Podcast

Episode 127 – Kim Lewis, Finding Abundance in the Tiny

This week we’re continuing our series, Going Against the Grain, with designer and tiny home aficionado, Kim Lewis. You may know Kim as the Lead Designer behind ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and founder of Kim Lewis Designs in Austin, TX. Today, Kim and Jessica talk about the pursuit of minimalism and the personal battles that led Kim to strike out on her own and carve a new path.

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Are you ready for honest and vulnerable conversations that will inspire you towards action? Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Today is such a treat. Kim Lewis, Kim Lewis, ah! She is, gosh, there are not many people in the world like Kim Lewis. She is a little lady with big ideas – she’s 4’11, maybe. She’s best known for her work as the lead designer behind ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” She’s also the founder of Kim Lewis Designs. Her work has been featured on ABC, HGTV, TLC, and National Geographic, but most recently, she designs restaurants, (Torchy’s Tacos, anybody?) boutiques, and hotels around the world. She also has a passion for building therapeutic art centers for rescued children in Ghana, Cambodia, Thailand, and Honduras.

So, so many things that I could talk with Kim about, but what I wanted to do is have her on the show to talk about tiny living. She has lived in a tiny house for several years, some of those as a mom of young children, and I’m always really fascinated by minimalists. Because this girl, this seven on the Enneagram – guys, I am not a minimalist.

So, when I hear about people, for years not just a season, – you guys know I lived in an airstream for six months, but I was not ready to go live in an airstream for years – but Kim is super committed to tiny living, and leaving a small footprint on the earth. We talked about tiny living, and we also talked about her own life.

She shared about losing her mom as a young girl, the end of her first marriage, but you’re gonna hear that Kim truly is an encourager, and you know, when someone who has been through a lot of suffering is an encourager, that encouragement comes from such a deep place. And right now, I am drawing energy from people who have been through suffering and really walk in resilience. So, you’re really going to enjoy this conversation with Kim Lewis.

 

Kim Lewis: Finding Abundance in the Tiny

Jessica: Oh, my gosh, Kim. I remember the first time… Do you remember when we met? It was on a panel. We were speaking on a panel together.

Kim: Yes, for Austin Woman Magazine and I was like, "I need to spend more time with her. I love her."

Jessica: That is how I felt. I fell in love with you. I think within the first five minutes, we were messing with our microphones, and you were wearing this beautifully tailored dress, and I basically unzipped your dress and hooked the microphone on your bra.

Kim: I was like, "Hey, nice to meet you. Let’s do this." That’s how friendships start, man. Just trust, you know? It’s so good. I love it.

Jessica: That’s how it went, that’s how it went.

Kim: It’s so fun.

Jessica: I mean, you can hear it through your voice. I mean, you were just full of so much joy, and energy, and love, and sunshine, and I’m sure people tell you that all the time. But it’s bottled up in about 4’8"?

Kim: Oh, girl, give me some credit, 4’10". Don’t be taking 2 inches away from me. I fight for those extra inches. I’m 4’10" and a half but honestly, I probably am 4’9". I say 4’10". And, yes, my nickname with a few of my friends is Polly Pocket. It’s funny that you say "bottled up" because they say, "Sometimes if I’m having a bad day, I just feel like I need to have you like my little Polly Pocket in my back pocket to give me a smile." I’m like, "That’s really sweet. I’ll take it. I’ll be your Polly Pocket."

Jessica: I love that. I’ve started doing work with a new therapist, and a lot of the work that he is teaching me is to imagine using my imagination in embodying, like, God’s presence with me and care. And on our last session together, he was like, "If you need to imagine me walking in and caring for you…" And so, I bet your girlfriends, I bet in moments when they need a cheer, you are in their imaginations.

Kim: That’s so sweet.

Jessica: I bet they channel you.

Kim: Oh, that’s really sweet. I hope so. I mean, that is why I named our first daughter Sunny because I want to just… You know, we have a short time on this Earth, and I want it to be something positive and cheerful. And yes. In fact, yesterday… This is completely random. Yesterday, the color of the year came out from Pantone and it is the most…

“We have a short time on this Earth, and I want it to be something positive and cheerful.” Kim Lewis

Jessica: Yes! Yes!

Kim: Did you see it?

Jessica: Yes, of course, I did!

Kim: Oh, my gosh, are you not so excited?

Jessica: So excited.

Kim: I wanted to hug the Pantone colors.

Jessica: Yes! Yes! Yes, it’s the color of Noonday and our Noonday logo, and I’m like yes!

Kim: Yes, it is. I mean, it’s the best color. They just did the right thing.

