Couple Build Tiny House, Seek A New American Dream

Couple Build (Very) Tiny Home, Seek A New American Dream

The size of the average American home has more than doubled since the 1950s, but just how big does a home need to be?

A Boulder, Colo., couple decided to put that question to the test when they started building their very tiny home -- 124 sq. ft. to be exact -- back in 2011. With no building experience, but with open hearts and minds, Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller started to build their dream home. They documented their surprising journey in a new film called "TINY: A Story About Living Small," which premieres on Al Jazeera America this Sunday.

Smith and Mueller recently chatted with The Huffington Post about living tiny, sustainably and redefining the American dream.

Tell us about your tiny home.

Smith: The Tiny House is about 124 sq ft. It has a living space with an 11-foot ceiling. There is a small galley kitchen, a small bathroom with a composting toilet and camping-style gravity fed shower and a sleeping loft. The main living space has an 11-foot ceiling, which helps the space to feel bigger than it actually is, with a small closet and two built-in bookshelves. There is also a built in desk and dining table that Merete made from scraps left over from our reclaimed hardwood flooring.

When we first started, I thought I'd be able to finish building the house within a summer. I won't say exactly how long it took to finish because I don't want to spoil the film, but let's just say that it took a lot longer!

Why downsize? What about "living tiny" spoke to you guys and inspired you to go on this amazing journey?

Mueller: Both of us moved and traveled a lot throughout our 20s, so neither one of us owned that much stuff to begin with. I always get a little stressed when I feel like I'm accumulating a lot of stuff, perhaps because I imagine how much work it will be to pack everything up into boxes and physically move it! But it wasn't until meeting so many other "Tiny Housers" that I really understood how getting rid of stuff can free up so much time, money, and energy to focus on the things that really matter to us. The characters in our film have started their own businesses, gotten involved in their communities, spent more time with family and on cultivating friendships as a result of downsizing. Even though I live in an apartment right now and not in the Tiny House, keeping my lifestyle simple and my bills to a minimum allows me to spend time traveling or working on creative projects.

Smith: For me, building a small house was always more about connecting with the natural world in a more personal way. I bought some land in the mountains southwest of Denver and wanted to have a place I could return to and grow to know in an intimate way. So I was attracted to Tiny Houses because they offer a beautiful and simple structure that feels part of the environment more than a larger structure does.

Was there a moment you knew that the way you were living and working wasn’t sustainable or leading you to a life of more purpose and fulfillment?

Smith: Honesty, this is something I have been thinking about for a while and I can't really recall an "ah-ha" moment. Something just started to feel out of sync in the way we tend to live our lives, and my thinking slowly evolved to the point where I realized that many of the issues in our world were due in large part to our disconnection with nature and the basic functions of our lives. The downsized lifestyle re-centers ones perspective on the basics of being human, and helps re-establish a connection with the natural world.

The whole concept of living tiny seems to fly in the face of the traditional American Dream of a big house with a big yard -- how do you guys define the American Dream?

Mueller: One thing that we've learned from making our film about the Tiny House movement is that the American Dream is changing. The recent housing crisis and recession have made it harder for many people to attain the financial stability required for a big house in the suburbs and a car in the driveway, that old model of the American Dream. On top of that, we've found that many people in our generation are beginning to question and re-evaluate that old American Dream and are opting instead for lifestyles that are more flexible and less tied-down to one particular place. As a society, we're in a place of transition. I think that many people -- whether by necessity or by choice -- are learning that quality of life isn't necessarily tied to how big our houses are or how much stuff we own, but about the experiences we have and the quality of our relationships.

Did you have construction experience or was the learning of that part of the journey as well?

Smith: I had never built anything more than perhaps a pinewood derby in Boy Scouts. So yeah, we had to learn everything as the project progressed. I spent a lot of time on YouTube learning how to do the next step. I also spent a lot of time talking with people who had more experience, either at Home Depot or other builders I happened to meet along the way. People were really supportive and usually got excited about the Tiny House project as soon as they heard about it.

What is your definition of success? Is it the same definition you had when you started your home/movie?

