Deb Naybor had a 31-year career as a licensed land surveyor. After three decades in the construction industry, with a side-passion for tiny living, she decided to go back to school - completing a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD before making a career change into teaching.
She found herself back at Paul Smith’s College of the Adirondacks, where she attended herself in the 70s. She came to Yestermorrow in July 2018 to take the Tiny House Design/Build course, with the hope of bringing what she learned back to Paul Smith’s.
A kindred spirit to Yestermorrow in philosophy, Paul Smith’s is known for its focus on experiential education. According to their mission, “Living and learning here requires a special kind of student – someone who values the abundance of our natural landscape and embraces our spirit of creative self-reliance.”
Deb brings that to life in her courses. In November 2018, she took a field trip back to Yestermorrow with one of her students, Jimmy, who is a wildlife biology major. We toured campus and visited with the semester program students at the job site in Montpelier. As Deb says, “It’s great to be in educational environments that believe in what I believe in.”
How did this whole journey begin for you?
D: I’ve built big houses, and I’ve lived in tiny houses, but I’d never built a tiny house. And I’d never taught anyone else how to build. So I knew I had to take a class to figure out how to teach a class. I looked around for a class where I could experience both design and build from a student’s point of view. There were a lot of weekend courses, but I knew that would be too rushed.
So I found Yestermorrow’s two-week Tiny House Design/Build course and that was perfect for me. Plus, I saw a lot of opportunity for Paul Smith’s College and Yestermorrow to partner in the future. I told my Yestermorrow instructors, “I’m doing this to learn how to teach this,” and they were extremely supportive of that. They demonstrated so much patience, and by watching my classmates and realizing they didn’t even know how to use a tape measure yet, I better understood how to set up my own semester program for students starting from scratch.
This semester, I’m teaching a 3-credit hour Tiny House Design class, and in the future I’m hoping to add a Tiny House Build class. We do a senior capstone, and I have a lot of students who want to demonstrate mastery through something hands-on instead of writing a research paper. So I said, “okay, we need to build something mobile, and it has to be small and low-budget,” so the students designed and built two micro-campers.
They used recycled materials, worked off of palettes, cut natural materials, and designed two totally different trailers. We just raffled one off and made $1,000, which paid for all the costs! Because of that, the local Adirondack Center for Writing has asked my capstone class to build them a book mobile, where they’ll sell local authors’ books at different events around the Adirondacks.
That’s so inspiring! The domino effect of you coming to Yestermorrow just four months ago and how much has happened in such a short amount of time.
D: Yestermorrow gave me a whole different idea about how to do this. I try to make the case to my students’ parents why it’s practical to learn to build a tiny house as a college student.
Well, mobile living is very attractive to a mobile generation.
D: Exactly. It’s no longer the “40 years and a gold watch” ideal of having one career. I tell my students all the time, “If you can design and build your own tiny house, you can position yourself to take your dream job because you will always have a solid place to come home to at night.”
Jimmy, how did you stumble upon Deb’s class?
J: I actually toured her class during my sustainability semester, learning primitive skills.
Had you seen a tiny house before that?
J: I was familiar with the idea. I thought I wanted to live in a van at the time. I’m still not completely sure, but right now a tiny house is the dream. I’m in the design semester right now, and I’m hoping that gives me enough basic information to launch from, using my design. We have a full set of plans done - electrical, framing - but we only have three weeks left! I’d love to fit a build class into my spring semester. I have the Yestermorrow catalog and I’m marking it up.
D: I’m writing an academic paper on the educational value of tiny/house building for students. I’ve found some evidence that it teaches project management, mathematics skills, and teamwork. But there’s not a lot published on it. In higher education, it’s mostly for architecture or engineering, but not so much for sustainability students, which is where I believe it should be. I’ll be presenting this at an international sustainability conference in Vancouver next summer. Then my sister and I are touring the coast west of Vancouver and staying in seven different tiny houses.
As I connect with the tiny house owners, they connect me with city planners and associations, and I’m seeing how the movement is building. This is the time for us to have research to support it. This is not just a bunch of people who want to build RVs or shacks. We’re not homeless people, we’re people who value our space. People think it’s a trend, like it’s something that's going to die out, but to that I say, I’ve been involved in tiny houses for 20 years, way before HGTV came along!
Exactly. Before all the hype, before the Instagram accounts, you were living tiny.
D: But one challenge is that the average tiny house owner only lives in it for 3 years. That’s mainly due to life changes, not because they don’t like the house - but they get married, have kids, changes jobs. I was worried about starting to see a trend where there were too many tiny houses. Most people want to design and build their own, and what’s the resale? But there’s always somebody else who wants to live tiny. Mainly the young people and the old people. I just got asked to talk to a senior citizens breakfast club about downsizing, because they all want to be in a smaller space. My big advice will be, get rid of the single-function kitchen appliances! The George Foreman grill and the electric waffle maker have to go.
Well, we’re so excited to follow your progress.
D: Just when I think I’m close to retiring in a few years, I come here, and now I have a whole new crusade! I’m not gonna retire until I’m 108 at this point, so I have 40 more years.