New Documentary Explores Tiny House Living From the Ground Up

2014•09•30 Cat Johnson

The tiny house movement is a media darling right now. Rarely a day goes by without seeing an article, blog post, book or photo gallery dedicated to these wee-sized dwellings.

In an effort to get behind the scenes of the movement and find out what it’s really like to build and live in a tiny house, Shareable checked in with Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller who we featured in an article about living off-the-grid in a tiny house. Creators of the new documentary, TINY: A Story About Living Small, Smith and Mueller chronicled the creation of a tiny house from the idea stage, through the building process, to living in it.

The film details the ups and downs of the process — at one point, Smith admits that the initial excitement had worn off and there was still a lot of work to do — and features interviews with other tiny house dwellers and pioneers including Jay Shafer, founder of Four Lights Tiny House Company. The result is a warm, human-scale film that sheds light on the excitement and challenges of going tiny as well as some of the emotional and psychological shifts that take place along the way.

Mueller & Smith

In a new documentary, Smith and Mueller chronicled the creation of a tiny house from the idea stage, through the building process, to living in it. Photo: Shareable.

Here, Smith and Mueller share their motivation for building the tiny house, challenges they faced along the way, unexpected responses to the film, and what they hope to see from the tiny house movement.

Shareable: How are things going with the tiny house? What’s the latest?

Merete Mueller: Even though the film has just been recently released to the wider public, it’s been over two years since those last scenes in the film were shot. The story that we told in the film was one moment in time and our lives and our understanding of home and what it means to live tiny have continued to evolve.

After we completed the tiny house in May of 2012, we jumped right into finishing the film. We spent a few months on the road gathering footage and then both Christopher and I moved to New York City for post-production. We spend the next six months editing and working with our composer and sound designer in Brooklyn, going back to Colorado to visit the tiny house for only a few days or a week at a time. The film premiered in March 2013 and we spent the next few months on the road again, touring with it to various film festivals.

We are both still working through questions about home and continuing to define exactly where we want to be and how the tiny house can and will play into that. We’re at a time in our lives and our careers where we’re still exploring, we’re very flexible. And the fact that the tiny house is such a flexible structure really works for us. I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow it. It just might play a different role in each of our lives at one time or another. Of course that’s not the story of everyone who lives in a tiny house. Most people, including those we profiled in our film, have pretty conventional, day-to-day, stable lives.

When people find out that you built and live in a tiny house, what are the most common questions they have?

Mueller: Utilities are a really popular question. Everyone wants to know where our water comes from, and where our poop goes. The answers to those are that we didn’t build plumbing into our tiny house, because the land that it was originally intended for didn’t have access to a well. So we still haul water in and have a simple, camping shower. When Christopher is living at the tiny house he mostly showers at the gym. Most tiny houses have full plumbing systems with tankless water heaters, etc., but not ours. Composting toilets are the most common way of dealing with sewage in a tiny house. There are a few more complicated and complex models of composting toilets out there, but ours is very simple: a bucket lined with a thick trash bag, filled with peat moss. When we go to the bathroom, we cover it in more peat moss, which soaks up the moisture and the smell. The house is powered by solar and heated by a propane heater made for a sailboat.

Day 1

Christopher Smith gets to work on the tiny house. Before building the tiny house, Smith had no experience with construction. Photo: Shareable.

Interest in the tiny house movement is growing at an astonishing rate. What do you think is is driving this?

Mueller: I think the current state of the economy is one big factor. It’s just not possible for many people to afford homes today in the same way that it has been in the past. A lot of different people at different stages in their lives are finding they either can’t afford a traditional mortgage on a house, or they don’t want to fork over such a substantial chunk of their income to that purpose. So tiny houses are suddenly offering a new solution; the idea that it’s possible to own a home or to create the kind of home that a person wants, but not to become a slave to that home financially.

I think people are magnetized by the idea of simplicity. We live in a time when everyday life is incredibly stressful and complex. We’re constantly bombarded with information and are so over-stimulated. I think people really respond to the idea that it’s possible to live in an environment that is simple and manageable, where everything has its place and is within easy reach.

Tiny houses evoke vacation cabins and childhood treehouses, so there’s this sense that life can be stress-free in a tiny house. In some ways that’s true — we’ve met a lot of people who radically simplified their lives when they downsized into their tiny houses and as a result get to spend more of their time and energy doing stuff that really enhances their quality of life: traveling, gardening, working on creative projects, spending time with friends and family. At the same time, it’s just as easy to be a stressed-out workaholic who lives in a tiny house, but probably less likely. Having leisure time or extra energy and money to pursue dream projects might can seem like it’s only available to the very wealthy, but tiny houses offer a shift in perspective and a solution for people who are more middle income.

