Joe Nusbaum wasn’t planning to become a gypsy last January, when he started building a mobile domicile in his backyard. The Homeland Security policy writer, who has no architectural background, drew up a plan based on living spaces he had seen in a Chelsea Green Publishing book called Freewheeling Homes, including several built by Corinth resident Dan Wing. The result is technically called a “vardo,” but most people would identify it as a gypsy caravan.
Nusbaum, 35, has been obsessed with Roma trailers for the past four years, he says, but only as a hobby. Comfortably entrenched in a spacious farmhouse on the Shelburne/Charlotte border, he originally planned his vardo as a grown-up treehouse, complete with a flatscreen TV. Still, he says, “The thing that inspired me to do this was deliberately and consciously downsizing.”
Then, all of a sudden, downsizing became a necessity. In March, Homeland Security’s espionage unit cut back, leaving Nusbaum jobless. His “real” house is now on the market. As for the vardo, he says, “I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”
Nusbaum originally hired self-described “jack of all trades” Tim Thomas to oversee the vardo’s construction. But once unemployed, he says, he found himself wondering, “Do I pull the plug, or do this on my own?” He eventually worked out a way to share the labor with Thomas, telling him that “absolutely anything I can do, I need to do myself.”
Nusbaum describes the still-unfurnished dwelling as “about the size of a walk-in closet.” It feels more spacious, partly because of the angled walls, which make the 10-foot-long trailer 5 feet wide at the bottom but more than 8 feet at the top. A barrel ceiling adds to the roominess.
Ingenious design helps create space, too: A small bed is built into the back of the wagon. Pull-out tables on each side can be used as dining areas or computer desks. Food prep is facilitated by a dry sink over each nightstand, a fridge covered with vintage wood, a ceramic water cooler, dry sinks with draining holes and a two-burner LP gas grill. “The only element it really lacks is a bathroom,” says Nusbaum, but he supposes that “anywhere I parked, there would be one.”
When it comes to construction, Nusbaum admits, “It’s learning as you go.” The self-starter has gone far beyond the basics, however. Take the stained-glass windows. Nusbaum made them himself, inspired by the rosemaling (a Scandinavian floral decorative technique) on a trunk painted by his Norwegian grandmother.
Nusbaum plans to move into the vardo by July 11, when he and his boyfriend will take it on its maiden voyage to Provincetown. Once back in Vermont, Nusbaum has plenty of offers for parking places. “The good thing about this is, since it’s so nonintrusive, I have plenty of friends saying, ‘Stay with us, stay with us,’” he says.
Nusbaum adds that he will be happy to pay rent on the space the vardo occupies; he expects to tap into his host’s electricity and “help with those expenses.” Rather than overstay his welcome, he promises to “try to gauge if people are ready for me to move on.”
When he does hit the open road, the vardo will be hitched to his Toyota Highlander Hybrid — the final gift from a beloved aunt last year. Nusbaum sees his car — which, he says, “I never would have thought to buy for myself” — as an extension of the same philosophy the vardo represents. Though he calls his home-to-be “whimsical and fun,” the ancient design also speaks to his hopes for a Walden-like existence. “It resonates with the ecological and really represents that in a beautiful way,” Nusbaum says. “It hasn’t really changed in 1200 years.”
His boyfriend is not yet sure whether he’s willing to take to the road for more than a vacation, but Nusbaum says he hopes they can both adopt a “yacht mindset.” The builder himself says that, until he finds employment and a longer-term plan, he’s comfortable with being a full-time gypsy. “It can be a fallback,” he reflects. “If I need to, this can be my home.”
Though the events that led him here would demoralize many of us, Nusbaum is grateful for the twist of fate. Losing his job has given him time to pursue writing fiction. And, as he looks at the shell of his new home, he smiles and says, “There are factors forcing me to live out my dreams — whether I want to or not.”
Used to be that if you wanted a green house, your choices were forest green, sage, mint julep or seafoam spray. Today, green houses are more about R-values, sustainably cut lumber and low-flow toilets. The green-building revolution may not be televised, but it has arrived in Vermont and is making headlines.
This week, Ryan and Susan Hayes share their blueprint for a greener footprint with their ambitious plans for an earth-friendly house; Ken Picard asks which houses are green and which ones are “greenwashed”; Kevin Kelley visits Middlebury’s Good Point Recycling to find out where our electronic trash goes; and Lauren Ober contemplates “upcycling.” Shelburne’s Joe Nusbaum takes a tiny house on the road, as Alice Levitt reports; Food Editor Suzanne Podhaizer takes on takeout — containers.
We’ve only got one planet. Let’s not waste it.
This is just one article from our 2009 Green Issue. Click here for more Green Issue stories.