Jessica: It is.

Kim: There’s so much psychology in color, and that’s exactly the color that we need right now is cheerfulness, yellow.

Jessica: We do. Yellow is optimism, and we are longing for optimism right now. Speaking of that, before… You know, I want everyone to get to know you and your background. But how is business going? You are a designer. You have Kim Lewis Designs. How has that been during COVID?

Kim: You know, honestly, Jessica, God has blessed us in so many ways. And, you know, it’s been a hard year for everyone, but our business is doing okay, and I’m super grateful. And I have a small team, and we’ve held it together. Predominantly, we usually design restaurants. Obviously, that changed over the course of the year and less restaurants are opening sadly, but we have had a few. We’ve been concepting, doing a lot of other types of projects. And so, we’re really blessed. I mean, I look back on this year and say, "I feel like we’re in a position where I can just glorify God and say thank you for providing." I mean He, in every way, He’s provided.

So, we’re doing well actually, and I say that out of total humility because I know it’s been a hard year for everyone. But we’ve given where we can and bought from small businesses, and it’s just more important than ever. And that’s been at the core of my company for a while as it is, like you are, we’re very much soul sisters in that way. But with COVID, I think it’s brought it so much more to the surface for everyone.

 

Making a House a Home

Jessica: So true. So good. Well, I’m glad to hear that.

Kim: Thank you.

Jessica: Okay, so I wanted to start with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" because that is… You were eight years the lead designer on this epic, insane – I cannot imagine what it must have been like on that show. So, first of all, for those that are listening that don’t remember, what was the 101 premise for that "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"?

Kim: It was a television show on ABC, and we built a home for families in five days and gifted them. So, the premise of it, if you remember, it was Ty Pennington, "Move that bus!" We were always building a home for a family that was in need in some way or had served their community. And so, yes, I worked on that show for a very long time. Lots of stories. This podcast could go for hours if we started going into the stories, but, yes, I was the lead designer for, gosh, six years.

Jessica: Okay. So, when you look back now — I mean, it’s been a few years since you’ve been on the show — what comes to your mind immediately as one of those stories that you’ve held onto all these many years later?

Kim: Well, so we traveled… I was in the airplane three or four times a week. I mean, I used to compare myself to… You remember the movie, "Up in the Air", George Clooney? Like, I was traveling, I mean, for six years just on the road. And what I want to say… I guess, what I learned and there’s so many individual stories.

But I saw a country that was very generous. That didn’t always translate in 42 minutes of a television show, but we would throw ourselves into a community, volunteers would show up, builders would donate, materials were being donated, you saw the family. At the core of the projects we worked on, I saw design changing lives and I saw people come together, like the old barn raising, neighbors helping neighbors. It didn’t matter where you’re from, what your economic status was, what the color of your skin was; everyone was working together.

“At the core of the projects we worked on, I saw design changing lives and I saw people come together – neighbors helping neighbors.” Kim Lewis

And I just always thought, you know, I wish we could see more of this on the news because this is the core of our country, and now more than ever, I wish I could have bottled up that and recorded it more or something. I mean, the behind-the-scenes was so powerful, Jessica. You know, besides the TV storytelling that the producers did, the real behind-the-scenes of everyday people showing up and helping and donating where they could, mom and pop shops doing everything they could. And, in some ways… you know, they say we built the houses in 7 days, but we actually built them in 5 days. We had 106-hour build schedule if you can imagine this. And it was…

Jessica: How did you do that? How did you do that for 6 years?

Kim: Girl, any wrinkle I have on my face, it is not from my children. It is from that television show.

Jessica: Oh, my gosh.

Kim: Oh, I mean, we would…my team and I would pull 48-hour days at least…well, usually, once a week. I’m not even exaggerating. I can tell you…

Jessica: I mean, my jaw is dropped to my floor right now.

Kim: Well, and part of me thinks that the producer that hired me… It’s kind of funny. I’ll tell you a secret. When they hired me to start on the show, I had never designed a room before.

Jessica: That is crazy.

Kim: Never. So, you know, to some degree, you know, speaking to people who are listening that might want to try something new and start a company or start a dream that they want to pursue, just do it. I mean, now I understand. I used to hate the phrase, "Fake it till you make it," because I don’t like fakeness. I like authenticity. But there is some power in just, you know, believing that you can do what you believe you can do and doing it.

You know, and I had never designed a room, and I got thrown into Los Angeles. My first episode was in Alaska. They told me I needed to… My very first episode they told me I needed to collect rocks from a glacier and make that into the kitchen backsplash. And I was like, "What?" Also build a real, standard-sized football field in the backyard. "What?" And get it donated. Everything, get it donated.

