a commune, I needed to evict myself.

The first part of this year was spent designing a simple, modern cabin that would serve as a primary dwelling. Because I didn’t know if I would ever own more land, I chose to make it mobile. When I started designing this building, I was really at a loss. I would spend hours on Pinterest where I was thrilled with 95% of the architectural ideas I was seeing. Many got pinned. It was fun, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I realized I needed a framework, a reason for doing what I was doing. I needed an intention.

The space that I then imagined was very simple. It would be for contemplation, full of natural light, with books and a wood stove.

The surface of a building seems to be as important as the skin of glaze on a pot, or the bark of a tree. It tells you much about what it is, and for a building, it is the first greeting you have before entering.  For my simple cabin I am using a traditional Japanese siding, called yakisugi, or shou sugi ban. Sugi is cryptomeria, although I used a local conifer, Western Red Cedar. The technique involves burning the wood, then brushing the char off, and then coating with a natural oil. The burning helps protect the wood from UV decomposition, insects, and fungus, and because it’s pre-burned, it is ironically more fire-resistant. Many traditional buildings in Japan use this technique for the longevity it offers the siding, and I liked the fact that it was not painted. The dark burned exterior wood will set off a warm birch interior.

What I liked least about my studio residence, a simple ranch, was that it insulated me from the outside. The idea that solved this for the micro home was a double set of French doors that would be opposite one another, so that when opened would essentially be a breezeway across the middle, where one could place a table, a chair, or string up a hammock according to the whim of the day. I have no such whimsical luxury or exterior connection at my current residence.

This year I watched a documentary with my apprentice Andrew about Japanese architecture, and realized they had achieved similar goals much more elegantly hundreds of years ago, with the shoji screen slider that exits out onto a narrow, long porch, protected from the rain by a wide overhang. Move the screen, and the inside becomes the outside, intimate with the environment.

Of the things I love about bonsai, the strongest is how it connects me with the currents of the seasons, the lesser winds, and the light that I might not notice if I were not outside smelling and looking and feeling. And yet I found I was only doing this with bonsai, not with how I lived. For that I needed a double set of French doors.

Well, that is what I’ve been up to, and why my posts (and to some extent my communication) has not been quite up to par. This should change come spring.

The title of this post is obviously ridiculous, since I have no idea how to live in a teacup and have no guidance to share there—although I did for a time live in a 97 sq. ft. mountain cabin and enjoyed it immensely. And though I did drink tea there, the tea was mute about what life in a teacup was like. If I get any inkling of this in the new dwelling, I promise to tell about it.

The following is a random assortment of photos from the first few months of the build, except for the last three, which is how it looked when I began living in it. The build took 5 months, and from conception to completion one full year.



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  1. Dwayne Berrett says:

    Absolutely fascinating! This project is so like you – resourceful and so capable! Wishing you well in 2018! Dwayne

    p.s. Where will your tiny house and tiny trees be?? Still in Portland?


    • crataegus says:

      Hi Dwayne, nothing like a reply four years later…sorry I missed this! The new home and the tiny trees are all in Portland. I now commute from the tiny home, sometimes by bike along a ex-railway, to the ‘studio residence’, as my apprentices have taken to calling it.

  2. Michael – 2 observations:

    1) You may know more about life in a tea cup than you give yourself credit for… At least when it comes to Arboreal life in a tiny vessel 😉 –

    2) It seems that you will now have room for 3 apprentices. When are the auditions ? LOL

    • crataegus says:

      Ha! These are all such great comments and they slipped by me for 4 years. Ugh. Well, the apprentice’s family members are filling up the house. So more rooms was a boon.

  3. Jill R. Simmons says:

    More people should do what you are doing! I’ve been living in a stick built houseboat in Massachusetts since 1994. Lot more square footage than a teacup however (576 Sq. Ft.) but still significantly less than most houses. The best part of being a boat is that if you get sick of the neighborhood you can move without packing! The barge makes a great place to winter over my trees (cold and dark but never less has 32.1 in all the years I’ve been there because salt water underneath Kees it regulated pretty well, generally 38-45 all winter). There are times that the 475’ walk down the dock really sucks but my tropicals all like t that I keep the houseboat at 74 degrees. The roof is my tree location of choice for the summer.

    When I first moved to the boat it was amazing how freeing it was to get rid of “stuff”. You’ll see. You won’t be trapped by articles. So, good for you! Small living is the best.

    *************************************** Sgt. J.R. Simmons (NBPD-Ret.) Harbormaster 16 Main Street Mattapoisett, MA 02739 Office: 508-758-4191 Cell: 508-742-5800


    • crataegus says:

      Sorry for a 4 year delay in responding, I missed many comments from this post for some reason. I love houseboats. Wheels, water, there’s quite a bit of similarity. And, how to make small spaces work in tiny homes have much to thank maritime solutions for. Those sailors had a lot of things figured out. I’ve been living in it now for over three years and just love it. Some would certainly go nuts living in 192 sq. feet, but this works well for me. Also, it’s easy to design poorly at that scale and then no one could live in it!

  4. RAY NORRIS says:

    Looking good Michael. Very interested to see The finished product. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!


    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Very cool! I love it… if I had a stamp of approval this would have it already. Love the burned wood. My grandfather did this to his barn in Pennsylvania. He knew nothing about the Japanese technique as far as I know and his fellow Pennsylvanians thought he was nuts. The barn is standing to this day, same siding… and he did this way before I ever came to be.

  6. tangobunny says:


    Read your post with great interest. You are ever changing/evolving in curious and marvelously inspiring ways.

    Happy Christmas, and find a way to dance a bit!




  7. David Wheeler says:

    Michael……you continue to amaze me.

    On Wed, Dec 20, 2017 at 2:01 AM, Michael Hagedorn wrote:

    > crataegus posted: “First an apology. I promised the next post would be > about juniper jin, and as you can tell, this is not that. Since this > summer, the construction of a house has been my focus, which is partly why > my posts this fall have not had their usual frequency. In l” >

  8. Jaume says:

    Dear Michael
    First of all thank you for your book and blog.
    Maybe this video series could be interesting for you.

  9. June says:

    Good for you! The tiny house movement is real!

    • crataegus says:

      I suppose it is! I’ve been somewhat out of touch with the movement, but where I built it, an ex-shipyard, there were many who were deeply invested in the movement.

  10. tolbonsai says:

    Since I was a boy I have thought about this type of a home. I absolutely love it!

  11. mroseberry6 says:

    Nice! When will we get to see the final result?!

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