As a child, Sierra Stern dreamed of building a cabin in the woods. Something modest, she imagined, with room for herself and not much else. That was all she’d need, a place of her own.
But such places are hard to come by, especially in Blaine County. And life, she quickly learned—even one as young as hers—well, that can be hard, too.
Stern, now a senior at Silver Creek High School in Hailey, knows those two facts better than most. So, for her senior project—a graduation requirement at Silver Creek—she’s building herself a tiny house, with an eye for overcoming both.
Aided by mentors Jolyon Sawrey of Vital Ink Architecture and Levi Sali of LW Builders—and, the backing of the valley where she grew up—Stern plans to make herself a house to call home, wherever she may go after graduation.
It’ll be small—narrow and short enough to fit on a roadworthy double-axle trailer, and short enough to fit under bridges. Maybe 130 square feet, with a loft for sleeping and all the comforts of home packed in below. But, Stern’s sure, it will be enough—her own cabin in the woods, or anywhere else.
“Most tiny houses you see are built to be pretty, or cute,” she said. “Mine, we’re building for durability. I don’t have $50,000 lying around to throw at this—I just need a place to live.”
After a snow-whipped 11-hour round trip to Salt Lake City, she has the trailer that will act as its foundation. Through Sawrey’s expertise—followed by some clear-eyed work with a structural engineer—she has a blueprint for the structure that meets county codes. Donations—windows, lumber, fixtures—have been steady. And she’s always had a name for the finished product in mind: Kintsugi, “golden repair,” after the Japanese artform of mending pieces of broken pottery into a more beautiful whole, of embracing the cracks and shining them with gold.
She first encountered the practice—and, nascently, the accompanying philosophy—as an elementary-schooler, before she was dealt cracks of her own.
Always a fan of the country’s culture, she started a Japanese Club with her second-grade teacher. They watched episodes of “Sailor Moon,” tried sushi and, later, were introduced to the gold-veined repairs of Kintsugi ceramics, shattered fragments returned to form. The appeal, at first abstract, stuck with her.
“It highlights the damage, makes beauty of the breaks,” she said. “It means to show off cracks, like that history is something to be remembered and celebrated instead of swept under the rug. Show your scars—show them as something you’ve overcome.”
Starting young, Stern was dealt her share. Her mother, Dani, had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer around the time Sierra started school. And school itself became difficult. By middle school, she remembers, she was acting out against it.
“There was a lot of adversity,” she said. “I have cognitive processing issues, issues with mental illness. I’m good at seeing information, and I can spit it right back out on a worksheet, but I didn’t want to do that.”
And then came the biggest blow: On Aug. 16, 2015, nearly a decade after her diagnosis, Dani Stern passed away at the family’s home in Hailey. Sierra started her freshman year at Silver Creek three weeks later. While most students transfer in from Wood River or Carey, she chose to enroll at the alternative school from the start. She was drawn to the project-based curriculum, she said, and bolstered by the support she found.
“I absolutely hate taking classes if I don’t care about the subject, and I’ll fight back,” she said. “Here, I have the ability to be myself, to do things. I’m not told to be a certain way. They want me to be happy, and healthy. That’s all you can ask for.”
In her three-plus years at Silver Creek, her projects have included soapmaking and costuming with the Company of Fools theater troupe in Hailey. Stern is one credit away from graduating this spring, and hopes to go to study film and design in college.
First, though, she needs a place to live outside of her grandmother’s Woodside house. With less than four months to graduation, the uncertainty of what comes next—that unique type, common to graduating seniors—is mounting. Throughout high school, Stern had a hard time holding down service jobs, “the type of job people my age could get,” she said. She’s worried about what she’ll do after graduation, and how she’ll make rent.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to make that work around here,” she said. “To be able to build my own house—to be a homeowner—that’s what I want. And, if I can pack it up and move it? That’s what I’m looking for.”
More than looking. Stern is “bags on,” earlier this month hammering side-by-side with Sali to frame and build the exterior walls of her “Kintsugi” home. She’s cobbling together the pieces as she goes, cast-off parts fit together not with the gold fill, but with Stern’s energy, and urgency.
“She told me, ‘It has to be done by June, because I’m going to live in it,’” Sawrey said. “Upon graduation, this is her home. We have a real deadline. We’re doing it. I just love that it’s real.”
Stern’s father has a do-it-yourself streak, and Sierra watched him work around the house growing up. But she has no building experience. She’s learning by asking questions, and recording, diligently, Sali’s and Sawrey’s answers.
“They know how much I want to do this,” Stern said of her mentors. “They believe in the project, and they believe in me. There are days when I’m so stressed, I freak out. But then I get a call from Jolyon, and it makes me believe, too.”
“When I first met her, she had a reserved presence,” Sawrey said. “But when she has the opportunity to share this project with people, she blossoms. The confidence, it’s there. She shines.”
Stern’s knowledge extends to building codes and zoning. Sawrey and Stern spent two and a half hours with an engineer working out snow loads and seismic specs to ensure the structure meets county standards.
“I thought it was going to be quick, but the amount of math, engineering and creativity it took to make it work is amazing,” Sawrey said. “It took as much as any house.”
Right now, the only place for Stern’s house is The Meadows mobile-home park south of Ketchum. Bellevue is considering an ordinance that could open up land to trailers, Stern said. And there’s always camping. Sawrey’s design can work both with park hookups or off the grid, so she can take it wherever she can haul it, wherever she goes next.
Stern hopes to present the finished product in an open house at the end of the school year, as the capstone to her Silver Creek career. Then, she’ll back it up, hook it up and drive to what’s next.
“I’m a high school student—I have problems with insecurity. I want to believe I can do things I never thought I could. If I can do this, I can do anything. I can go to college, get a job and do more than menial work. If I can do this, I can do something I care about, something that matters to me. I’m not going to let the things that have hindered me hinder me anymore.
“I don’t think anyone got anywhere in life doing small things.”
Except, for Sierra Stern, small houses.