You know, and so with the years of that show, it’s like just when you thought you couldn’t pull something off or that the team couldn’t pull something off, it happened. And my nickname became Kim Possible because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was like, if I’m a cartoon character, I’m going to be Kim Possible.

But what I saw was just the generosity of our nation, and real love, and real, like, hearts wanting to help. And I wish we saw more of that.

Jessica: I do, too. We need to bring back that show. Joe and I would cry every time, because wasn’t it that "Move that bus!"? Isn’t that the show?

Kim: Yes. Yes, yes.

Jessica: Yes! Yes.

Kim: The family would, like… The bus would move, the family would see their new home. They’d fall to the ground in tears, and honestly that level of excitement, and passion, and servitude. And the design field is what… When I left the show, it’s like, "That’s what I wanted to keep doing." Anyway, I just saw how design can change lives and truly help people. And, yeah, that was the show. It was nuts. I ran a team of, like, 25 to 30 designers and carpenters. And we worked like a family like a circus. And when I look back at it, it’s almost as if I’m talking about someone else’s life, you know? My family was always like… You know the Where’s Waldo?

Jessica: Yes.

Kim: The joke in my family was Where’s Kimbo?

Jessica: Totally.

Kim: Because, you know, we were just working so hard, but it was just such a blessing to be a part of, to be able to see creativity, empowering people. I feel like the volunteers that showed up got just as much out of it. And people would be there for different reasons. I remember talking to a family… At first, people would be like, "Oh, they’re from Hollywood," you know, and there’s this stigma that comes with that. And the first thing I’d say is, "Oh, no, no, no. I’m not from Hollywood. I’m from Texas, y’all." And, you know, so I just, like, get rid of that thought. We’re not here to be, like, producer types that…

I did have one crazy story where a carpenter…we were talking about the Lord, and he was just, like, "Man, I can’t believe someone from Hollywood believes in God." Like, "Well, I’m from Texas." He’s like, "I want you to meet my wife," and I said, "Oh, yeah, bring her tomorrow." So, the next day he shows up, "Kim, my wife’s here. Will you come outside and meet her?" And you have to picture this construction site where all the… it’s like, "Beep, beep, beep!" All the machines are moving and it’s total chaos.

Well, I walk up to his wife, and his wife is blind. And she reaches out, and we start talking, and she said, "May I pray for you?" And I said, "Yeah, I would love that," you know? And here we are in the midst of all this construction chaos, and she said, "I want to pray for you because I see you surrounded by wolves." I was like, "When a blind person says that they see something about you, you listen." And she prayed for protection over me.

And looking back, I just think that she saw… I see the wolves as the industry of television and the producers that I was around. I know for a fact a lot of them were like, "If you think this is some type of mission trip, you’re in the wrong field," but I did see it as my mission trip, you know? My mission in life was to use design to help people. What an incredible platform to do that.

“My mission in life was to use design to help people. What an incredible platform to do that.” Kim Lewis

And so, this woman just felt that, and she prayed over me. And, Jessica, this was my third episode in. So, it’s like, from Day 1, it was in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ll never forget it. From Day 1, the word was just protecting me and reminding me that, you know, "This might not be easy, but I’m going to be there with you, going before you."

 

Leading a Dream Team

Jessica: Wow. I want to talk for a second about leadership because I’m thinking you are leading a team of 25 people under an enormous amount of stress and pressure and very little sleep. And as good as a mission as it is, like, people be people. If you imagine yourself maybe in your first year of leading, and getting it done, and harnessing your power of influence, and then if you were to think about maybe your last year on the show, what was your leadership journey like and how did you lead and drive results through the people that were on your team?

Kim: Mm-hmm, such a good question. I learned over the years to really just… Honesty was key and nipping things in the bud and just really making sure that we were always very open with each other. I mean, we were operating as a family, but I was their, you know, superior if you want to call that. I don’t even like that word. I don’t like any word that describes boss. I was the leader, but we were operating in a platform that felt like family.

And so just always being open, and being available, and being honest, and not letting anything… not ever shoveling anything under a rug became a really important… It was, like, “We don’t have time for this to fester. We need to talk now. We need to figure it out now.” It was a real community kind of vibe and feeling and we all…

You know, there were definitely emotions. I mean, we were using reams of copy paper to take a nap. I mean, there’s human nature there with tired feelings and all that. I mean, we really just loved each other.

