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How I made “We the Tiny House People”

These days, I see small homes everywhere and just released a documentary on the topic (watch “We the Tiny House People”), but until a few years ago, they didn’t really register within my idea of a house.

An epicenter of the tiny house movement

My aha moment was cinema-worthy. It was early September 2009, I had spent my first summer at my parents’ home in Cloverdale, California (the part of Sonoma County where few tourists stop).

Desperate to create value during my time here, once or twice a week, I’d been leaving their tightly-planned Truman-Show-style retirement community (you can barely cut your grass without a permit) for surrounding towns where residents were building Permaculture Homes and creating a livelihood from their backyard organic produce.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Jay Shafer and his teeny home, but at the time he was just another excuse to leave the retirement community. It wasn’t until I turned a street corner and was confronted with an impossibly-small-but-perfectly-complete home that it dawned on me that I’d stumbled onto something big.

As I opened his picket fence, Jay Shafer stepped out of his gingerbread house and began apologizing for all the shoes on his porch and mumbling something about being the “Imelda Marcos of Tiny House People” and I understood: I had just met the first of a breed of people who would soon occupy my life.

A home for a claustrophiliac

Later, another Tiny House Person would dub him the “poster child” of the movement, but at the time I had no idea of how his personal tour of his 89-square-foot home provided such a smooth entry into this world. It looked identical to some idealized version of a home- front porch, wooden eaves, etc.

Jay calls it a “naked house”- and the whole tiny house genre he has dubbed “house porn” (at least to explain all the Large House People fascinated by it)- and it was almost too perfect to be a real home– a sparkling kitchenette and shelving filled with books and evenly-placed glass food containers along most walls.

Shafer himself comes off flawless – well-dressed and well-spoken- so there’s no chance his choice of shelter might get lumped into some negative stereotype of a trailer park lifestyle. He grew up in a 4,000 square foot home and he’s made his choice. He prefers this way of life for its purity of design and even claims to get claustrophilia in poorly-designed large spaces.

Tiny homes on wheels everywhere

After my visit with Shafer, I soon discovered that his county (Sonoma) had many of his breed. There’s Jenine Alexander who lives about 13 miles northwest of him in a tiny home she’d built out of salvaged material on top a secondhand trailer for just a couple thousand dollars.

And 16-year-old Austin Hay who’s spent the past two years erecting a tiny home from one of Shafer’s plans (Tumbleweed Tiny House Company) in the backyard of his parents’ Santa Rosa home (10 miles east of Shafer). Or Stephen Marshall who sells tiny homes on trailers off the side of the road in Petaluma (about 20 miles south of Jay).

What the mainstream media overlooked

Soon after discovering this west coast nest of tiny abodes, while planning stories to coincide with a trip to New York for a friend’s wedding, I began to question why no one had filmed videos of all the tiny cribs in Manhattan. Before long, I found out this had been a mistake of the mainstream media.

My first tiny apartment video- with a woman living in 90 square feet- went viral: it was picked up by major newspapers worldwide and was even used on traditional television, like Good Morning America, and has been seen by over 4 million people to date. The 2nd video focused on a man living in 78 square feet and crossed the million mark within about a month.

Old World: repurposed space

Then I went back to Barcelona, where I live with my Spanish husband and 2 daughters- and tracked down an old friend living in a converted pigeon coop nearby in the Gothic Quarter. His place is 25 square meters (269 square feet), but he’d tricked it out by hiding nearly all furniture in the walls. To date, over 3 million people have viewed his transformable home.

Soon I was filming tiny spaces throughout Southern Europe of people living in all kinds of small converted spaces- caves, laundryrooms, tool sheds- and I continued to tape people throughout the U.S. who were finding happiness in small boats, treehouses and storage containers.

Like the Whos down in Whoville

The more I filmed, the more people came to me with their stories: a San Francisco housekeeper who built a home the size of a 2-car garage; a family in Arkansas who lost their 2,000 square foot house during the recession and downsized into a 320 square foot pre-fab.

These days, there may be more stories of extreme downsizing given the recession, but what surprises me most is that no matter what the circumstances, like the Whos down in Whoville, these tiny house people seem happy. And often they attribute their good fortune to their shrunken homes.

They talk about clarity of mind and lack of clutter in a way that echoes the words of Leonardo Da Vinci. “Small rooms or dwellings set the mind on the right path, large ones cause it to go astray.”

The Tiny House Person in all of us

Nearly 5 years after bumbling into my first tiny house interview (so unprepared was I that I – quite obviously to anyone viewing the footage- hadn’t even cleaned my lens), I’ve now filmed nearly 100 small spaces. Lately, I’m beginning to reconsider my original idea that Tiny House People are such a distinct breed of their own.

There’s definitely a common link between them in their love of the compact, but I question whether we don’t all share that love. It may be closeted in some of us, but if you go back far enough- perhaps to around 5 years old- who can’t relate to the attraction of nesting in a snug space.

An edited life

And now after half a century of an expanding American home (the average size has more than doubled), there are a lot of people in this country dreaming of just how small they can go.

Serial entrepreneur (founder of treehugger.com, LifeEdited) and Vanity Fair cover boy Graham Hill thinks that editing is the skill of this century and he’s now in the process of creating a tiny dream apartment in New York City’s Soho.

The Arkansas mom whose family’s economic misfortune forced them to shrink their home by a factor of 8 explained during her tour of her now 320 square foot “shotgun-style shack”, “It’s not what you don’t have, but what you do that I focus on.”

One very private couple I interviewed (they have yet to grant another tv interview) who live in a 12 foot square cabin in the Northern California woods have chosen to live in a small home to focus on the things that matter to them. During my time at Innermost House, Diana Lorence described life there as the ultimate luxury because she lives only with what she truly loves.

“A small, concentrated domestic space conceived for the purpose of what Wordsworth called “plain living and high thinking” is like a hand held up to the ear or a lens to the eye:  it enlarges and amplifies and intensifies everything.”

A secret to happiness

I still live in a relatively spacious 1000 square foot apartment with my family of 4 (soon-to-be 5) and I’m not looking to downsize, but I can’t get enough of these tiny homes. I’m sure there’s something Thoreauvian in my attraction to the examined lives of those who inhabit them.

I continue to be impressed by how so many Tiny House People have been able to let go of their stuff and not despite, but because of this, find a certain calm. This very Buddhist/Gandhian/Stoic concept of non-attachment as a path to happiness is hardly new.

Over 2 millennia ago Socrates counseled, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

And it’s here where I am beginning my next documentary: a very personal look at how having a philosophy of life- particularly Stoicism (that of the ancient Greek and Romans)- are related to happiness and well-being.