How—and Why—One Woman Lives in 150 Square Feet

What do you do when you’re a reluctant city dweller craving nature? If you’re ecologist Jenny Carney, you build yourself a tiny remote getaway (with a little help from Pa).

Photo by Rob Howard

Jenny Carney was almost struck by lightning once. A field ecologist, she was using a metal tank of compressed nitrogen to measure the moisture content in a tree. “It started to drizzle,” she says. “Then out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning hit the tank. Fortunately, the tank didn’t explode. But the simultaneous light-sound experience—“near death by natural disaster,” she jokes—was a pretty exciting moment in her (outdoor) working life.

About 10 years ago, Jenny, now 37, took her scientific-inquiry skills indoors, where she felt they could make more of an impact. She runs a sustainability consulting firm in Chicago called YR&G that advises companies on all aspects of green building and energy-efficiency. It’s rewarding work, for sure. But sitting in front of a computer all day made Jenny, who had grown up in rural Wisconsin and had traversed forests in her previous gig, ache for nature. It’s a familiar feeling, even for those of us with urban roots and desk-centric careers.

Hatching a Plan

Raised by parents who had let their kids wander free with an ethos of benign neglect,” Jenny had fond memories of slipping past barbed-wire fences to say hello to the neighbors’ cows. She dreamed of a similar vibe for adulthood, but she didn’t have the budget for a traditional country house.

Then she read a book that galvanized her. It was by journalist Richard Louv and titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Suddenly Jenny had a name for the malaise many of us feel from being cooped up too much—nature-deficit disorder—and confirmation that, as she explains it, “a compulsion toward nature is a health imperative.” If she couldn’t buy a place, she decided, she would build one herself. Something tiny. Did she have the construction chops? Not yet. But she was a good learner, and she had a secret weapon: her dad, Paul, who, she notes, “could build just about anything.” She started combing online listings for affordable property relatively close to Chicago, in a part of her home state that she considered particularly beautiful.

Discovering Xanadu

In early 2009, Jenny purchased six acres of raw land in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, near the bluffs of the Mississippi River. She taught herself the 3-D modeling software SketchUp and spent that spring designing a small structure. Jenny had never designed anything before, but the software is perfect for beginners. “I was shooting for something more like a studio,” she says. In her head, she downplayed the fact that she would actually need to sleep there overnight. (The land was a good four hours from Chicago.) This made the project seem attainable despite my lack of experience,” she adds with a laugh.

The structure that she drew and later built is not big and not fancy. Says Jenny: “It’s very intentionally not a house—it’s at best a shelter. I actually call it a shed. Sometimes I sleep in a tent or outside on the porch if the bugs and weather are tolerable. Sometimes I sleep inside.” Jenny’s friend Cayce nicknamed the retreat Xanadu, after the enchanted landscape in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” It’s an apt moniker. The area features rolling hills, small farms, and country roads dotted with Amish buggies. And at 150 square feet, the shed is all about what surrounds it. “The default state at Xanadu is to be outside in nature,” says Jenny. “You have to make the active decision to go inside.”

It’s in the Genes

Jenny grew up watching both her parents make things with their hands. Her mother, Jane, is an artist who teaches reupholstering (just one of her many skills) at the local tech school. Jane taught Jenny and her sister how to cane chairs, a skill that came in handy when they needed pocket money during graduate school. Jenny’s father, a retired construction foreman who worked on bridges, built the family’s current home and several outbuildings with help from his kids and his brothers. Jenny says, “Lots of people from Wisconsin are like this. They’re industrious—they just do things.”

Raising a Shed

By most accounts, Jenny’s shed went up smoothly one extended October weekend in 2009, in large part because Jenny and Paul made a great team. She’s a planner; he’s a figure-it-out-as-you-go-er. “I enlisted his help right away to look at my drawings and tell me whether it was going to work,” she says. “But he didn’t fully engage in the project until we were actually building it.” Then there was no problem he could not solve.

