“Small is Beautiful” on film: it’s not about the (tiny) house
I was recently treated to an early screening of Small is Beautiful, a documentary film about the makers of tiny houses. The film has its official Portland premiere on May 7 at the Laurelhurst Theater.
[photo courtesy smallbeautifulmovie.com]
It’s a nice piece of film-making, alive with interesting characters and thought-provoking ironies. But it might not be what you expect. Director Jeremy Beasley hasn’t made a film about a movement, but rather a few specific people. It’s less about houses than the choices people make, and the idea of independence itself.
This tack is fixed by the basic premise of the film: following four people (one couple and two singles) through the process of building three tiny houses. The focus is on the process of creating or placing the houses, not living in them. At the time of filming, only one of the four subjects has actually spent time living in her tiny house.
This is a natural setup for a film-maker, because the building projects provide a dramatic arc to what might otherwise be a structureless subject (just as in sports stories, there must inevitably be a “big game”).
That means housing geeks (such as me) may be a bit disappointed. The film can’t say much about whether tiny houses actually work as long-term residences. We don’t know much more than before about whether they’re a novelty or a truly progressive form of housing.
Instead, watching the process of creating and placing the houses makes one study character, and life choices. All of the tiny-house makers, though they differ in age and style, seem to be looking for a kind of independence.
Ben, as depicted in the film, is a young man preoccupied with unresolved feelings about his long-estranged, and now dead, biological father. For him making a tiny house seems to be an effort to create a bit of security in an uncertain world, which oddly enough seems rich in supportive family and friends.
Nikki and Mitchell are a thirty-ish couple looking for financial freedom, but it is safe to say the film portrays their real issue as codependency. Their plan to live together in the tiny house they are building, along with two dogs, does not appear to be an idea that could work on any level.
“I think if we did it again, we would build his and hers tiny houses,” one of them says at one point, making one wonder where the relationship is really going.
Karen is an older woman who creates a tiny house so she can run her medical practice in a more charitable and idealistic way. With the tiny house built, she runs her clinic the way she wants, but at the same time struggles with new insecurities, such as getting kicked out of her tiny house’s parking spot.
Landlessness is “part of the joy” of the experience, she relates. Despite the anxiety about where to live, she also feels a growing ability to withhold judgments and to keep an open mind.
Director Beasley deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the easy road. He could have made a film about design, full of tiny-house eye candy and absent any clue how real life actually proceeds.
Instead he’s given us something a lot more challenging. Even if the film is “small” in its scope, it presents a giant philosophical challenge. Though tiny houses symbolize independence, creating them and placing them in the world just serves to illustrate how interdependent people are.
I hope he can return in a year or two with an expanded version, or a sequel, so we can find out how the tiny house makers have lived, now that they’ve built.
A new web site about ADU’s: AccessoryDwellings.org
This blog gets a lot of visitors curious about the tiny house I made by converting my garage.
That place (just a wee bit bigger than the one in the picture above) has three main virtues:
1. it’s smallness makes it very green, given that size is the primary determinant of a dwelling’s environmental footprint;
2. it’s nice, making it possible to live small without feeling like you are living in poverty; and
3. it’s very close to, but still quite separate from, the main house, meaning I can live a few feet from my mother-in-law and still think it’s a good thing. :)
In short, those are the virtues of the modern accessory dwelling unit, also known as a granny flat, backyard cottage, ADU, etc. Given that the nation will need to build millions of dwellings for aging 1- and 2-person households over the next 30 years, I think they are a really interesting option both socially and environmentally.
Now I’m one of the editors of a new site that’s all about accessory dwelling units — what they look like, how to build them, what regulations are, etc. It’s called AccessoryDwellings.org.
Please come check it and consider becoming a contributor. Thanks!!
Certified backyard wildlife habitat
I got my yard inspected as backyard habitat as part of a program run by the Portland Audobon Society and Three Rivers Land Conservancy. I already knew it was working because in recent years we’ve been visited by a whole cocktail party of birds, insects (including dragonflies) and the occasional bat. But it was nice to receive the “Gold” certification anyway, because I got an all-important SIGN to put on my fence.
Fireweed (native), penstemon (native), and day lilies (not) under an Oregon white oak.
Black locust “Frisia” (“naturalized” in Oregon but not native)
Clockwise from bottom left: cultured variety of ninebark (a native), strawberry bush (similar to madrone, a native), hops on gate arbor, day lilies and Oregon white oak (native), low tech “rain garden” (read: glorified bucket surrounded by rocks and native rushes) and streamside lupin (native)
This sign was the answer to a bourgeois little quandary I’ve had: how to explain to the neighbors what I am doing (or not doing) with our “garden”? Without lecturing anyone, that is. …more
A thermostat that knows when you’re away (review of Verdant V8-BB-7S with occupancy sensor)
Resources used by housing and transportation dwarf those associated by other parts of our “lifestyle.” (Click here for geeky background data.) If you want to be green in deed as well as attitude, you’ve got to take on the way you get around, and the energy used by your house.
In the house, technology can obviate the impulse to nobly suffer to save energy (remember President Carter in his sweater?). Probably the first thing I installed in my family’s house when I moved in was a programmable thermostat. It saves energy by lowering the thermostat when I’m not likely to be home or wanting heat, and raise it when I know I want it to come on. No more running across a freezing floor at 5:30 AM to turn the heat on.
