Categorized | Arts, Community

Big Dreams for Little Houses

Posted on 17 October 2012

By Annette Hinkle

Jeanie and David Stiles love what they do. But boundaries are important and they don’t want work to infringe too much on their living space — which can be a difficult proposition when you work at home.

But tucked away in the corner of their wooded East Hampton property is a little building that’s just perfect for a work space… or a guest room, an artist studio, yoga retreat or even a pool house.

And in fact, that is what they do. The Stiles, who split their time between the city and the East End, are big fans (and designers of) what David likes to call freestanding backyard buildings. Tree houses, cabins, home offices, you name it.

“As a kid, I was always building stuff,” says David who grew up at the rural edges of New Jersey. “I spent my childhood thinking of stuff I could build. That’s why I was such a crappy student.”

Despite his mediocrity in the classroom, David studied industrial design at Pratt Institute and went on to have a successful career in illustration and in architectural rendering. But he’s always loved building stuff and, after meeting Jeanie, a writer, editor and photographer who had a career of her own in design, the couple started building projects together on the East End and publishing books on home building projects — they now have 22 do-it-yourself books to their name.

“I do more from a writing point of view, David more of the drawing,” explains Jeanie. “We did a building cabins book – so theoretically, depending on whether you’re left brain or right brain, you could build from the written part or the drawing part. We get a lot of emails from people who read our books. These two women who had never built anything didn’t unpack their new saw for six months. But they built a beautiful cabin.”

Just last month, the Stiles hosted an old-fashioned barn raising of their latest small building design on the grounds of the Amagansett Historical Society and this past weekend, the structure was auctioned off with a portion of the proceeds set to benefit the historical society (Amagansett’s Doug Gamble came up with the winning bid of $2,250).

Though the Stiles have published books on backyard buildings for years, this latest structure represents a different mindset — one in which the Stiles are working directly with an Amish community to create building kits people can assemble themselves.

It all began when the Stiles were contacted by a man who had purchased several of their books. The man, who lives near an Amish community three hours north of New York City, explained that while his Amish neighbors had their own lumber yard, they had not been successful in designing and marketing a shed-like structure they could sell to the public as a way of bringing some much needed income into their community.

So David and Jeanie traveled upstate to meet the Amish residents and the man who was hoping to help them.

“We visited at least five different Amish families, each had their own workshop. They’re farmers mainly, shed building is a secondary thing,” says David. “I was talking to the head farmer there and I saw a bunch of guys lifting timbers onto a wagon.”

When David asked what they were doing, the farmer explained the community was hosting a barn raising the next day.

“It was like something out of the movie ‘Witness,’” adds David. “The horses were pulling the wagons and they were all wearing the outfits. I really admired them — the way they work in the dark, sometimes by candlelight. Since they were so good at timber framing, I sent them a design for that.”

Jeanie and David Stiles.

The tenon and mortise design David came up with is one the Amish will now produce as a framing kit at their mill and ship to homeowners who can assemble (no bolts or screws necessary) and finish the building in whatever style they like. Though this initial design is 8.5’ x 11’, the Stiles note the Amish can make the frame in whatever size people want.

“This type of mortise and tenon joinery dates back to Neolithic times,” explains David. “I know in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Egyptian section I saw a sled they used to pull the sarcophaguses, it was mortise and tenon joints.”

Though the tiny house movement is becoming all the rage (you could say the Stiles were well ahead of the building curve on this one), David doesn’t necessarily think that many people are clamoring to live full-time in a space less than 100 square feet.

“We think it’s a great thing for an artist, work or a spare bedroom, or a writer for a retreat,” he says. “But I admire anyone who could live like that – it forces us to be outside a lot.”

Still, for the Stiles, there’s something in the Amish simplicity that offers a welcome antidote to over-the-top architecture and crass commercialism that has became de rigeur in recent years. And the idea of raising the Amish inspired sheds in communal fashion, as the Amish did upstate and the Stiles’ did last month at the Amagansett Historical Society, evokes the spirit of community in ways that building projects rarely can these days.

“We think people would like doing it as a party idea,” says David. “They can invite guests and give them mallets.”

That’s exactly what the Stiles did in the raising of their shed. Families showed up at the historical society to lend a hand and the kids went home with the mallets they had used to help join the pieces together.

“The kids had a lot of fun,” says David. “The parents would hold them up and they’d use mallets to nail in timber pegs.”

“It was a really successful community project,” adds Jeanie.

David notes that one man he knows came to the barn raising with his son who was shy at first, but soon was working alongside his father, mallet in hand. Later on, David asked how they boy liked the process. The man responded by saying normally, his son is only interested in electronics, but after the barn raising, he asked his dad if there was any wood laying around the house that he could use to make something.

“That was terrific. That’s my reward,” says David. “One kid who comes home and doesn’t have to look at screens, but can build something and get satisfaction and pride.”

To see more pictures of the small building going up, visit


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One Response to “Big Dreams for Little Houses”

  1. jeanie stiles says:

    Thanks for writing such a terrific article Annette!

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