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Massachusetts craftsman turns junk to houses, with emphasis on cozy

STOUGHTON, Mass. - A house tour is the highlight of a visit with a proud homeowner, but when one drops in to see Derek Diedricksen, who makes playful micro-shelters out of junk, it is less so. Possibly because the temperature up here on a cold winter day is less so, possibly because his square footage is less so.

At about 24 square feet, the Gypsy Junker, constructed primarily out of shipping pallets, castoff storm windows and a neighbor's discarded kitchen cabinets, is the largest of Diedricksen's backyard structures. The Hickshaw, a sleeper built on a rolling cedar lounge chair -- or as Diedricksen calls it, "a rickshaw for hicks" -- is considerably smaller, at 2? feet wide by 6? feet deep. The Boxy Lady, two cubes on a long pallet, is the smallest -- 4 feet tall at its highest point.

In terms of ingenuity, thrift and charm, Diedricksen's tiny structures are hard to beat. Made of scavenged materials, they cost, on average, less than $200 to build. They often have transparent roofing, which allows a fine view of the treetops, particularly in the smallest ones, where the most comfortable position is supine. They have loads of imaginative and decorative details -- a porthole-like window salvaged from a front-loading washing machine, a flip-down metal counter taken from the same deceased washer. Diedricksen hates to throw anything away.

Still, the structures are neither warm nor commodious, and the reporter's note-taking is hampered by blowing on her hands. It is so cold, in fact, that in deference to the reader, whose nose is no doubt starting to run, we shall go indoors for a spell, that one might consider Diedricksen's accomplishments in comfort.

They are many: There is his self-published graphic instruction book, "Humble Homes Simple Shacks Cozy Cottages Ramshackle Retreats Funky Forts," the first edition of which was "hand-assembled" and "locally printed" (in his living room); having sold 1,500 copies, it will be re-issued by the Lyons Press next year. There is his YouTube series, "Tiny Yellow House," which is shot whenever his brother-in-law, a videographer, has some free time, most recently in the auto-body shop of a fan because, as Diedricksen notes, when it is 10 degrees you don't want to film outside.

Diedricksen makes a living doing carpentry work and spends a lot of time as Mr. Mom to his two young children, but he has also been a comic book writer, a DJ and a home inspector, and is also a drummer in a Rage Against the Machine tribute band called Age Against the Machine. (The World Wrestling Entertainment theme song for the wrestler Jack Swagger, "Get on Your Knees"? His band wrote that.) Even the little structures he makes, with their multiple uses -- fort-guest bedroom-festival sleeper-homeless shelter -- are tough to categorize.

Is Diedricksen committed to building only tiny structures? "I have only so much yard space and my wife is only so tolerant," he says.

Diedricksen's wife, Elizabeth, is a physical therapist. They live with their children and a large dog in a 950-square-foot house about 10 miles south of Boston, which they bought in 2002 for $190,000 -- a fixer-upper, of course.

Stop by to visit with Diedricksen, and you'll have to wait till the kids take their naps to talk. Having a tiny-house enthusiast for a dad would seem to be a great thing: Diedricksen made what looks like a large painting in the living room, but which can be pulled down to sprout orange flaps -- an instant kid-size tent.

He himself grew up in Madison, Conn. His mother was an elementary school teacher, his father a shop teacher; every great tool in the world, he says, was in his basement. He built a backyard shed where he watched Nintendo with friends and constructed a bridge across a creek as his Eagle Scout project, along with countless forts and tree houses.

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