And at the end of the day, we were working towards the same goal. And if you could always keep that goal in your mind, you found the energy and dedication to pull through the hard times. And if anything, it was usually our team banding together and, you know, kind of putting our foot down where we needed to with producers asking us to do more than we were already doing.

“And at the end of the day, we were working towards the same goal. And if you could always keep that goal in your mind, you found the energy and dedication to pull through the hard times.” Kim Lewis

Jessica: Mm-hmm, because it’s producers who call the shots on all these shows, right?

Kim: They just push you. They push you to the point. I mean, I was constantly pushing back. My team is already… I would have people end up in the hospital almost on a monthly basis from exhaustion, from all sorts of things. I mean, I remember getting a phone call that one of my team members had gotten shot in the eye with a nail gun, and it had come from the second…

Jessica: Oh, jeez.

Kim: Exactly. It had come from the second floor, so she was fun, but we went through, I mean, literal blood, sweat, and tears together. And so, I would say we just banded, and we’re still like family to this day.

Jessica: You are? You’ve kept in touch.

Kim: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. It’s a very tight group. And we still talk and… Yeah, so really it was… We’re like managing family, but I actually do love managing different personalities, and they’re all creative. So, there are a lot of personalities in the group, you know?

Jessica: Totally. So why did you end up leaving the show?

Kim: My work-life balance was so off. I had been married… My first marriage actually got married literally… I got the phone call to join "Extreme Makeover", I’m not even kidding, 5 minutes before I walked down the aisle. So, the joke in our family was that he married me and the show that day. And so, I just was way off balance. A long story of just hurt and pain and betrayal. And my first husband cheated, but I was away a lot, you know, and I can’t say that that behavior was because I was gone but it was evident and clear that I needed to get some better work-life balance. And my body was just tired, you know? I mean, you can imagine the amount of hours, the lack of sleep, and all of that. So, it was a hard decision. It was like leaving my family. I gave them a huge notice and just recognized that it was time for me to start building a dream outside of that.

My first client was actually Jewel, the singer-songwriter because she saw my work on the show, and I had never designed outside of the show. And she was like, "I want to hire you for my house in Texas." So, I was like, "I guess I need to put a company name together." So, Kim Lewis Designs, I guess, will do, you know? And flew off to her house and I continued to consult with other different TV shows because I thrived off of the production and the fast-paced and the… You know, I thrived off of it. I was almost addicted to it probably.

Jessica: Yeah, the adrenaline and just the rush from having to be so creative under such a tight deadline. I mean, I would just love it.

Kim: Yeah. You know what’s so cool, Jessica, is I see that… So, every season, you would say, "Am I going to go back or am I not? What are the pros and cons?" Every season, I went back, and I went back, and I went back, and finally, 2012 came and I knew that this was a season… And the show was honestly kind of on its way out. So, I said, "This is going to be my last episode."

Well, that episode was we went and built 10 houses in 10 days, as if one wasn’t enough, for Joplin, Missouri after the tornado had hit, and it was at that episode that I met some of my favorite non-profits that I still, to this day, work with in the middle of all this chaos.

Meg with Art Feeds. It’s a non-profit that works to empower children through art therapy and art programming. She said, "We’re going to build an art center in Ghana, West Africa. Do you want to come?" And I was like, "Oh, yes! Sign me up." I’ve always felt like I would work in Africa at some point.

And so, it’s interesting just looking back. From there, we’ve built five art centers, and these art centers work to empower children, through creativity, that had survived trafficking. And so it’s just cool how you look back and go, "I really believe I was supposed to be on that show until that episode," because that episode is what really catapulted me into working with these non-profits and getting to do what I genuinely feel like I was put on Earth to do, which is… The art centers, I mean, it’s our biggest passion here. And we try to do one a year, but it’s just so cool to look back and go, "Wow, I really think that’s why the timeline happened in that way."

Jessica: My dream, I want to go with you on one of your trips to Ghana.

Kim: Oh, you need to come. Oh, my gosh.

Jessica: Just putting it out there. Putting that out there. Oh, my gosh. We had some friends over for dinner the other night from Rwanda, the founders of Africa New Life, a non-profit we support. And just having Africans in our home, I just… I mean, I went to eight countries in 2020 and so… or 2019! What am I saying? 2020 was a big fat zero.

Kim: Yeah, exactly.

Jessica: Big fat zero! It was 2019. I mean, that was my life for 10 years, so this is just so… You know, we’re forgetful humans, and as much as… I mean, my whole life work is also, yeah, creating opportunity for the vulnerable around the globe, but, man, I miss the connection, the actual, in-person connection. I’m going soon. I got to. I got to.

