BRANDON & LAUREL
TINY HOME BUILDER & ILLUSTRATOR
Seattle, WA to Arlington, WA
Tucked behind a tall fence in the dusty stretches of the Mojave, just a short drive away from Joshua Tree, California, you find Sara and Rich Combs’ renovated 1940s desert oasis. Their love affair with the desert began in 2011, when the couple began escaping there from San Francisco on the weekends. Those transformative getaways inspired them to buy an investment property in town and renovate it using their distinctive design sensibilities. The home quickly became such a popular AirBnB destination that they rarely had the opportunity to stay there themselves.
In 2013, craving a new adventure, Rich and Sara left their full-time web designer jobs and began freelancing. This freelance flexibility allowed them to work from the road and they embarked on a world tour, finding inspiration in the places they visited and the people they met along the way. Upon returning to San Francisco, they settled back into routine and continued escaping to Joshua Tree whenever their property was free. With a steady stream of rental income and little opportunity to enjoy their desert getaway, they began exploring the idea of buying a second property so they might actually be able to spend more time there. The promise of a breathtaking cactus garden is what initially piqued their interest on their now home.
The listing photographs of the gardens were so beautiful they couldn’t help but take a tour, even though it wasn’t in the price range they had initially imagined. Sara and Rich’s parents, who were in town visiting, came along for the ride. As soon as they walked through the gate they knew they had stumbled onto something truly special. The property offered a large open floorplan hacienda with vaulted ceilings and ample natural light, and a smaller, but equally open and light-filled, casita. Although it was in desperate need of some major aesthetic renovations, the bones of the place were great and the well-established landscaping was incredible. Their parents, also charmed by the place, encouraged Sara and Rich to take the risk and go out of their comfort zone to invest in this unique home.
In order to offset renovation costs, they opened up their personal home for photoshoots and next door casita for overnight stays. It took nearly a year and a half to renovate the two buildings. Looking back, they say it was both the best and toughest times they’ve experienced. They renovated the Casita first for rental income, and lived in the Hacienda as they renovated the space. Most of the renovations they did themselves, learning a myriad of valuable skills as they went. They documented their renovation process on Instagram and quickly amassed a loyal following of people who loved their design sensibilities. By the end, they had created something together that they were proud of, a sanctuary in the desert for people looking to reflect, reset and create.
Guests flocked to The Joshua Tree house in droves and the couple began spending more and more time there. Seeing how transformative and rejuvenating these spaces were for their city-dwelling visitors, Sara and Rich found it increasingly difficult to head back to San Francisco themselves. In early 2016, they decided to throw caution to the wind and move permanently to their Joshua Tree home. At first they weren’t sure if moving away from the city would mean that their freelance design opportunities would dry up, but they were willing to hustle even harder to make it possible to live in the desert full time. Serendipitously, Sara and Rich found that their move actually presented them with more varied creative freelance opportunities, not less. Brands and businesses began hiring them not only to do web design, but also consult on interior design and space build outs. In the last year alone they’ve designed commercial spaces such as the Assembly in San Francisco, and authored their first book At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living. When not working on brand and design projects, Sara and Rich can be found exploring the myriad of trails in the National Park, adventuring in their vintage International Harvester Scout and sharing the serenity they’ve found in the Mojave with their evolving door of guests at The Joshua Tree House. For this couple, escaping to the rural expanses of the desert full time was a gamble well worth taking.
What motivated you to leave the city and move to Arlington?
Brandon grew up in Arlington, but I am from Seattle and we had been living together in West Seattle for about a year and a half. Both of us were working seasonally and our budgets were definitely stretched, and we were looking for a more affordable alternative. We had heard about tiny homes through various documentaries and noticed some other folks were building them on their families' properties, and were lucky to have Brandon's parents offer their 30-acre homestead as a place to live and build our first tiny home.
What was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town? What challenges came later?
For me, the hardest part was leaving my hometown, full of friends, restaurants, and places I grew up visiting. I also missed (and still miss) being able to walk to the grocery store, library, and the beach. Brandon grew up in a semi-rural setting and thus welcomed the change. The biggest challenge in the last couple of years has been being able to find a permanent place to park our tiny home. Land is expensive and it's difficult to find places that check all of the boxes. Some communities also still have laws and codes that prohibit living in a tiny home full-time.
How have your professional lives changed since moving away from the city?
