“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.
My tiny house, finally furnished right
When my tiny house was finished six and a half years ago, my mother-in-law needed to move in immediately, and our budget was spent. So we never really furnished it the way in a way that did justice to the architect’s design. No more!
After 6 years of wonderful support for my spouse and child, my MIL has moved back East to take care of another grandchild, and we finally have dressed up the place for its new life as a furnished rental. I got help from interior designer Ann Reed at Redu.
Here’s a tour. (All photos by ElleMPhotography and Martin Brown, used by permission).
Over the patio and through the door:
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!!
Building ADUs by the book: a review of In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats by Michael Litchfield
When people see the granny cottage I built, a lot of them ask, “I’ve been thinking of doing something like that on my property – how do I get started?”
There haven’t been many good sources I can refer to, and though I try to be friendly I haven’t been that encouraging. Developing that cottage was actually quite a struggle, even in the supposed progressive city of Portland. When you create a second dwelling in or around your house, like this one photographed by radworld…
… you are essentially becoming a mini real estate developer, where you take on a lot of risks and responsibilities before you get—you hope—to the rewards.
A solid one-stop source of good information was sorely needed about how to develop a second dwelling on your property, whether you call it an in-law unit, a basement apartment, a backyard cottage, a garden suite, a secondary unit, or (to use the term favored by planners) an “accessory dwelling unit” or ADU.
Of course architects and contractors will offer …more
Installing and using Arke Karina alternating tread stairs: a review
As a fan of alternating tread stairs, and the owner of a rare city-permitted custom made set of them in the granny cottage I built, I’ve always been curious about one staircase option I did not use: the Arke Karina stair kit.
My own alternating tread device, like most I see around on the internet, was custom made out of wood by a carpenter, and is straight. However the Arke kit uses a modular metal unit as its spine, giving it a lighter appearance, and giving it the ability to curve. The Arke kit isn’t cheap ($1600 minimum, plus >$200 extra if you want a second handrail), though custom carpentry isn’t either. Neither a custom made wood alternating tread stair, nor the Arke kit, meets most residential codes in the US so it’s a wash in that respect. What’s the better choice for someone building or modding a small house?
I finally got a chance to see an Arke Karina kit in action, …more
Alternating tread stairs — the dream and the reality
Here come the objections: Unpermittable. Uninsurable. Illegal. Or my favorite: impossible!
[Ladder image borrowed from Monolithic.com via materialicious.]
People striving to make environmentally sensitive housing often struggle against building codes and planning officials that tell them their environmentally positive design feature simply “can’t be done.” In the case of small houses or accessory dwelling units– which can be greener than a solar mcmansion just by being reasonably sized — one of the biggest challenges can come with stairways, since code stairways take up so much floor area and volume.
There are alternatives, of course, and here I’ll tell you about the one we used in my tiny house project: …more
My tiny house project: autumn outside
Tiny houses need to rely on the outside for a sense of spaciousness, and for an extra place to be in good weather. In previous posts I’ve talked about the ways our building directs the attention outside. Now here’s the outside itself, complete with kid table:
In this pic you are looking from the street up the driveway (made of pavers set in sand to let rainwater drain through). On the left you see stairs that curve up to the “big house” (750 sq. ft). Behind that curve we dug out a little sitting area (where you can see a concrete table with bouquet and iron lawn chairs) and made a retaining wall. This is a really comfortable little spot in the heat, because it’s in the shade of the building and dug in low. …more
My tiny house project: tour the inside!
[fall 2013: hello new visitors! This is an old post with old pictures. Check out new pictures of the place here, and all posts about this project here. Thanks!]
The interior to my 400-square foot house is finally complete, and I think the results show that a tiny, environmentally sensitive house can be both complete and pretty darn nice. Please take a look around in this extensive series of pictures. For example, my cozy skylit loft (120 of the 400 square feet). Don’t you just want to read a book here?
It’s my belief that real green housing for Americans (as opposed to preposterous faux-green McMansions) will inevitably involve downsizing, because downsizing saves energy and resources across the board. But to work, it truly has to be a better place to live than an oversized dwelling — not some unsustainably pious way of “doing without.”
I think my project makes the point pretty well. It was done on the budget (about $75,000 including $7000 for permit and $4000 for architect) and plans I gave in an earlier post. I am very open to comments and questions, but please read that post and in fact all the posts in this series before you quiz me…
My tiny house project: finally some light
It’s been a while since I reported on this project, since construction has been too active to let me easily get in and take photos. Though a few key windows are still obstructed (notably a circular detail window which you should see in the big triangular wall, below), these shots show that all the ideas I’ve talked about in previous posts are starting to work. This place is going to feel and live bigger than its roughly 280-square foot footprint.
That’s important, because if smaller dwellings are going to fulfill their environmental promise, it has to be more than just possible to live in them. Those fickle Homo sapiens have to want to live in them too.
Note: float mouse over photos to see descriptive info.
My tiny house project: the necessary loft
One of the most common (and appealing) tricks in tiny house construction is removing ceiling joists to expose the attic volume, creating a “cathedral ceiling.” In McMansions such extra space can be cold and regal, but within a small frame it gives the eye some room to travel and permits the addition of a sleeping or storage loft.
Consider this before and after pair from my garage-to-granny-house conversion:
Nothing in the dimensions of the building has been changed, but there is clearly much more usable space in the “after” version.
However, in a conversion, you can’t just knock out joists willy-nilly; the place might fall down.
My tiny house project: an extra foot makes a difference
I’ve often noticed that very small differences in dimensions can make a big difference in personal comfort. For example, any sink will feel uncomfortable to use without that little 10 or 15 centimeter kickspace at the bottom of the sink cabinet. Any obstruction to the eye or body can translate into a claustrophobic feeling, no matter how big the room.
The flip side of this is that if such obstructions can be reduced, even a small space can feel generous. If I may modestly offer my own office setup (not part of my tiny house project, though there is more about that later in this post) as an example:
This photo (taken from the building’s hall through the door) shows nearly the entire place, which is maybe 7 by 11 feet, except for the cot that occasionally occupies the unseen wall to the right.
Sure, to function as an office it could be smaller but my point is this is a relatively small space that feels roomy. I think it is partly because I’ve designed the desk (it’s a piece of birch plywood with a routered edge) in a shape that allows both the eye and the body to move unobstructed into the middle of the room. Once there, the shape encourages the eye to travel out the window.
I was feeling proud of this little design when I saw how a real pro architect had done a similar thing in our garage-to-granny-house conversion. …more
My tiny house project: construction begins
One of the most basic ways of reducing your ecological footprint is to make your housing reasonably sized. So when I decided to convert my 280-sf detached garage to a “granny flat,” I thought my progressive and environmentally-minded city wouldn’t mind a bit. Well, I was wrong.
Nonetheless, I’m happy to announce that construction has begun, and I’ve got trash-filled pictures to prove it. First, ponder the dream: a vision of the way it’s supposed to look. Now, check out today’s reality:
There’s clearly a lot of work to do. And in case you don’t believe the house is small, check out the relative scale of the dumpster to the right… we could almost put the whole house in it! (and perhaps we should?) …more