Kim: Yes. I mean, at what point? You know, I totally hear you and I know that feeling. My daughter’s godmother is a woman in Ghana. We call her Ma Pauline. She’s just one of the… I feel just so safe in her arms. Like, it sounds silly but she’s like a mother to me. And, yeah, the African spirit is so real. I feel like their eyes are just windows straight to their soul. And their smiles and… I miss it, too, Jessica. We need to hop on a plane.

Jessica: We do, we do.

Kim: I mean, it’s not time but it’s…

Jessica: It’s not time but it will be. It will be soon. It will be soon.

Kim: I’m holding out hope.

 

Learning from Failure

Jessica: So, did you know that you wanted to definitely focus on interior design? Because I’m sure during those six years, you were exposed to so many different design possibilities, but you knew, “I want to start my own business. I want to continue on this path.”

Kim: Yeah. And I did a lot of architecture on the show. I didn’t study architecture, but I was… I actually drew the homes. So, I drew the architecture for the homes. And so, architecture and interior design and really, like, the project management process of that became… I love it. I absolutely love it. And so, yeah, I think it just felt natural. I’ve always been an entrepreneur. It felt natural to say, "This is what I should do. I’m going to start my own company and do it."

But, you know, I do know only because this is so hard, and I feel like every year I fail at some part of it and I learn from that. And I’ve gotten comfortable with failing. I am a 3 on the Enneagram, so it’s like I push myself to absolute extremes. But I know that. I’ve learned that failing is okay and actually really healthy. But two years ago, you wouldn’t have heard Kim Lewis say that. I mean, this is kind of new for me. It’s like I failed, it’s okay, I learn from it, let’s grow.

“I’ve gotten comfortable with failing. I’ve learned that failing is okay and actually really healthy.” Kim Lewis

And so, yeah, designing, it really is my passion. When I got out of Extreme, I was like… I had designed 120 plus homes and so I did have a moment where I was like, "I think I’m good to not do a home for a while." So that’s when I started dipping into restaurants, and I love creating environments where people feel really engaged and their senses are all…you know, like engaging your senses. When you walk into a restaurant, it’s all about the smells and the sounds and the look and the feel and where you sit. And all of those things. Kind of like Morocco. You’ve been to Morocco, right?

Jessica: Yeah, yeah.

Kim: Yes. It has this amazing just vibe about it.

Jessica: It does.

Kim: Anyway, that’s kind of like… I love getting to create a place where people can feel something whatever that’s meant to be.

Jessica: I wanted to ask about this failure bit because I’m thinking there are a lot of opportunities for failure when you are in design. I was interior designer for a hot second and I…

Kim: I didn’t know that.

Jessica: Oh, it was a hot sec. We used to flip homes. My husband and I flipped homes for sevearl years in Austin. We did maybe 12 houses. And then that transitioned into other people seeing the homes we flipped, and then other people asking me for help. But I remember my first… Oh, my gosh. Actually, funny story: My current business partner, Travis, I mean, we’ve now partnered together for 10 years, but they moved to town and so they were, I think, one of my first clients.

And so they knew I was scrappy, didn’t totally know what I was doing, but, you know, you set up these different wholesale accounts and then you get money not only off of, you know, your hourly design fee, but then if they order through you and you upcharge on whatever they’re ordering… Anyway, all of this was new to me, but basically, they ordered a couch through me, and I get a text from Travis’ wife, Suzanne, and it’s a picture of the couch in their home. This was white glove delivery, and I was like, "This is not the right color."

Kim: Oh, no.

Jessica: And lo and behold, this is why I was never meant to be in interior design. I am not a person of details, and it is such a detailed job. And so I’m looking at this couch, and we were so broke at the time. This is right when we were about to start a Noonday because we were excited about the job, we were super broke, and I was just ashamed. I was so ashamed, and I was like, "What am I going to do? I mean, I have to eat this." And we didn’t have the money to eat the couch. We did have enough money to eat but anyway, basically, my mom rescued me. She bought the couch. To this day, that sofa is their sofa. It’s a gorgeous sofa that… But you know what? It didn’t stop Travis from saying, "I’m going to take a bet on this girl, and we’re going to become business partners."

So, talk about learning from a failure, but I just remember, you know, you see a wrong couch in someone’s home, and that is on you, and I just felt… It took me probably weeks to kind of walk thorugh that. So, yeah, tell me a little bit about some of your fails and how you’ve learned to let it go and digest and metabolize it a lot more quickly.