They started by choosing a location for the structure. Jenny wanted to build deep in the woods, on a level road that followed an old farmer’s fence line. Her city self sought privacy. Paul convinced her to move the site closer to the field where she would park her car, in part so they wouldn’t have to lug building materials as far. (She thanked him later.) They created what’s known as a floating foundation by laying a small bed of gravel for each footing and arranging 12 concrete deck blocks (they look like cinder blocks). Working hard with Jenny and Paul all weekend were Paul’s brother Bob and Jenny’s mom, Jane, who also kept the team well fed. At one point, a couple of friends stopped by to lend extra hands.

Says newbie-builder Jenny, “When you focus on the constituent parts, [a project like this] seems manageable: Build a floor, add some walls, top it with a roof.” And that’s what they did. After the foundation was in place, they framed the floor, dropping supports of different lengths to create a level surface on the hill. Since they were building on an incline, the supports at the top of the hill are shorter than those at the bottom—and the floor appears to stick straight out of the hillside.

Days at Xanadu are spent lounging on the porch and enjoying the company of friends while waiting the 20 minutes it takes for water to boil.

Next they put down plywood floor decking. Then they framed the walls, leaving room for windows, and the roof, which would be metal, to facilitate rainwater collection.

After the skeleton of the shed was in place, they hung exterior walls made of plywood and added a layer of environmentally friendly siding (made of cement, sand, and wood fiber). “Fiber-cement siding,” Jenny explains, “is durable and low-maintenance, yet it’s far more environmentally preferred than vinyl siding. For one thing, it’s inert and noncombustible, so you don’t have to worry about off-gassing or the release of toxic compounds in the event of a fire.” Paul and Jenny finished up by installing energy-efficient windows and a sliding-glass door that opens onto a porch, sheltered by an overhanging roof.

Three and a half days after the project began, the exterior shell was complete. Jenny’s mom rewarded the team with a huge pan of lasagna made on a camp stove.

Filling in the Blanks

The remaining construction took place in stages over the course of the following year. Jenny came back by herself to build the interior walls. She used Energy Star–qualified foam insulation between the studs and finished the inside walls and the ceiling with formaldehyde-free plywood.

That fall, Paul returned, and together they fitted the space with a woodstove and a chimney so it could be used in winter. He and Jenny also built a simple, space-saving Murphy-type bed: It’s a basic platform bed whose head is attached to the wall with hinges. They added hooks to the far legs and chains to the wall so that the bed could be hinged and lifted to hang vertically, flush against the wall, when not in use. Bed linens are kept in two storage bins that, like most everything in the shed, serve a dual purpose—they’re sofa seating.

Something To Eat, Nothing To Do

Jenny researched vegetables that could thrive without care. Since she’s not around to water regularly, they needed to be OK with what nature provides. In raised beds in a nearby field, she grows onions, fingerling potatoes, and beans, which she leaves to dry on the vine, then harvests for dinner.

Days at Xanadu are spent lounging on the porch, blazing trails, hunting for wild morel mushrooms, and enjoying the company of friends and loved ones while waiting the 20 minutes it takes for water to boil on the woodstove.

The Unfinished Product

There’s still no plumbing or electricity installed on the property, and for now Jenny prefers it this way. She collects rainwater in a barrel to wash dishes, cooks on a campfire propane grill or the woodstove, uses a solar-charged battery to power a few lights, and turns to sawdust and a bucket for a loo. As long as you’re prepared to rough it, she says, staying at Xanadu feels like cushy camping.

In an effort to return the land to its original state. Jenny cultivates prairie plants, such as milkweed. (Monarch-butterfly larvae require it, and sadly it’s disappearing.) Last year, she planted heirloom apple trees, which the deer keep picking at. In a field near the garden are tree-swallow houses made by Paul from a design that Jenny found online. Birds make their home there during mating season; field mice take residence the rest of the year. Even the swallows have a second purpose, says Jenny: “They’re insectivores, gobbling mosquitoes to make lounging in the field more appealing for humans.”

Jenny dreams of a high-speed rail link between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, which would allow her to make the most of the trek. Until then, she does the four-hour drive whenever she can get away, staying as long as her schedule permits.

At the end of each visit, before she heads back to her city life, she has a ritual. She sits on the porch, drinking a beer and reading a poem.

Paul Carney understands Jenny’s pull toward this rustic project. During his retirement, he figures that he spends 90 percent of his waking time outside, gardening, fishing, and working on his house. “In the summer, I just come in to eat and sleep,” he reports.

Like father, like daughter.