Living Large in Small Spaces

Living Large in Small Spaces

Several years ago, film student Christopher Smith saw a magazine cover that caught his eye. The auspicious image — a smiling Washingtonian named Dee Williams, relaxing in her 84-square-foot house — was filed away in his mental Rolodex. At the time, he never imagined it would resurface to shape the two largest projects of his life: a house and a movie. Something of a romantic vagabond, Christopher, with partner and wordsmith Merete Mueller, harbored a dream of building his own cabin from scratch in the Rocky Mountains. On an impulse in February 2011, he purchased five acres in a remote area of Colorado, near the Rocky Mountain National Park. As the pair moved toward the dream, they learned that the minimum house size requirement in their county was 600 square feet — substantially more than what they’d budgeted or had the building skills to tackle. Surprisingly, minimum house size constraints are in effect in most counties in the United States to help maintain taxes and home values and to comply with health and safety codes. One way of getting around the code is to add wheels to your structure, which is considered camping on your own land, just like parking an RV.

With the full support of family and friends, plus a hugely successful funding campaign through Kickstarter (the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects), Christopher and Merete set their ideas into motion for a mortgage-free getaway cabin on his land. Thinking about dramatically downsizing their square footage really made the pair question what would be essential for them. “One of the most appealing things about a tiny house for me is the limit to the amount of stuff that I can surround myself with,” Merete says, “Everything must be both useful and beautiful.”

Storytellers by trade, documenting Christopher’s journey was a natural progression for the team. During the house construction, they flew around the country to interview a dozen individuals and families living the “tiny house” lifestyle, including Jay Shafer, the owner of the small home company Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. They titled their documentary TINY: A Story about Living Small. It quickly grew into a way of telling the larger story of the tiny-home movement and exploring the bigger questions that every human faces: what makes a good home, and what makes a home feel like home?

The intensely personal process of building the house by hand has created memories at every phase of construction, including more than a few blunders — like mistaking horizontal windows for vertical ones. Tiny houses generally have a higher window-to-wall ratio than regular houses, so that residents don’t feel as though they live in a storage shed. Merete said interviewees also reported feeling closer to nature. “One of the amazing things about such small spaces is that even when you’re inside them, the outside world feels more present.”

Christopher and Merete’s tiny house clocks in at 133 square feet and features a composting toilet, solar-powered electricity, and a small wood-burning stove. Eventually, the couple will drill a well but until then, they haul water. Though they don’t have plans to host Thanksgiving at their place this year, they look forward to spending as much time as possible living large with friends and family in their tiny space.

TINY: a story about living small can be purchased online at Many of the people interviewed are featured in the book Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, published in January of 2012 by Shelter Publications.

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