Kim: Yeah. No, that story is hilarious and definitely I can relate. I just learned that, you know, it’s okay and, as long as you own up to it, there’s a lot of ego in design and architecture. And I did see that when I was on the show. So, I just try to operate without that. And you know what? We are humans. The details are real in design and so taking our time… It’s a lot. And honestly it can pull you down. It’s like kind of going through some mud to get through details, but we also sometimes really nerd out on the details.

So, I’ve just found that it’s okay. You just own up to it and just always have the integrity to go back to your client and do what’s right. And then, you know, it’ll figure itself out. Most people are very, very understanding, and I would say we tried not to let that happen but that’s part of the challenge with scaling a company and a business and design. It’s just that skill set and knowledge.

I think the hardest thing to learn in design is scale and knowing, "Okay, you’re ordering this light or this sofa or whatever. And how is that going to fit in the home?" I mean, especially with tiny homes.

My biggest… I want to say it’s failed, but it’s probably just… I guess, it feels like a strong word, but it is what it is. We started a tiny home business, and I never sold a tiny home. So, you know, it didn’t work. It turns out people love tiny homes, but they don’t want to buy them. Yeah, it’s safe to say that Kim Lewis Tiny Homes was a failed business, but I don’t like using that word because I don’t want to hurt my business partner at the time’s feeling. But, like, it’s the truth.

 

Building a Tiny Empire

Jessica: Well, yeah, but then also of course you’ve learned from your failures. So, it’s all about reframing. But that is why I wanted to have you on the show, because this whole series is about going against the grain, and when I think about tiny living, I’m like, for me – Well, actually I did. I guess I lived in an airstring for six months…

Kim: You did?

Jessica: …and let me tell you I would never do that again. And I didn’t even really live there. I slept there. So, tell me how did you go down this tiny home living path.

Kim: Yes, such a strange story. So, well, remember when I said I went off and consulted for some other television shows? I was hired by, at the time, it was on FYI. FYI is "Tiny House Nation". And you have to remember on Extreme, I was drawing houses that were easily 2,500, 3,000, sometimes 5,500 square foot because we were helping a family with 15 children, so you had to put them somewhere.

So, I went from drawing those types of homes to now working with a show that wanted me to draw a house that was 110 square feet, and I would be like, "I’m sorry. You want me to put how many…? What do you want to go into that? I’m sorry." It was so hard. I remember trying to cram, like, a staircase, a pantry, I mean, a washer dryer, and it was like, "This is very hard."

But as I got to know… Unlike "Extreme Makeover" – On "Extreme Makeover", I never talk to the families directly until we moved the bus, and then I got to meet them. I was behind-the-scenes completely. I was studying about them and all that. On "Tiny House Nation," I got to work with the families from Day 1. And so, you know, it was like, "Why do you want to do this? What do you do?" So, I found myself gravitating toward these people. And for the first time in my life, after having drawn so many homes in a very short amount of time, I found myself drawing something that I could picture myself living in.

“And for the first time in my life, after having drawn so many homes in a very short amount of time, I found myself drawing something that I could picture myself living in.” Kim Lewis

Jessica: Because you are tiny. You are tiny.

Kim: Everyone always says that. “Do you do tiny homes because you’re really tiny?” Like, no, that’s not… No, but anyway… Yeah, I would be on construction sites, and the security guards would pull me over like, "Sorry, if you’re under 18, you’re not allowed to be here." And I would stomp my boot and say, "I’m running this show. You just messed with the wrong girl."

Jessica: So, you’re designing these tiny houses for "Tiny House Nation."

Kim: Yes, and I am just kind of enthralled with them. At this point, I was 32 years old. I recently divorced or had been going through separation and divorce and all of that. So, I was really on my own again, and I found myself, like, really relating to the people that wanted tiny homes. They loved to travel. I had never bought a home because I was always on the road. I love traveling. It’s at the core of who I am. I was afraid that having a mortgage would hold my foot too close to the ground in one spot for too long. And so, I had never bought a house, but with this, I could see it. I could understand why they wanted it.

And so, yeah, I ended up partnering with someone. Actually, to back track, I designed one in Austin for friends, and we colalborated a lot. And it got a lot of press, and I started getting a lot of phone calls about that house.

Jessica: So, you designed it for someone else?

Kim: Yes, we designed it for someone else, and it aired on the show and it got a lot of press on "Tiny House Nation". And I started getting a lot of phone calls for that house, and, you know, supply/demand, you think, "Oh, there’s a lot of people that want this. I’m going to start looking at how I could build a business around tiny homes." And so that’s really kind of where it started, and, yeah, from there, it just… I loved it.

