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.
One of the more curious effects of my ongoing health kick has been an unhealthy obsession with salad spinners. Since I have been eating a lot of greens, I wash a lot of greens. Greens that come straight from the farmer, like spinach, tend to come with a lot of dirt on them, and really need to be washed. And those boxed salads from the grocery store have already been washed and dried, but the leaves tend to get too dry. You don’t need to eat them that way. Washing and drying the greens again, which is easiest in a salad spinner, can really liven those boxed salads up.
Now the problem is, salad spinners are generally pretty crappy gadgets. They tend to be made of 100% plastic, which means they tend to build up flavors and stains, and when their spinning mechanism (which is generally in the lid) breaks, it’s basically unfixable, which makes me furious. I’ve had the OXO salad spinner a few times, and broken the mechanism each time.
Ergo I went in search of an all-metal, unbreakable salad spinner, and found nothing. A few extremely expensive spinners had metal bowls, but the mechanisms were still plastic. Along the way I found a discussion on Chowhound about plastic-free salad spinning that suggested to me there really was no good “product” to buy. Thus I had to return to first principles and design my own. And who else to demonstrate first principles better than Julia Child?
(This video should start around the 10:55 mark. If it doesn’t, go there.)
The “French” salad spinner that Julia uses has only two basic elements:
- one, a porous mesh, colander, or filter which holds the greens that have been washed yet allows the water to pass through.
- two, something that uses physical action to encourage the separation of water and salad through centrifugal force.
Every other part is optional. Julia’s “French” salad spinner has no bowl, because the sink catches the thrown-off water. And it has no lid, because, well, I guess she’s not planning on storing anything after the meal. Julia’s salad is going to be so good there won’t be any left. :)
Personally I prefer a spinner to have a bowl and a lid, so that it’s possible to serve and store with the same bowl you used to wash the salad (why waste time washing extra dishes?)
For the record, here is a general diagram of a salad spinner:
(props to johnny_automatic and voyag3r at openclipart.org for the salad and hand elements of this drawing)
Once you understand that this is the design of every salad spinner in existence, you can make a salad spinner out of stuff you have around the house. It can be metal, plastic, fiber, whatever material you want. And since it will not have a complex mechanism, it will be nearly unbreakable. For example:
- you can put your washed salad in a pillowcase or other porous cloth bag and whip it around your head, like this blogger. The salad stays in the bag, the water flies out. The pillowcase is working as both the filtering element and the spinning element. This works surprisingly well — except you will get water all over the walls. (Of course you can go outside to do it, but that’s not my favorite method in the middle of a rainy winter.)
- you can do the same thing with big kitchen towels. I understand this is an old-timey method favored by many good cooks. Same results — nice salad, but splattered walls.
- a more sophisticated variation would be to put the salad-laden pillowcase or kitchen towels into a waterproof bag, then whip that around your head. In this case the towel or pillowcase is still the filtering element, but the waterproof bag acts as the “bowl” or water trap. That way the tossed-off water would won’t go on your walls.
- my preferred method is to put the greens in a stainless steel colander and use that for washing. Then I put salad that colander inside a larger bowl, and then put the whole combination down into a sturdy cloth bag, then whip that around for about 30 seconds. The colander is the filtering element, the bowl is the water trap, and the cloth bag is the thing that allows the bowl and colander to be “spun”.
Won’t the salad fall out without a lid? you say. No, it won’t, the centrifugal force keeps the open “top” of the bowl lined up the right way. After 30 seconds, stop whipping the bowl around, remove the colander, and dump the trapped water out of the bowl. You can then use the bowl for serving. If the bowl has a lid, then you can apply the lid if that suits your needs.
If all that verbiage was too much for you, check out the demonstration on Youtube:
The video shows that I tested two such homemade methods, and found they removed nearly as much water from a washed salad as the famous, and quite breakable Oxo spinner.
So basically, you never need to pay $25-$100 for a clunky and quite breakable salad spinner. There are lots of ways to wash and dry salad that are nearly free and practically unbreakable.
Just remember one thing. Salad spinning should be a vigorous part of the cooking process — not an attack with a medieval flail. So leave plenty of room when you’re swinging that thing around your head. :)
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).
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!!
Call me a curmudgeon, but I hate it when consumer products are designed to fail.
For me there is a certain quiet pleasure in having well-made things in my everyday life. You know, things that work well for their purpose, feel right in my hands, and are worthy and capable of being repaired, rather than just cast into the landfill. And so when I encounter things that don’t have those qualities–are badly made, badly designed for their purpose, and incapable of being repaired, I start to sputter with anger. Is it right that I feel personally insulted by poorly done products?
Probably not; my condition probably has a code in the DSM V. In any case it flared up this year when confronted with the subject of lunchboxes. Before my kid went to school I had no idea how revolting lunchboxes could be. I had visions of him traipsing along with one of those classy stackable things like in Eat Drink Man Woman (go to 1:55 in the video below).
Of course that wasn’t going to happen. Little kids want pictures, colors, logos, characters. So last year (kindergarten) we tried two kinds of lunch boxes that ended up raising my hackles. …more
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
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
Lately I’ve been obsessed with kitchen efficiency. Not green efficiency, but efficiency in terms of work. I would prefer to spend my time enjoying food, not preparing it or cleaning up. Why does my mother-in-law’s kitchen seem like such a breeze to work in while my own kitchen felt so awkward? And how can I save work without spending $20K-$100K on a major renovation?
I embarked on my own amateur analysis of kitchen flow and modded my kitchen to match. My work began with this kitchen work flow diagram:
I’m not much of a graphic artist, but it succinctly shows why it can be so hard to do work efficiently in the kitchen: …more
I refit this end of the attic in my 1922 house as a play area for my son. I wanted this attic to continue to feel like an attic, even though I was finishing it off. So I did the walls and ceiling in tongue & groove beadboard, a material which was also used when the house was built. It has new fireproofing and insulation underneath. Other features inlcude: marmoleum sheet scraps for flooring, with soft padding underneath; an antique star-mullioned window to suggest a sunset; a Velux roof window for emergency egress; low-temperature LED light fixtures; a verdant-brand thermostat with an occupancy sensor, controlling a “hydronic” baseboard heater; and a tent-sized nap bay.
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
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