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Big Ideas, Tiny House

Everything's bigger in Texas … except the tiny house
Nora Ankrum, 3:13pm, Sun. Mar. 10, 2013
photo by Sandy Carson

As adults, so many of us struggle to reconcile our real lives with the ones we envisioned when we were young. Generally, we associate this concept with career or family aspirations that haven’t quite panned out. But as Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith show in the documentary TINY: A Story About Living Small, the concept of home is no different.

Notions of where we feel at home are not only rooted in early dreams we tend to hold near and dear, but they are deeply connected to unique notions of identity. They can also be particularly hard to reconcile with the constraints of our adults lives. Though TINY may be “a story about living small,” it is also a story about learning to live large – about expanding our concept of what our domestic spaces can do for us, in connecting us to our communities, to nature, to our loved ones, and to our dreams.

As a former military brat accustomed to moving around a lot, Smith grew up associating home less with a particular house than with the beloved national parks where he logged much time on family vacations. By contrast, his girlfriend, Mueller, is a city girl. Her fondest memories are of childhood trips to visit her grandparents in Queens. In TINY, just as Mueller begins solidifying her path to New York, Smith buys a remote, five-acre patch of stunningly beautiful land in rural Colorado. He then embarks on building a “tiny house” from scratch, with nary a blueprint or a lick of experience in construction. The two document the yearlong process of building the house, which they originally anticipated will take only three months. (We get to watch bemusedly as Smith installs electrical wiring and sews curtains with help from how-to videos on his iPhone.) Along the way, Smith and Mueller interview many others who have found their version of the American dream in homes under 200 square feet.

Tiny houses aren’t just houses – they are a movement. A vibrant online community attests to this movement, more visibly perhaps that the tiny houses themselves, which are often hidden in backyards or rural outcroppings where code enforcement can’t find them. Apparently, county and city codes commonly establish a lower limit for allowable square footage of homes, with 600 square feet being a typical minimum. To get around this constraint, “tiny home” dwellers – including Smith – tend to build on wheels, so that their abodes fall under RV rules rather than those for buildings with foundations. These houses are often constructed with reclaimed materials; outfitted with gray water systems, composting toilets, and solar panels; and designed by creative, forward-looking architects. As such, their selling points rest comfortably in a nexus of affordability, sustainability, and aesthetic appeal. They tend to be darling, almost like tiny Disney cottages; they also tend to allow the natural landscape around them to take a starring role.

Before Saturday’s premiere screening of TINY, visitors to the Long Center were able to tour a real-life tiny house, parked conveniently out front. Owned by Kyra Deprez of Austin company Boardwalk Cleaning, the house serves as office space but is currently on sale and outfitted for would-be dwellers. Austinite John Van Strien stood out front, chatting with Mueller about his own plans to build a tiny house when he moves to California in a few months. While Van Strien is a member of the active permaculture scene here in town, he said sustainability comes second to affordability as his main motivation.

As Mueller says in the film, decisions about “where we fit in” may be harder today than they once were simply because there are so many options: city vs. country, on- vs. off-grid, rent vs. buy, etc. A tiny house not only underscores our many options but offers an alternative way to fit in to just about any of them. Moreover, as one “tiny houser” attests in the film, these homes tend to “interrupt” the cycle of consumerism to which so many of us are accustomed, potentially opening up a surprising amount of “room” for other things in life – such as relationships. Many of the families interviewed here suggest that their experiences contradict traditional assumptions about the roles independent and shared spaces play in healthy relationships. Smith and Mueller’s experience certainly provides insight here. Tiny houses may be small, but their implications are anything but.


TINY: A Story About Living Small
Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere
D: Merete Mueller, Christopher Smith

Monday, March 11, 11:30am, Alamo Village
Wednesday, March 13, 3:45pm, Alamo Ritz 1

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