Smith: My definition of success is living what I consider to be the good life. And I think that it is probably different for everyone. But for me, it is about have the freedom to pursue my passions and having the time to spend time with friends, family, and my community. And by this measurement, I am still not sure I am there yet, but I am working on it! This measurement of success hasn't changed much during this process, but it certainly has influenced my decision to pursue it.

Mueller: One of my favorite quotes in the film is when one Tiny House owner talks about "treating life as an experiment, rather than a series of dead-end decisions." That's success to me - the ability to experiment and to always be learning and growing, rather to feel like my life has to be one particular way.

What does it mean to be "home" for you guys? Do you feel "at home" anywhere specific or is it a changing thing?

Mueller: "Home" is sort of a magic word -- we all know what it is and we know that it's something we want, even if we can't exactly define it or always know how to find it. For me, home is a feeling of belonging, and it comes from the people I'm surrounded by and from all of the memories and stories that build up in a place over time. In that way, the Tiny House will always have a very strong sense of home for me, because so many meaningful experiences are built into it.

Smith: The concept of "home" is something our film explores a lot. And it is probably different for everyone. For me it is about the people you surround yourself with, and how it feels to spend time there. It has something to do with place, but that is not the only thing that determines what home is. Tiny Houses are great lenses through which to examine home, because everything is distilled down to the essentials in such a small space. It's a question that our film really encourages people to think about.

Are you still living in your tiny home?

Mueller: About a year after completing the Tiny House and situating it on a beautiful plot of land in the mountains, we decided to move it back down to Boulder, so that it would be closer to the amenities of town. Christopher still lives in the house full time.

Meanwhile, helping Christopher finish the Tiny House and seeing him fulfill one of his lifelong dreams inspired me to pursue a dream of my own -- to live in New York City. I moved to Brooklyn shortly after we finished construction on the house, and I've been living here for a little over a year now. It's funny that building a home in Colorado helped to give me the courage to take a risk and find a new home in New York. It was easier to take the leap knowing that I had the little house in Colorado to fall back on.

I think I can speak for both of us when I say that the Tiny House is suited to our lifestyles because it's a flexible structure and it can change with us as our lives each move in different directions. I hope to one day come back to Colorado and be able to live in the house full time. Looking ahead, neither of us really know exactly what our lives are going to look like in the future. And we like it that way! But the Tiny House is one constant, a place that we can always come back to.

Living your tiny home, are there things you guys miss from having a larger home?

Smith: The Tiny House doesn't have running water because the land I built it to sit on is off the grid. So I have to haul water to cook, clean, and shower. Because of this, I tend to eat out more and I shower at the gym. So if there's one thing I miss, it would be running water. Having said that, most Tiny Houses these days are built with running water, so I hope this answer doesn't dissuade anyone from a tiny lifestyle.

How do you guys unplug, recharge, and renew yourself?

Mueller: For me, it's all about coming back to the physical details of everyday life. I spend most of my work day in front of the computer screen, and I need to get out of my head in order to relax. Sometimes this means going for a run or taking a long walk without my phone. Or just little everyday acts like chopping vegetables and cooking, or watering the plants on the shelf by my kitchen window, or stopping to notice the weather or the light at a certain time of day. Or just spending time with a few good friends and laughing.

Smith: I like to go for bike rides or hikes. This is one main reason I live in Colorado, and the Tiny House invites me to spend more time outside. So living small has only enhanced this aspect of my life.

Are there any special places in your life where you never use your phone?

Smith: Unfortunately, no! I am always connected mostly due to the nature of the business we are in. But I've actually been considering downsizing my iPhone to an old-style flip phone to force me to get some space.

Mueller: My bed! I put my phone on "Do Not Disturb" mode around 10pm and try not to look at it until an hour or so after I wake up. It helps me sleep better when I unplug early in the evening. And having a little bit of time to be creative when I first wake up and not think about to dos and responsibilities enhances the quality of my whole day.

Where can our readers watch TINY?

"TINY" will be broadcast on Al Jazeera America beginning this Sunday, 11/24 and is also playing in Canada on the CBC Documentary Channel. The film will be available on DVD and online streaming soon -- the best way to stay updated on upcoming screenings of the film is to visit our website or our facebook page.

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Take a look at the Tiny House below:

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Before You Go

A Look Inside And Around The Tiny House


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