Real Simple

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.

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Sarah Protzman Howlett is a Denver-based freelance journalist.

24 thoughts on “Real Simple”

  1. That beetle-kill pine is pretty nice looking stuff. Some places market it as “Denim Pine” because of the blue tint. Some good advice and more inspirational photos, yay! Had to laugh about the 7×11 bedroom, I had one of those too, just space enough for a bed with a chair beside it and a chest of drawers at the foot of the bed with a bit of walk-around space to clutter up with books. What more do you need? If you put the drawers under the bed, even less! I had larger rooms in other houses but it’s that tiny bedroom I remember best. I even remember the wallpaper – lightly colour washed line drawings of French cafe scenes scattered with people walking poodles and whatnot. Lots of red striped awnings and curly wrought iron chairs. Kind of wish I could find it again, be nice to use a snippet inside a cupboard or someplace. I found a piece of fabric with a similar design at the thrift shop recently so there’s always hope.

  2. Articles like this make me even MORE anxious to get progressing on MY ‘tiny home’ plans!
    Thanks for whetting the appetite, Sarah!

    • Wanting a tiny enclosed living space can be a separate question from the size of the outdoor space. Some people may want to have crops and/or livestock, some may just want as much space as possible between themselves and “civilization”, some may picture future uses for that land, there may be legal issues, or they may have just fallen totally in love with that particular spot regardless of lot size. There are so many variations on who, what, where, when and why.

      • I agree with you too, Alice. I once had 2.5 acres above Coos Bay, OR, overlooking the city. What I wouldn’t give to have that again, with my blooming Cherry trees and space. Knowing people are not going to build up around you is worth the time to find the perfect space and place. Because I am a fiber artist, I would have to have a shop, but what better day could one have then tending a garden, working where you live, feeding the chickens and then going home just 100 feet away.
        Sounds like my idea of heaven on earth.

  3. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought Christopher told me it was much less than that in acreage. Anyway, good piece- and Christopher and Merete are great- so is their blog, definitely check it out!

    • @ Deek

      I am not sure about the acreage of this specific house, but here in Colorado, all rural land that is not part of a PUD (Panned Unit Development, uh, one which provides utilities), needs to be at least 35 acres.

      The reason: unless the parcel existed before 1973 as a separate parcel (I am totally sure about the date) and hence is grandfathered in, the state’s Dept. of Water Resource will not grant a well permit for parcels of less than 35 acres.

      As a result , anyone who has subdivided their land in the last 40 or so years has taken care that the lots are at least that size.

      Now if you don’t want a well, and aren’t looking for a septic permit, that’s a different story.

      • uh, I wish there was an edit button here!

        I meant to say I was *not* totally sure about the date, but +/- five years is about right

      • Thanks Deek! And Sarah, and Tiny House Blog!

        Yup, good catch Deek, the size of the land is actually 5 acres, not 30. But it feels much larger, being surrounded by wide skies and plenty of open space. Can’t wait to get the house up there. Soon!

        • A small house with a lot of elbow room outside is a good mix…In many areas acres and acres of undeveloped land can be had at prices Urbanites spend for a few thousand sq feet…its a no-brainer to me…Our small cabin is located of 42 acres…it just feels right.

          • I agree. I have seen fabulous houses with so much space you can’t imagine it not being filled with marvelous things…about 10 feet from the nearest neighbor.
            I also know people who struggle every single day to keep the things they have with them and to pay for it all. My philosophy is that at some point, you don’t own your things, your things own you.

            Alice made a really good memory come back to me. My parents and I used to travel in an old Nash Rambler (Yeah, I am showing my years) selling Successful Farming Magazines. I had the back seat all to myself. I had a bed, box of clothes, box of things to do and that was all I needed. We were in a small space but had the Northwest to look at and camp in. If you have what you need and a bit of what you want, life can be wonderful.
            Sandi Allen

  4. This is awesome! Stories like this make me feel that it really can be done. The shell of our tiny home is due to be delivered to our land in about 6 weeks and I can’t wait to get started on the finishes.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. In Europe the enemies of the tiny houses are strange enogh the so called lefties and some greenies.
    The socialists want appartments for the workers and McMansions for the socialistic Elite.
    The Greenies say if you built so many small houses you steel land from the animals.
    Further authorities want to stick to the rules even when it means you stay homeless.

