Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | People

Living Small: Gregory Johnson

By Kelly Stavnes
Johnson Johnson practices environmental activism and improves his personal health by living in a tiny home.

When people dream of changing the world, they usually have big plans. Gregory Johnson prefers to think small.

A committed environmental and social activist, Johnson, 86BA, traded his 2,000-square-foot home for a ten-by-seven-foot wooden cabin that makes a UI dorm room seem positively palatial. The one-room, cedar-sided home sits on a trailer in his father and stepmother's backyard in Iowa City. The first level contains two folding chairs, a table, a built-in desk, and a few mementos, while a narrow ladder leads to a loft with a bed. Conspicuously absent are a bathroom, a kitchen, electricity, or running water.

Part of the "small house" movement that's gaining ground (figuratively speaking) in America, Johnson says he's saving energy and natural resources. He takes showers at the gym and relies on battery-powered appliances and shady trees to keep him cool in the summer and a boat cabin heater to provide winter warmth. When he needs a break from his "mobile hermitage" or access to modern conveniences, he can always dash into his father and stepmother's house.

As well as reducing his environmental footprint, Johnson also credits his small house with major health improvements. Since moving into the cabin in 2003, he's shed 100 pounds, taken up yoga, and switched to a vegan diet. He also ditched his car for a bike, which he rides year-round.

"The small space encourages me to get out and exercise," he says. "Without distractions like television and chores, I have a lot more free time."

After a long day in front of computer screens as a consultant for the UI's Language Media Center, Johnson welcomes the simplicity of his home. As head of the national Small House Society, he also encourages others to think about the "ecological, economic, and psychological toll that excessive housing takes on our lives." It isn't about being "tinier than thou," notes the society's website; instead, "the goal is for each person to find the right size space that fits their life and comfort level."

While Johnson wouldn't trade his home, he admits that there are drawbacks. He misses being able to entertain visitors, but he finds it easy to socialize in downtown Iowa City's many coffee shops, restaurants, and public places.

After four years in his small house, Johnson has no plans to move.

"A simple life gives me the opportunity to live as though I'm independently wealthy," he says. "I just don't have the same concerns as someone who lives a complicated life cluttered with energy-consuming stuff."