Overview of Indiana and Whitewater

This used to be a garage.

I shared this story with a friend recently and it seemed like a good opening for this post.

When I decided to re-enter the hobby in the mid-1990s, our basement was unfinished bare concrete walls and floor. There was a garage space where the current layout sits (photo above), complete with a decrepit overhead door that did nothing to keep the weather and cold out. The space was uninhabitable in winter, humid and dank as a swamp in summer. Hardly an ideal place to pursue a hobby or anything else!

In those years, our finances were too sparse to invest heavily in turning the basement into something livable but we did what we could as funds allowed. The sale of a painting here, a small surplus there, bought a handful of building materials and, over time the space became better. Better, until it rained. A heavy rain, or even light rain over a long time, would start the flow of water across the floor. During one cloudburst that settled directly over the house, the basement flooded from surface runoff coming down the drive into the garage resulting in three inches or more of water going everywhere. I was panic-stricken and beside myself, helpless to do anything but watch it rise. Fortunately the downpour, while intense, was short-lived and the water quickly receded via the floor drain. The damage to the drywall and things on the floor was done though.

After repeated episodes of seepage from spring rains, we replaced the gutters and regraded around the foundation and old drive to divert surface water. It all helped but wasn’t a total cure. Finally in 20/20 hindsight, I decided to jackhammer a trench in the floor and install a perimeter drain, since digging up around the outside of the foundation was quite beyond our means.

The layout of that time came down to rest temporarily on sawhorses. I rented an electric jackhammer and went at it for nearly a month. (My arms hurt just thinking of that time.) Eventually through sheer stubbornness, the drain tile was installed and tied into the existing gravity fed line; the flooring patched and forward progress could resume. I won’t bore you with the countless changes of mind, the never-ending clouds of drywall dust, or the innumerable moments of doubting my sanity that ensued throughout those years. But the basement has remained dry.

We endure so much in the pursuit of this hobby and some go to such ridiculous lengths that I wonder what drives people to do it. These days I often look at a photograph published in Model Railroad Planning 2013, page 86 of Iain Rice’s little Trerice layout sitting comfortably in soft light of his loft, looking for all the world like it belongs just there, and think to myself: “That’s simply perfect.”

Is there a better way?
A couple of years ago, I put forth the concept of Freedom Layouts. My name for smaller, simpler layout designs that freed the builder from the pressure of wondering if it would ever get done in his lifetime. I certainly didn’t originate the idea of smaller, simpler layouts. I just came up with a different name.

I tried to cast a positive light on the concept because so much of the discussion about building smaller tends to focus on what you lose compared to the US basement-sized layout. It’s a typical thought pattern for us Americans: small equals less, which generates undesirable feelings of being deprived. While a smaller layout won’t fit everyone’s criteria, building smaller doesn’t always mean a 1×3 foot bookshelf as your only option. There is small, and there is small.

Does size really matter?
I don’t know what it is about the idea of building smaller that turns people off. Maybe it’s the legacy culture of the hobby, or the fear of losing something important if you don’t include everything and the kitchen sink in whatever space you have available. Maybe it’s an inability to focus or lack of a clear organizing language for smaller design concepts. Maybe it’s just easier to imitate what is seen in the magazines and forums. Honestly, I don’t know.

Rather than worry about physical dimensions, the greater concept is this: don’t build anymore layout than you really need, whether that translates to a shelf or a basement in size. This is the same idea that Lance Mindheim and Trevor Marshall, among others, advocate too.

I’ve been re-inspired by this topic recently and, in the next post or two, will try to shed more light on certain principles that seem important to the process. I think there is more to be gained with a Freedom Layout that you might believe. Next week I will look at how the architectural design process might provide some insights to designing a layout. Meanwhile, if you’re new to the blog and would like to catch up on the Freedom Layout concept, a handful of select links from the archives is below. I also outlined these ideas in the free ebook, Questioning Normal found under the Free Guides link in the menu bar and it’s also at the bottom of The Missing Conversation page.

Blog Archive Links
The Essentials
Freedom Layouts
Freedom Layouts Defined
What makes it a Freedom Layout?



  1. Trevor

    Hi Mike:
    I wonder if the obsession with large layouts has to do with how many hobbyists approach building their empire. A plan is devised and work is started. Work is then completed to a certain level – anywhere from the point where trains are running to the point where full scenery and structures are in place.
    Then the layout owner asks, “Now what?” – and the answer is “Build more layout”. This expands the layout into new space, but likely continues to employ only skills already mastered.
    But there are other possible answers – answers that involve learning new skills and doing new things in the same space. They include:
    – “Re-do scenery to a higher level of craftsmanship”
    – “Replace kit-built or kit-bashed structures with scratch-built structures”
    – “Retire ‘stand-in’ rolling stock – whether built from kits or RTR – and replace with scratch-built rolling stock”
    – “Enhance the layout with more authentic operating practices – based on research of the prototype rather than operating conventions developed by other hobbyists”
    – “Learn a new skill – from backdrop painting or tree-making to CAD for 3D printing, fine woodworking or the use of a mill, lathe and other machines – and apply it to the layout”
    Interesting thoughts as always. Thanks for sharing them!
    – Trevor
    Port Rowan in 1:64

  2. mike

    Hi Trevor,

    All good points. In my view, what keeps people from exploring the options you’ve outlined is an attitude of I’ve already done that, rationalized by the good enough mentality. I’ve already done the scenery in the corner. It was a pain to reach and besides, no one’s going to take a magnifying glass to it, so it’s good enough.

    But, I do agree fully with your points. There comes a time for some modelers when the allure of some shiny new thing wears thin. And as you say, they ask: “Now what?” This is the point where many find other interests, change scales-themes-eras or look within and decide to more fully explore what they already have by going deeper. We could do a better job of presenting this as a desirable option.

    Thanks for sharing your own thoughts.


  3. Simon


    wonder if the obsession with large layouts has to do with how many hobbyists approach building their empire
    (My emphasis.)

    I think that is the nub of the problem: “empire”.
    A friend used to joke that he desired “partial-world co-regency”, as he suffers from modesty as well as megalomania. He had a point, and I think that is what you and Mike have achieved: something modest, not an empire at all.


    A few years ago I was going through the “changing scales” exploration. It didn’t work: I was drawn to S in my mid-teens, and the scale suits me just fine. In some respects I have produced very little in 30+ years of modelling, but each self-contained project helped me to hone various skills. As I now have a better idea of where I want to go – and how little I wish to achieve (in terms of quantity, not quality) – I do not view the time as wasted. Indeed, had I produced (or produced and kept) more, I might have felt some guilt about changing tack. Your concept of a “freedom layout” has released me of such worldly morbidity. And Trevor, there are plenty of new techniques and subjects waiting for me!

    I think you are both doing a good job of presenting this as a desirable option: keep going.


  4. mike

    Thank you Simon. I’m glad the ideas presented are of some value for you.