There are numerous blogs, how-tos, videos, books, photo galleries, documentaries and more that provide know-how and insight into tiny living. Now that you’re on the inside, what do you think is behind this growing tiny house media industry? Where do you see it all going?

Mueller: When we first began this project, it seemed to us like there were only a handful of very extreme people — maybe a few hundred across the United States — who were actually building and living in tiny houses. And around that, there was already a pretty substantial community of curious onlookers — people who were enamored with or inspired by the idea of living tiny even though they would probably never downsize to that extent themselves. But in the last year, with a more mainstream media explosion, we’re meeting more and more people and hearing from more people who are actually starting to build tiny houses. So I think we’re about to see substantially more people who are actually living in tiny houses. Up until now tiny houses have existed in this sort of legal grey area, flying under the radar, so this growth in popularity is going to have some interesting consequences for cities who are decided how to deal with them in their zoning codes.

There are already a lot of tiny house builders and tiny house how-to books and blogs, etc. I don’t really think we need more of those. What I do think we need more of is infrastructure to support the practical needs of people who are wanting to live in tiny houses. We need people to find ways to offer insurance and inspections for tiny houses, to open tiny house parks, most likely using the trailer park zoning model, where people can legally park their tiny houses and share laundry facilities. We need people to offer counsel and resources to those people who are lobbying their city government to allow for structures like tiny houses. There’s a lot of legal jargon and city planning jargon involved in that. There are people in the tiny house community that have begun to organize around some of these areas and move forward on these needs, which I think is really exciting.

A tiny bedroom. Photo: Shareable.

A tiny bedroom. Photo: Shareable.

At the same time, living in 120 or 180 square feet is pretty extreme. Too extreme for most people. And to me, that’s totally understandable and totally OK. I think the future of the tiny house movement isn’t so much in this focus on tiny, but an emphasis on small, or smaller. Tiny houses are one very fascinating and extreme example of a kind of re-prioritizing and downsizing that everyone can take to heart and apply to their lives, no matter what square footage fits their lifestyle. 500, 800, 1500 square feet, especially for a family with children, is still pretty small. How would it change someone’s life to downsize from 3,000 to 1,500 square feet? My hope is that the tiny house movement is inspiring this kind of more moderate change.

In the film, people give some pretty profound reasons for wanting to live more simply, including the fact that life is too short to live a life that you’re not happy with. What are some of the most impactful things you’ve heard people say?

Mueller: Everyone we spoke with, having gone through a process of downsizing, had pretty moving things to say about priorities and quality of life. They’d all spent a lot of time thinking about what matters most to them and how they could live a life that let them focus as much attention as possible to those priorities.

Dee Williams, in particular, has a way of speaking to the heart of these matters. She’s living with a life-threatening illness and that has put things into perspective for her in a very real, immediate way. We actually ended up including an extended 12-minute interview with Dee on the dvd of TINY, just because her interview was so powerful and we wanted to be able to share more of it with people than we could fit in the final film. One of my favorite of these moments with Dee is when she talks about considering the question, “What do you want to hold in your arms as you die?” Your new mp3 player? A new pair of shoes? Of course not. At that moment, most of us want to be holding our mom, our lover, our best friend, or a pet. We’d want to be smelling the ocean at that moment, or we’d want to look up and have a wide view of the sky or to see all of the people we love.

Thinking about that question still gives me goosebumps. It has a way of setting me back on the ground and reminding me of what’s really important in my life, what types of things I want to put my energy towards cultivating. I mean, imagine what the world would be like if we all asked ourselves that question each time we went shopping. We’d probably consume a lot less unnecessary crap.

What are your own big picture reasons for living the tiny house lifestyle? Was there a specific moment that you knew it was what you wanted?

Christopher Smith: After purchasing land up in the mountains of Colorado, I wanted to build a house that met three criteria: a design I could build myself with my own two hands; a design that would have a minimal impact on the land; and a design that I could afford without having to save up for years. I was hoping to build a small 300-400 square foot cabin on a simple foundation, but when I contacted the building department in my county, I was informed I would have to build bigger and more complicated as per the county requirements.

