A reporter reflects on the Tiny House Movement
By Sarah Protzman Howlett
I’ve always, always loved small spaces. As a kid, I’d scoop up my dolls, Walkman, blanket and pillow, and move into the half-bathroom, settling into the tub with a Beverly Cleary book. It sounds silly, but it was freedom: I could fit every thing I needed into that room. Years later, when I moved to New York City, I was largely unfazed by my 7-by-11-foot bedroom. (It only took 60 seconds to Swiffer—what’s not to love?)
So last fall when I found myself in Boulder with filmmaker Christopher Smith and his 130 square feet of freedom, I couldn’t have been more excited to talk tiny with a kindred spirit for an article in Denver’s 5280. The duo’s project will become a documentary called Tiny: A Story About Living Small, out this spring. When it’s complete, the house will sit on five acres near Fairplay, Colorado.
Smith and his girlfriend, Merete Mueller, invited me to observe as they labored under a steamy sky one Sunday. My hand stuck to my notebook as I wrote furiously, recording everything about the house. Red paint on the outside bids you welcome; the indoor wood siding feels and smells like your favorite uncle’s cabin. Though only the exterior was complete at the time, Smith showed me where the bathroom, lofted bed, and built-in shelves would go, and told me about their sustainability efforts, such as using beetle-kill pine. What surprised me about Smith’s tiny house is how even with exposed wires, sawdust on the floor, and camera equipment strewn about, the space already felt like a home.
The day, and my notebook, wore on. I watched Mueller and Smith stain wood, use a scary buzz saw, and manage not to step on the bevy of roosters milling about the property. Smith was a novice, had never built a thing, but he’s nothing if not a quick study.
Few Americans actually live in tiny houses—a July 2011 New Yorker article put the number at several hundred to several thousand—but in these troubled times, the movement has resonated, helping us pause and take inventory of what matters. Though I share a 500-square-foot apartment with my husband now, I knew there had to be ideals of the Tiny House Movement anyone (yes, even you, suburbia!) can adopt. After the bulk of my reporting was complete, I asked Mueller for some pointers:
- Quality over quantity. Invest in high-quality, durable items. “When each thing we own actually means something to us, we’re satisfied with less,” Mueller has found.
- Double duty. “In a small space, almost everything needs to have two uses,” Mueller says. Storage ottomans and under-bed boxes create storage and keep clutter at bay, while hooks and floating shelves utilize wall space.
- Cut back on knickknacks. Decorate with things both useful and beautiful, such as books, brightly colored spices or interesting cookware. “You don’t have to pack every inch of your house with stuff,” she says.
- Picture the future. When you buy something, imagine yourself having to store and/or move it. “It puts the real amount of stuff we own into perspective,” Mueller says.
As I walked down the hill away from the tiny house, I thought about my childhood, and how much joy it brought me to bed down in the bathroom, even though I knew I was playing pretend next to the hand towels and seashell-shaped soap. Moreso than being just about the cutest thing you’ve ever seen—which it is—Smith’s tiny house is a home. Not a playhouse. Not a tool shed. And I can’t help but think that has more than a little to do with the enterprising couple, and their willingness to ask themselves what they really, truly want.
Sarah Protzman Howlett is a Denver-based freelance journalist.