Jessica: But you chose to live in a tiny house.

Kim: Yeah. So fast forward and I’m engaged to my current husband, love of my life, Joey, and he… You know, we’re talking, and we’re engaged and I was like, "Hey, would you ever…" He’s real adventurous. He loves being outside. I started talking about, "Could you see us living in a tiny house?" And he actually loved the idea because it got us out outside on some acreage, want to be indoor/outdoor, could understand that we could pay this thing off in about three years. He was like, "Yeah, let’s do it."

So, we ended up building a tiny house as our model showhouse for Kim Lewis Tiny Homes. We built it with a builder out in Arizona, drove it, it went and showed at Dwell. Dwell on Design has an annual design show. Thousands of people in Los Angeles walked through my house, and we thought, "We’ll just buy this one. This will be our house." We found some land to rent out in Driftwood, Texas, and drove it back from Los Angeles to Arizona for a couple little punch list items. We parked it there till the land was ready, and then we brought it all the way back to Austin.

Jessica: So, you bring it back to Austin. And does a tiny house… do you hook it up to plumbing? And how tiny are we talking about?

Kim: Ours is 575 square feet so you’ll hear people in New York say, "That is not tiny. My apartment is half that size."

Jessica: It sounds tiny to me.

Kim: It’s tiny. Yeah, it’s small. So, it’s 575 square feet. It’s an L shape. It’s got a living unit and a bedroom unit. And these are oversized so there’s a lot of logistics, but we won’t go into that. But the ones you see that are hooked behind a truck, those are only 8-foot wide, and ours is 11-foot wide. So, someone with a commercial driver’s license has to drive it so you have an 18-wheeler pick it up.

It’s not easy. I mean, you have to get all the utilities set up. We had to run plumbing, water, sewage, electrical, all of these utilities to get the house ready to live in. All of that was very hard, but we lived off of rainwater. That’s probably one of my favorite things about the tiny house when it was in Driftwood, and I’ll tell you where it is now in a second.

But we connected it to rainwater, and Joey and I for two years lived off of the rainwater of Austin, Texas minus two small deliveries of rain during a drought season. How crazy is that?

 

Living a Simpler Life

Jessica: That is so crazy. That is really crazy. So, you’re this designer. So, it seems like it was this idea of… I’m just wondering. What did you learn about yourself? Because I’m assuming that this was the smallest amount of space you’ve lived in and that you’d never lived off rainwater before. So, tell me some things that you’ve learned and then what are some of those things that you’ve kept because now you got two babies and I know you’re building a house, right? So, I’m assuming you’re moving and you’re not going to be living in your tiny house anymore. And I’m just curious how that tiny living now impacted how you’re designing your house and having two kids and all of that.

Kim: Yeah. So, well, we lived in a tiny house when we had our first daughter, Sunny, and the first year of her life, I honestly, Jessica. I loved it. I loved the fact that we didn’t have a dining table. Sunny and I would sit on the floor, use the coffee table, or… I felt so close to her, and we’ve traveled to third-world countries. I see that children don’t need all these things. They don’t need the toys on toys on toys on toys. They’re super happy playing with leaves and small things.

And so, I felt very comfortable with Baby #1. And Joey was starting to itch. He’s like, "This is crowded. The baby’s in our room," which most are for the first year of life anyway. So, he started thinking, "We need to start thinking. This is the end of our tiny home days." But I honestly loved the fact that we… What’s in our tiny home is very special to us. Everything in the house has a story. Everything in the house we use. It makes you pare down to the things you actually really need. All of those things are still at the forefront of my mind when I am thinking, you know, about this new house.

So, backtrack, we get pregnant with Baby #2. The babies are 14.5 months apart, so you can imagine at this point, in the tiny house, we are stressing because it’s one thing to have one baby in a tiny house but two plus you have an 85-pound lab. So, it’s like, "Man, it’s a good thing I’m small."

Jessica: Oh, my gosh.

Kim: Exactly. And our family at this point probably thinks we’re all crazy. We had Thanksgiving dinners. We had Sunny’s birthday party with 50 people at the tiny home. The door’s open so it’s just all about indoor/outdoor living. Honestly, I love that we don’t just sink into the sofa and watch a ton of TV in there because you’re so connected with nature. I mean, there’s a lot of pluses.

It’s funny how…  You have children – they’re older now – but it’s funny how quickly children can create a chaos like a tornado. They come through and they mess up everything. And it’s just insane. Well, at least in a tiny house, it feels very manageable because it’s very quick to pick up because everything is within 10 feet of your arm.