  6. I loved reading this blog post. I used to “move into” my closet. I loved the feeling of being tucked away with just what I enjoyed the most. I guess that is how I found the tiny house project so interesting. 🙂 I love the idea! My current partner is not so interested, though… He has lived in small places all his life and wants something airy and spacious. I have lived in decent to large homes all of my life and struggle with taming excess. I think if I could master letting go of things I don’t need or use and stop accruing what I don’t need… My life will be happier for it! Question is: Can I do it?

  7. Sarah, you’re a kindred spirit. I could live in a box if I had too…A very fancy, gorgeous box, but a box none the less. Thanks for the great post.

  8. The most ecological thing to do is to live in a great big city like NYC where it’s possible to use convenient public transport or even walk to to work & all the services one needs and but if you still have an unsustainable romantic notion of owning a piece of real estate away from everyone else and driving and affording the gas for a car 30 miles into town it’s good to know there are two or three people (do you realize what a minority they is?) willing to build small or even tiny. We Americans will change our values when forced to and by that time it will be too late. Even tho’ I never got used to material wealth I still have too much stuff but I’m getting rid of the excess. Suggest reading “Conundrum” by David Owen while swinging in your hammock. Rich

  9. I already live in a pretty small home. A two (small) bedroom, 816 square feet cottage. I do have a basement and finished attic full of “stuff” but, in my defense, almost all of that came from my parents move from their 2,000 square foot, 4-bedroom home into a retirement community apartment. The move happened rather suddenly and — at the time — it seemed easier just to move a bunch of stuff over here than try to figure out how to dispose of it all so quickly. One good “garage sale weekend” could basically restore my basement and attic to their previous almost empty state.

    I love looking at “tiny home” articles and can *almost* imagine myself doing this. As Sandra said, “[A]t some point, you don’t own your things, your things own you.” I often dream of simplifying my life. And “owning” less seems to be a great place to start.

    I just have a few qualms.

    I’ve seen a lot of articles about these “tiny homes” parked on friends lots. That kind of feels to me like it defeats the whole purpose. Kind of like saying, “I don’t live *with* my parents. I have my own room in their basement.”

    Not to mention how you manage things like utilities. Do you run a hose from one of their outside faucets to your water intake? Run an extension cord to your “tiny home”? How do you connect to the sewer/septic system? And how do you decide how much of their utility bills are yours?

    I love to garden so would adore having a few acres of my own to set my “tiny house” on, but then where do you store your lawn mower and gardening implements?

    Then there’s the question of heat in the part of the country where I live. It get’s COLD in the winter so, unless your “tiny home” had very thick framing and a LOT of insulation, you’d spend a fortune heating it every month in the winter.

    And it seems that I’d really have to rent a small storage space somewhere, or else have another storage shed next to my “tiny house.” (Which, again, sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?) There are a lot of things that, while I don’t need to *live* with them, I don’t want to just get rid of. Things like my photo albums, and a few other treasured mementos.

    Then there’s the fact that my mother was a dress designer and passed on her love of sewing to me. So I have a “regular” sewing machine and a serger. I actually don’t have the large “fabric stash” that most sewers do, and all of my “notions” (thread, elastic, etc.) fit in a rather small drawer, but that would still be an enormous amount of space in a “tiny house.”

    I’m sitting here looking at the space taken up by my computer/monitor/keyboard and all of the peripherals (printer and scanner) and thinking those would take up almost half of a “tiny home” by themselves!! Okay, “desktop” computer must go and laptop must replace it. 🙂

    Ah well, my mortgage is owned by a trust right now, and there’s no way the trustee would ever agree to my selling my house to buy a “tiny house.” So perhaps — for now — I should just concentrate on getting rid of a lot of those possessions that seem to own me, and re-visit the idea of a “tiny house” when my eyesight gets bad enough that I give up the sewing machines. 🙂


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