Learning to Invent: Building a Custom, Modular, Workstation for a Tiny House

Workstation Collage

As a relatively tall human (6’1’’) I’ve struggled with using tools designed for others of average height. One primary example was the ergonomics of my computer workstation. Computers have gotten smaller and more portable over time which has been wonderful for adapting the computers to tiny living spaces, but hunching over a laptop all day was a pain in the neck. I tried all sorts of marketed solutions, yet, these solutions were designed for smaller humans and never quite fit me. I loved the laptop size and portability for our tiny house but the problem was always that the keyboard and the monitor screen were connected so that either my hands or my neck were uncomfortable. My hands needed to be low and my screen needed to be high to meet my gaze.

Recently, I retired my seven year-old MacBook Pro computer. As such, I decided I had a new opportunity to address my old keyboard/screen problem. I purchased a new Microsoft Surface Pro computer which is a tablet, touch-screen, laptop hybrid where the keyboard is removable. I loved the concept of this new multipurpose computer but I hated the idea of hunching over an even smaller device at my desk or in my lap. Even if I had a separate wireless keyboard at my hands I needed a way to put my screen up high.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Richard Franck

To solve this surprisingly complex problem of a pain-free, tiny house workstation, I had to distil my most basic needs and wants. This computer workstation had to be:

  • Adjustable
  • Stable, durable, and inexpensive
  • Modular, storable, and easy to use

Most of the ergonomic products on the market were expensive, business oriented, and had to be permanently mounted for stability. My partner, Tammy, solved this problem elegantly by using the bookcase in the tiny house as a standing workstation. Unfortunately, the bookshelves are not at the correct height for me. Even if we had made our book shelves adjustable for my height, I like to alternate between a sitting and standing workstation. Also, I use my computer for more than work. If I wanted to read a recipe from my computer while I was cooking in the kitchen, or watching a movie in bed, I wanted to be able to do so hands free. I realized I needed a mobile stand with a mount for the tablet computer.

Since part of the tiny house DIY ethos is to simplify, it didn’t make sense for me to engineer this tool from scratch. I decided to search for a motley hodgepodge of items that I could assemble together. The result of my inventing process was:

For approximately $75, I now I have a stable, pain-free, workstation that can move around the tiny house. This little workstation adjusts to my height (standing, sitting, or laying down), and can easily be disassembled for storage. Living deliberately with a DIY ethos has helped me assemble my life to meet my physical and emotional needs. I believe all humans are capable of clever ideas. It’s the implementation of those ideas and inventing them into reality that is the challenging part. With a little practice using the Tiny House DIY ethos you too can tailor your life and reduce the discomfort of having to use tools made for the status quo.

Rear view of workstation

Tiny house DIY ethos

In an age of experts and specialization most of us surrender to the complexity of a new problem and pay to have a professional repair the issue for us. However, there is something about living small and striving for simplicity that has changed my perspective and given me a sense of empowerment. Experts call this improved “self-efficacy”, which means, you have greater confidence in your ability to understand problems. When I run into a problem now I try simplify it and make it easier to understand the parts that make up the whole. Recently I have noticed that many tiny house dwellers share a similar do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos. Some people go so far as to build their own homes without any construction experience. In this article I want to share a recent DIY success I had and describe the limits I see to the DIY ethos.

I will be the first to admit that I use complex technology that I don’t fully understand daily. I do prefer tools that I understand for obvious reasons, if it breaks I can fix it. Recently, I had a tragedy occur to one of my favorite tools. I broke the glass touch-screen of my iPhone. After getting over my feelings of clumsy ineptitude I realized I could learn how to repair my phone. After all, the glass is only one part and parts can be replaced so how difficult could it be?

Even only twenty years ago it would have been difficult to accomplish a similar task because of the lack of information. What tools are needed for repair? Where do you order these tools and parts for the repair? How do you perform the repair? Experts were experts because they had more information than others on a topic. With the advent of the internet information age, combined with the altruistic nature of other people documenting their knowledge in blog posts and YouTube videos, anyone can address their ignorance. With the help of DIY websites called ifixit.com and powerbookmedic.com I was able to order used parts and tools and learn how to fix my own device. Further, I used my new skill and tools to repair my teenage cousin’s phone and teach her what I learned.

The success of my DIY project was fun to share with my cousin, however, it begs one big caveat: What are the limits to DIY projects? When learning a new skill I try to imagine the risks of a mistake. If I damage my iPhone during the repair, I can correct it with minimal consequence. However, if I repair the brakes on my car and the repair fails, it may be fatal. You can certainly learn how to perform complex tasks with greater risk, but I would advise getting an experienced teacher to help check your work and lower your risk of harm.

My simple and smaller living philosophy doesn’t mean I have to grow every bit of food or repair every tool that breaks. It means I enjoy living deliberately. By becoming smarter about my ignorance I can help others and obtain more meaning from my contributions to my community. In this way I can worry less about my personal value being tied to my financial spending power. I believe my greatest contribution to society is not the money that I spend but how I spend my time.

iphone fix