Jessica: That’s so true.

Kim: Here we go. And so anyway we get pregnant with Bear. We have a son and he just turned one. So, we did actually buy a house last year October, and we’re not building. We’re renovating it. So right now, we moved the tiny home just so you know. The tiny home is an investment at this point. I mean, it’s been a home office for me during COVID. Joey’s parents live out of town or out of the state. So, when they come, they can stay there. We can put it up on Airbnb. We haven’t done that yet, but that’s going to help for daycare.

And so, it’s been a huge blessing. We’ve moved it with us, and we moved it the month before Bear was born. Can you imagine the stress? And let me just tell you that on the way, this is just for pure comedy here, our tiny house when they were pullig it into the driveway fell.

Jessica: Oh, my gosh.

Kim: And it went into a ditch, and I was eight months pregnant. And everyone who was there thought that I was going to have a baby. We have a lot of stories with this tiny home. And anyway, so now it’s on our new property. We have three acres. We have a house, a bedroom for each baby, and it does… It’s funny, when we moved into the new house, we still migrated through this place like the unit that we were in, in this small house. So, it is a closeness that our family has gained already from being in the tiny house.

Now, timeline-wise, we are living back in the tiny house right now, Jessica, because we’re renovating the main house. And so all four of us and the 85-pound lab are in one bedroom. I’m notorious for letting the dog sleep with us even though we already have enough people and things in the room with us. So, we’re all back in there, and we have our Christmas tree up, and it’s amazing. I honestly love it.

And I’ll tell you something, girl. Joey had been, like, not into it anymore. He’s like, "I need more space. I need more space." He, the last couple of weeks, has absolutely loved it. And he actually looks at me. He’s like, "I kind of do… I see now why you love it in here." And I think it’s…

Jessica: Do you—

Kim: Oh, sorry.

Jessica: No, no, no. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Kim: Well, I just think it’s because of how close we all are. It just feels really sweet. And this year has all been about togetherness with our small groups of family and people, right? I think it just feels really comfortable and cosy and it’s nice to have less frills and less space to clean. And we’re just really close.

Jessica: Well, I was going to ask you how it has impacted how you approach design now because I would imagine… I mean, I guess with restaurants or when you’re working with clients, do you actually encourage people when maybe they have this idea of how much square foot do they need or what they actually need, has there been situations where you’ve influenced them towards living a little bit smaller?

Kim: I would say restaurants kind of… You have to have your standards with distance and all of that, so it’s a little tough. But, yes, with homes for sure. I think also, for me, I see design as an option or opportunity to be a storyteller. And so the way I’ve encouraged my clients, after having lived in a tiny home, to make their home special, really no matter how big it is, but it’s to make sure that the things in your home tell the story of who you are. If I bring you over to tiny house right now, I would be able to say, "Jessica, I got this in Africa and I got this in Napa Valley and I got this…" It’s like our whole home, no matter the size, tells our story. And it also encourages you to think like, "What do you really need? Let’s live more sustainably. We don’t need all these plastics. We don’t need as many toys as we think we need for our children." Like, paring things down, especially in this day and age, is really healthy, not only for the environment but for your soul, and it’s also healthy to teach that to our next generation.

“Paring things down, especially in this day and age, is really healthy, not only for the environment but for your soul.” Kim Lewis

So, now because I’ve lived in this type of space, I do love encouraging my clients. And a lot of times we’re being handed the opportunity to, like you did with that sofa, we’re buying materials and things for our clients on behalf of our clients with their money. And if we’re going to be spending their money, we want to spend it really wisely. So, not only are we thinking about sutaintability, but we’re thinking about artisans and mom and pop shops and how can we spend that $50 they want to spend on a pillow but not go to a big-box store but go to a place where we know we’re actually making an impact.

Jessica: To keep up with Kim, you can go find her on Instagram @KimLewisDesigns, and then she also has a YouTube channel, which is really fun: @KimLewis.

And guys, before I go, I just gotta say: y’all are sharing this podcast, because we have had more downloads and listens in the last couple of weeks since our launch than we ever have in the last three years. And, thank you! Because that’s all you. That is all you. And I just love it. I really do love this community, I love getting to be in your earbuds, and I love getting to have these conversations.

Guys, I want your feedback, mainly on Instagram, DMs – Would you slide into my DMs and just share with me maybe who you might wanna hear from in this series, because we are still in the process of booking guests, and this series is all about going upstream against the grain and just living outside of culture’s comfort zones. So, slide in my DMs @JessicaHonegger over on Instagram.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.