Bold Ideas for Small Spaces

By Katie Powers

During the five weeks I spent sleeping in a tent on a NOLS trip in the Wind River Range, I thought hard about the ability of my backcountry abode to withstand the fierce late-spring storms. I’ve been thinking even harder lately about a vision for the way I’d like to live—how I will eat, what my career might look like, the sort of family I’d like to raise, and what kind of structure I might someday inhabit.

All around me people in the Tetons are working to realize their dreams without compromising the health of the planet. Read on to find out how four local families with bold ideas have transformed relatively small spaces into a breathtaking variety of places to call home.

 Kelly & Charlie

“It’s like playing fort,”  said Charlie Gorski, who lives in two of the twelve yurts in the Kelly, Wyoming, Yurt Park. His wife, Kelly, always thought living in a yurt would offer a fun break between occupying ‘real’ houses, but it doesn’t look like they will be moving out anytime soon.

Having inhabited round spaces for the past eight years, the couple said it has become something they feel inextricably and indefinitely bound to. As the years have passed, they’ve modified their living space to creatively and comfortably fill a nontraditional floor plan. A low-lying, glass-topped table provides the centerpiece of one of their interlinking yurts, and offers a gathering place that complements the larger space. They have purposely left an outdoor corridor separating the kitchen-and-living-room yurt and the sleeping yurt and, they said, they thrive on “the sound of the rain, and the natural light spilling through the ceiling.”

Charlie and Kelly have cultivated a deep appreciation of their home as a result of the time and labor they have invested in the ongoing cycle of taking care of it. There is no running water in the yurts, so it must be hauled from a well nearby (a common bathhouse is used by the residents for showering). The couple cuts their own firewood for heat. The roof must be replaced periodically, and the walls cleaned. Eighteen chickens and a large garden occupy the exterior landscape, and the maintenance of each is an added task. The concept of working hard for one’s shelter is shared within the community, and a special sort of camaraderie is fostered by the integrity required by such a lifestyle. To adults who take pleasure in living closer to nature, “playing fort” can be just as much fun as it was when they were children.

Dondi & Joe

I thought for sure I was lost as I steered my truck along a winding mountain road outside Tetonia, Idaho, looking for Joe and Dondi Tondro-Smith’s house. The snow was just beginning to melt, and I skidded along. I knew right away when I had found it, though. From an antique woodstove in the kitchen, a soft heat emanated and filled the tiny downstairs area, brushing off the damp March cold. The house seemed to open its arms and welcome me in.

Joe and Dondi dedicated almost two years to drawing, planning, and constructing a home to suit their lifestyle and provide a tangible realization of an ongoing search for simplification and a quieter footstep. It is built with a stick frame, clay walls, and foam insulation. Many of the materials are local—pine from a St. Anthony mill, scrap wood for cabinets, and salvaged windows. An overhanging roof allows for heat retention in winter and a shadier, cooler interior during warmer months. And yes, they even use the antique stove to do their cooking and baking. Every nook is functionally and artfully thought out, like the built-in shelving in the kitchen for dry goods and the bathroom vanity. The wood flooring in the bathroom meets up with the stone floor of the shower, making the room feel deeper when the shower curtain is open.  

Joe, who took a significant amount of time away from his career as a graphic designer and photographer, read books, consulted with friends, and was able to teach himself enough of the basics to be successful. There was plenty of help along the way, from Dondi and from an experienced Teton Valley community; the couple stressed that the completion of their home was the result of the devotion and support of many hands. One of their favorite memories is of the day that, in historical fashion, their walls were raised with the help of neighbors; an event, they say, that empowered them in more ways than one.

Tim & Erin with Charlie & friend Peter

When I walked into Tim and Erin Burnham’s more traditional home in the Cottonwood Shadows subdivision in Victor, I felt that I had been transported into the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. The kitchen faces westward, its windows peeking out into a secluded grove of aspens—a unique alternative to the more sought-after “Grand” views. They took ideas from publications full of glamorous photographs, but called on the experience of Erin’s architect father, friends within the industry, and Tim’s own work as a carpenter to make it more sustainable.

The place is filled with signs of deliberation: reclaimed floorboards and trusses; timber from a mill in Priest River, Idaho; a floor plan designed according to dimensions of the lumber (to nearly eliminate scraps); cork-based flooring in the bathroom; and a boot-drying rack above the dryer vent. Nearly all of the countertops throughout the house use the same granite, reducing the quantity of wasted stone. A guest bedroom is closed off and unheated for most of the year. Neatly manicured, raised garden beds provide homegrown vegetables for the couple and Charlie, their young son, and the rest of the landscaping is done with drought-tolerant flowers and shrubs.

Ben & Shannon

The straw-and-clay-walled structure that Ben Ellis and Shannon Shuptrine are building up Game Creek in Jackson Hole has been a long time coming. Both were raised to be mindful of the human relationship with the natural world, and the house is an obvious manifestation of such awareness. They have been living off the grid since 1998 in an 800 square-foot home on the same plot of land, and are using that experience to build a bigger space for their expanding family (the original will serve as a guest house).

“We’ve always tried to be fully aware of the life cycle of a home, and we wanted to express that with this project,” said Shannon as she stood at the kitchen sink, washing spinach. To them this means thinking about everything “from choosing a location that makes sense, to understanding where our electricity [and water] might come from twenty years down the road.” Shannon’s parents, Dick and Sandy, bought property nearby in 1978, and Shannon grew up, in large part, on the food the family produced themselves. Ben and Shannon’s young son, Flynn, gets to have all this and more.
The house is designed solar-electric, a system that will eventually place energy back into the grid system, making the couple “net producers.” The water and ambient air will be heated using a geothermal system. They say they’ve “forgotten about” being hooked up to a grid, and have made deliberate decisions to limit their own consumption of energy.

The house is built with a “light straw-clay” system that provides a high insulation value without compromising the thickness of walls. The structural wood came from the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the clay from Jackson, and the straw from Rexburg. The drainage system will allow for the irrigation of trees and other plants using gray water. A very small portion of ground is actually mowed and maintained lawn, the remainder left to native sagebrush and grasses. (You can watch the progress of this inspirational project, and access links, at