That’s when I remembered reading about Dee Williams’ tiny house a couple of years earlier. Ultimately, the tiny house was really the only type of alternative building that best met all three of these needs and had the added benefit of falling under a different set of laws than traditional building codes. As an added bonus, I liked that I could tow the final house to different locations once it was built.

In the film, there’s a lot of talk about making a conscious commitment to tiny house living. What does this commitment entail on a practical level?

Smith: It entails pretty much what you might think it would. Getting rid of material possessions, adjusting your idea of wants versus needs, and being OK with not having the latest and greatest of everything — but you can have some things. More than anything, it’s a mental shift about what to value in your life, and like all mental shifts, it isn’t always easy to adjust. It is a bit harder to have friends over in the winter months, and sometimes you get tired of being in the same room all the time, but generally it hasn’t been so bad.

What has been the most challenging aspect for you? What has been the most rewarding? Any particular moments you can share?

Smith: We intentionally built the tiny house without running water because the land I bought did not have a water source. Most tiny houses have the ability to have running water, but mine doesn’t. I find that the only really difficult thing about living in the house. Sometimes, when I have to get up in the middle of the night, I wish I had stairs rather than a ladder, but that is something that is a bit easier to deal with.

I really love the humanness of the film — that you shared the downs as well as the ups and that you bumped up against problems, concerns and what-if’s. What kind of response have you gotten to TINY? What plans do you have for it?

Mueller: When we first embarked on this project, it somehow didn’t occur to either of us how personal the story would get. But we knew that it would only be a good story if we could keep it honest and really show the uncertainties that we were puzzling through as the house took shape. And for the most part I think people really relate to it. Even if they’re not building a tiny house, they can relate to the questions that we’re asking in the film about home and place and relationships and belonging.

Mueller inside

Mueller, at home inside the tiny house. Photo: Shareable.

Of course, not everyone gets it. We’ve gotten some comments on Netflix where people say, “I can’t believe it took you a year to build something that small. What’s wrong with you?” and other people say, “I can’t believe you built that thing with no construction experience. You must have had a construction crew lurking behind the scenes.” Really funny things like that.

Even if some reactions are negative, it’s worth it to hear from the people who have been positively impacted.

One of my favourite emails we’ve ever gotten was from a 16 year-old girl in Florida who said, “I’ve lived in a double wide trailer my whole life and I’ve always been really embarrassed by it. But watching your film made me realize that I can be grateful for everything that I have. When I move out on my own, I want my first house to be a tiny house.”

Hearing that our strange little story could help give someone a more positive perspective about her life made me feel like the whole adventure was worth it. I love knowing that the film is making people think about their lives in ways that I never could have predicted when we embarked on the project, or while we were crafting the story.

We sometimes still attend university screenings or community group screenings and get to participate in discussions, but for the most part the film is in wide release and we are both working on our next projects. The film is pretty much living a life of its own now, which is really cool. If people are interested in hosting school screenings or community screenings, they can contact us through our website and we’ll help to set that up. Otherwise, the film is also available for private viewing on DVD and on iTunes and Vimeo on Demand. We hope it travels far and sparks many good discussions.

Now that you’ve built and are living in your tiny house, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Smith: I would probably add some stairs and some sort of running water system. I also might put dormers up in the loft because it can be cramped with two people up there. But generally speaking, not too much.

What advice would you give to people who are considering building their own tiny house or simply exploring the tiny house lifestyle?

Smith: I would look for an opportunity to go visit one or even stay overnight in one. There is a tiny house “hotel” in Portland, and many times a year there are events around the country where tiny houses are on display.

I would also suggest starting by downsizing your stuff. Take on a downsized life in your current house. And, if you have a huge way to go, start by downsizing into a smaller apartment or house first. Downsizing is best when done as a process, it helps the mind to shift over time rather than stopping cold turkey.

Anything you’d like to add?

Smith: Less can be more, but only if you don’t focus on all the stuff you don’t have. Most of those feelings of missing out are made up anyway, but they can really gnaw at you and make it harder to appreciate a new value set of living small. Once you embrace the freedom the lifestyle opens up, you’ll never want to go back.

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New Documentary Explores Tiny House Living From the Ground Up by Cat Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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Cat Johnson

Freelance Writer

Cat Johnson is a freelance writer focused on community, the sharing economy, the commons and music. Publications include Utne Reader, GOOD, Yes! Magazine, Shareable, Instant Magazine, the Santa Cruz Weekly and No Depression. She’s also a music lover and player.