Both of us now have the flexibility to comfortably work on our own terms, rather than full-time or year-round. I can work seasonal wildlife survey jobs and pursue illustration during my free time and in the winter. Brandon discovered his love for building while working on our tiny home, and has been able to start launching his business building tiny homes for others. He can take advantage of the space available for working on his houses, as well as the hospitality his parents have provided both for us to live here and for Brandon to utilize their garage. Brandon's dad mills some lumber here on the property that Brandon can use in his tiny homes.
How did you/do you overcome any feelings of uncertainty and fear when it comes to making decisions for your businesses and taking risks?
Brandon was able to make the leap when he felt comfortable with it financially, and was able to afford buying the materials necessary to start on his first house. I am still uncertain on what my future holds, but I've been able to devote more and more of my time to my illustration and art business, and hope to continue down that path moving forward. Our inexpensive lifestyle has enabled me to focus on building my art career and business and worry a little less about my income (though I still do struggle with the anxiety of not having an always-stable income).
How do you separate home life from work life?
I'm not sure we do entirely; both of us work at least partially from home so our work is always present in some way. I can see Brandon's house-in-progress from my art desk inside our house. When I am at home I can always see him working. He has been very good about designating specific hours of his day to work versus free time. I am worse about that because my illustration work and "recreational" drawing time tend to coincide.
Where do your draw your creative inspiration from for your work?
My inspiration is primarily drawn from the nature that surrounds our house as well as the critters and scenes we are able to see nearby and on our trips around the west. With our alternative lifestyle we've been able to do several local road trips a year to various national parks and backpacking trips. Most of the inspiration for my work comes from things I see out and about in nature.
Have you been able to foster more friendships and meaningful relationships here or do you feel more isolated socially?
A little of both. I do feel more isolated here than I did in Seattle, as most of my friends still live there, and I feel that my values and political views align more to those folks in the city. We don't go out and do "social" things here nearly as frequently. However I do think that the move has allowed me to really focus my energy on those relationships that are truly important to me, and take the time to foster those relationships.
Do you feel like you have more creative opportunities in the country or less?
I don't think I have as many opportunities to showcase my art here compared to Seattle, but I have been able to travel to various artsy communities around western Washington for that purpose. I am more inspired by the country lifestyle than I was while living in the city. Brandon has the ability to showcase his talent for building here, which he never would have had in the city.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
I love being able to set up my desk for the day and look out my front window into the woods surrounding our house, and looking up throughout the day to see deer, coyotes, eagles, and tons of other birds. We don't have to travel at all to get out into nature. I love that we own our house and don't have a mortgage! And we love not being constantly worried about being able to afford our lifestyle.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
I really miss the diversity of living in Seattle, being constantly surrounded by people of different backgrounds, and the ease of being able to go out and socialize from time to time. I also have still not found a good selection of places to go out to eat here! I can say confidently that Brandon does not miss his short time in the city. He is a "country boy" through and through!
Would you ever consider moving back to a city?
Though I don't want to move back to the big city, I'd like to live in a place that has more of a balance of the country-and-city feel. Ideally a small town that has an excellent art community while being surrounded by nature!
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
It really helps to know someone, friend or family, who may have a landing pad for you. I don't know how we would have done it without Brandon's parents being so open to our move. Though I have seen folks who put out a Craigslist ad looking for land to start their journeys. I'd say if you can save up enough money to comfortably leave your job, knowing that it might take you a little more time to find work or a stable income in the country, then your shouldn't be scared of the move.
Do you have any advice for people considering tiny house living?
Do it! It's easy and simple and it feels great to get rid of stuff. I'd recommend lots of windows, and make sure you know you have a place to park it for the foreseeable future, where you won't get kicked out. Composting toilets are also awesome.
Do you notice a trend of young people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
I don't know if I've noticed a trend to leave the city, but definitely a trend for alternative lifestyles to the "American dream" that has been standard. More people are making money in different and creative ways, traveling for a living, and doing things they love rather than being tied to a job they don't like just to make ends meet.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Some people assume it's this perfect, idyllic life all the time, which isn't true. We do have it easier, financially, since we moved but there are still challenges out here, and you have to know what those are going in and be prepared to deal with them.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
I'm hoping to devote more and more of my time to creating artwork that focuses on environmental issues and wildlife conservation, and I'd like to focus more on demonstrating the effects of climate change through my art. I'll actually be moving to Denali National Park for a few months this winter to do some artwork for them as well as bird surveys. I'll be even more off the grid than I already am! Brandon is planning to finish the house he is working on by next spring and continue growing his business. We are looking to eventually buy our own property somewhere in western Washington and move our homestead there, either by moving our current house or building another small house on the land.
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