Big Dreams, Tiny Houses

 Ahead of our screening of Tiny: A Story About Living Small, we spoke with filmmakers Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller about downsizing their stuff and upgrading their lives.

Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith

Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith. Photo: Kevin Hoth

In Australia, the average house size is 214 square metres. Since the 2008 recession, the average house size in the US has fallen from 230 square metres to 201. That’s still more than enough space for two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, dining area and lounge room. Throw another storey on that foundation and you’ve got yourself a McMansion.

Though we’re naturally hard-wired to think big and accumulate more, for those in the Tiny House movement, downsizing is more popular than selfies and the McMansion model is unsustainable financially, environmentally and socially.

If you haven’t heard of the Tiny House movement, chances are you will soon. In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, there seems to have been a re-evaluation of life’s priorities, a turn by some towards more grass-roots, inclusive communities. At the height of the GFC in 2008, filmmakers Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller were introduced to the Tiny House movement when they read an interview with Dee Williams in Yes! Magazine.

“We later interviewed Dee, who has been living in her Tiny House for over seven years now, in our film,” Merete tells us via e-mail.

Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith

Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith. Photo: Kevin Hoth

Though influential, it wasn’t the article that inspired Christopher and Merete to make Tiny: A Story About Living Small. According to Merete, people always ask whether the house or the film came first.

“And the answer is that the house came first,” she says. “Christopher had always had a dream of building a cabin from scratch in the mountains. As he approached his 30th birthday, he very impulsively bought a remote 5-acre plot of land and began thinking about making that dream a reality.”

Unfortunately for Christopher, the waking world is wrapped up in red tape and he found that his county, like many in America, requires a 56 square metre minimum house size. With no prior building experience, the project was too big. “This is when the idea of the Tiny House returned,” Merete explains. “Building a Tiny House on wheels was the perfect solution.”

Building a house on wheels isn’t just handy for spontaneous camping trips. Because most countries adhere to International Residential Building Codes, which stipulate a 56 square metre minimum for homes, Tiny Houses are often built onto flatbed trailers. “They technically count as a temporary structure and building codes don’t apply.”

Though the dimensions of flatbeds and Tiny Houses vary, the average Tiny House is 11.15 square metres, a fraction of the typical 201 square metres in America, a much more manageable size for someone with no construction experience.

Christopher did, however, have filmmaking experience, having studied at Sydney Film School, and aside from creating a home, he was also pondering a film project. Watching Christopher plan his adventure, Merete recognised that it was a great story and suggested they film the building process.

In this behind the scenes shot, Kevin Hoth films Christopher Smith installing the roof cap of his Tiny House.

In this behind the scenes shot, Kevin Hoth films Christopher Smith installing the roof
cap of his Tiny House. Photo: Merete Mueller

“We were building a house with no building experience, learning as we went along, and we were also making our first feature film with very little experience, equally figuring things out as we went,” Merete says. “One of the biggest challenges was learning how to best capture the action as it was happening.”

It’s when things go wrong that stories become compelling, and building a house and recognising those moments wasn’t easy. “Pulling out the camera and filming ourselves when things got tough was often the last thing we were thinking about at the time!”

In the beginning Christopher set the camera on a tripod and filmed himself building. Facing the prospect of hours in the editing booth to uncover the action, friend Kevin Hoth and Merete joined him on the site. “With the two of us… we got better at seeing what was most interesting about the building process and capturing scenes as they were unfolding,” she says.

Of course, there’s much more to the film than Christopher hammering nails. The duo travelled America, talking with other Tiny House owners and touring their home-grown structures. They slept on the porch of a Tiny House in California, waking up to find mist-coated forests foraged by a pack of Havalena pigs, which Merete describes as “really spectacular”, and they also met one of their biggest inspirations – Dee Williams.

“As you’ll see in the film, she is so deliberate in the way she lives and is so articulate about how and why she has chosen to live a life of simplicity. Right away you get a sense of how tender-hearted and generous she is.”

Catherine Allen and Pacifico Limo, two characters in the documentary TINY: A Story About Living Small, pose in front of their Tiny House in Healdsburg, California.

Catherine Allen and Pacifico Limo, pose in front of their Tiny House in Healdsburg, California. Photo: Merete Mueller

Though Dee has lived in such a small space for close to a decade, Merete understands “living in less than 200 square feet isn’t for everyone”. In fact, at times it can be incredibly challenging, from emptying the composting toilet to hauling water, but those moments can sometimes be the best and the worst. “It just depends on how you look at it,” she says.

Merete remembers waking up early one morning to find the peat moss for the composting toilet was out and having to go out to shovel some from the bin outside. Cold, about 6am, having to brave the elements was a pain. But there was an amazing sunrise. The mountains were peaked in snow and glowing bright pink in the dawn. She never would have seen that sunrise if not for needing peat moss and it “made the whole day feel sort of special”.

“Tiny Houses are kind of like that in a lot of ways – sometimes they challenge our boundaries of comfort, but they open up all of these new possibilities and ways of seeing the world around us that aren’t as routine and rote as they can be in a more traditional living structure.”

One person who wants to have those types of Tiny House experiences is Jeremy Beasley, an Australian filmmaker who is also, coincidentally, making a documentary about the Tiny House movement with Kelly Nardo. After spotting Kirsten Dirksen’s Tiny House videos on YouTube, Beasely decided he wanted to build his own.

“I became interested not just in the design element of Tiny Houses, but in why people were choosing to live that way,” he tells us. “There seemed to be some beautiful stories and interesting social and economic forces behind it, which appealed to my love for storytelling.”

Noting that the average Australian had $4700 credit card debt, Jeremy says that Tiny Houses can “enable people to save a lot on living expenses”. But that’s not what it’s all about, and he echoes the sentiment of Tiny Housers in the US, believing they assist people to “lower their environmental footprint and really change the way they look at consumption and material possessions”.

Mirroring the grass-roots ethos of the movement, Beasley partly funded his documentary, Small Is Beautiful, through a campaign on Pozible, where he and Nardo raised nearly 150% of their initial goal. “I think crowd funding and the Tiny House movement are both part of a much larger movement of empowering the individual and removing the ‘gate keeper’ from certain realms that were once unattainable.”

This notion of empowering the individual is shared by Christopher and Merete, who say they “hope that people will walk away [after seeing the film] asking questions about quality of life and how simplifying might help them to focus their lives on the relationships and experience that are most meaningful to them.”

– Matt Millikan, Web Marketing Coordinator

Tiny: A Story About Living Small runs from Thursday 3 April – Wednesday 30 April. 

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