Now comes a thermostat that takes this idea one step further …more
The Xtracycle just might save the middle class
Imagine a unicorn appearing at your door, in the flesh, and asking to hang around a while. That would be pretty weird, because you always thought unicorns were mythical creatures like succubi or centaurs. But it would be a hell of a lot weirder if your new one-horned lodger turned out to be mild-mannered, always helpful, impressively strong when the occasion demanded, and a total natural with the kids. (Of course Teddy can come, sweetie. :)
[photo by Patrick Barber, aka hen power -- thanks!]
That’s the way I feel about my family’s new Xtracycle setup. It’s a bicycle I never thought existed in American reality: a bike that is actually a useful and flexible form of family transportation. One that can carry a kid and six bags of groceries without creaking, tipping over, or making the steering go googoo. It eliminates the need for dozens of car trips each week — and it’s fun enough it eliminates the desire for those trips too.
The Xtracycle is that rare thing in today’s world: a green product that could actually make a difference. It could allow thousands of two-car families to switch to one car, and one-car families to switch to zero cars, and have more fun than they did before. Right now my family doesn’t own any cars. We have an Xtracycle, several personal bicycles, and a subscription to a carsharing service. It’s working well and it’s really cheap. Plus kids love Xtracycles.
[photo by carfreedays under Creative Commons]
Initially I was cynical about the potential of the Xtracycle to really change things. …more
Earth to Greens: don’t support Nader’s bid
Somehow, kalevkevad’s photo titled “Garbage Disaster” seems apropos.
It’s a gentle preview of what might happen if Ralph Nader’s presidential bid manages to splinter off a piece of the progressive vote this year. Yes, I groaningly agree, none of the major candidates in the current election are sworn enemies of corporate capitalism. And you have to give the man extreme props for his heroism as a consumer advocate. But the concept that there is no difference between the two major parties, especially on environmental policies, is preposterous.
Go home to your honors and your achievements and a well-deserved beer, Ralph. I’ll even send you a sweet, sweet six to get the party started. We can watch the election returns together, and hold hands, and cry, and at the end of the night, smile with just a smidgeon of hope.
Finally, Al Gore gets real: changing light bulbs isn’t enough.
I must get legit press credentials so I can attend stellar events like this one: Bono and Al Gore together on the same stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Besides fueling slippery-fingered fantasies worldwide (how’d you like to get down with both of them in a Swiss hotel room? now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!), Al Gore got frank, and I’d say, helpful. He said, quote:
“I think it is really important from a climate change point of view to move away from the idea that personal actions from each of us represents the solution to this crisis.”
By personal actions, he’s talking about changing light bulbs and other bits of personal lifestyle, as promoted by treehugger and other relentlessly positive promoters of green consumerism.
“These are important… but in addition to changing the light bulbs it is important to change the laws,” Gore said.
Thank you Al. Don’t forget to vote!
The #1 thing you can do for the environment this year is…
VOTE. And if I can’t can’t convince you, how about flickr artiste magandafille?
Somehow I feel less cynical when I look at this photo.
Generally when it comes to greening up our lives, we tend to overestimate the impact of our sentiments, and …more
My laptop can kick your laptop’s ass (not that it has any need to, of course)
In general, machismo is the sign of a loser. Think of some truly powerful people — Louis the XIV, the British Admiralty (once upon a time anyway), Tom Cruise, a Pope of your choice, even, for god’s sake, Rummy in his prime. Every one has a suspiciously feminine, manicured cleanliness. They all show off more than a patch of pale skin as they sway down a line between the momentous and the monstrous. It’s only the people they conquer that need to drink a lot, work out with weights, wave guns, and put on snarly faces. …more
Ecological footprint cage match!
A month or so ago I was both pleased and disturbed to get a letter asking for advice on “green living.” Pleased because somebody was reading this site. :) Disturbed because the question was a good one and I didn’t have some slick-assed-smug-mouthed answer.
“Nick” wrote about a cage match of sorts, between two lifestyles that are getting the hard sell nowadays. Who would come out on top, or might these enemies kiss and be friends?
Hey bottleman..[Nick wrote] ..I am stuck between two conflicting views of “going green.” …more
Your Chance to Eavesdrop
â€œCan I ask you folks a coupla dumb questions?â€
I turned around abruptly, and gasoline overflowed from the weedwhacker tank I was filling. â€œShit,â€ I mumbled automatically, flash-imagining the whole field going up in flames. â€œYes, sir,â€ I said, more loudly, to the man coming up the path.
â€œWhy are you all weedwhacking around these trees? Why donâ€™t you just leave this to Mother Nature?â€ That day we (a watershed restoration crew) were rigging the competition for our underdogs before they became underneaths. We were cutting the tall invasive grass away from young willow, ash, and ninebark seedlings that we had planted, before it could grow as tall as a basketball player and then fall on top of them like a mattress onto a bottle of wine. (Wink wink)
Beauty and the Beach: Cape Wind, Part I
I’m from Cape Cod, and I’ve never liked it when the ocean is interrupted. I like my view of the ocean to be cut short only by the curve of the earth, not by some meddling chunk of land or anything like that. It’s easier to feel continuous with the ocean if I can see a continuous ocean.
The 130 giant wind turbines proposed for a site six miles off the shore, the power from which would supply 75% of the Cape and Islands’ electricity, would definitely interfere with my oceanic feeling. The fossil fuel-burning power plant in my hometown of Sandwich, which currently supplies almost half of the region’s electrical power, is certainly less conspicuous. I vaguely remember the plant’s smokestack coming into view on each trip to the A&P. I grew up with the belief that it had something to do with Santa Claus, but I never thought much about it.