Small Space, Big Idea: The Tiny House Movement

This feature story about the Tiny House Movement by writer, digital marketer and web developer Anne-Claire Siegert appeared in Boulder’s YellowScene Magazine.



ne hundred miles southwest of Boulder down a dirt road just outside Hartsel, a tiny house is made smaller by the expanse of countryside that dwarfs it. The home is 130 square feet, and the solitude, combined with the view of the coarse Taryall Mountains, calls to mind words from Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”

Those words capture the spirit that moved pioneers across the West, whose grit matched the rugged landscape before it shaped their national psyches. And in the undertones of this next statement, it’s clear that grit hasn’t left us: “A small house is not just a twee, cute little house,” Jay Shafer says in a television interview. “It’s a form of civil disobedience for me.”

“The land was ours before we were the land’s.”

-Robert Frost, The Gift Outright

Clean cut and closely shaven, Shafer looks more like a family man than an activist. Still, his objectivity lends him credibility. He isn’t preaching from a soapbox or speaking as a martyr. He is being patriotic in the new frontier. He’s echoing the sentiment that developed the country—the drive to push the edge of an uncharted world.

Shafer’s 106-square-foot home in California is a small space representative of a big movement. The “Tiny House Movement” is an architectural and social push to live simply in smaller spaces.  It gained momentum in 2000 with the creation of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a tiny house construction company that Shafer founded. Today, there are an estimated 1000 homes in the country under 150 square feet. Homes like 30-year-old Christopher Smith’s outside Hartsel.

A small house is not just a twee, cute little house. It’s a form of civil disobedience for me.
-Jay Shafer

“I set out to buy the land in mountains,” Smith says. “It was a lifelong dream of mine to have a permanent place to go back to … a constant place in my life. My dad was in the military, so we were always transitory.” 

Like so many others, Smith built his tiny house himself. Using beetle-kill pine and recycled timber, the build didn’t require many visits to the big-box store. As it sits now there is no garage or rooms that aren’t lived in. There is, however, a kitchen with a two-burner stove, a living area, a sleeping loft overhead, and a composting toilet that uses peat moss and saw dust to break down waste. A camp-style shower harnesses the sun’s warmth to heat the water, and everything is powered by solar energy and propane. While Smith’s tiny home can be found off the beaten path, others can be spotted in people’s backyards or hitched to the back of a truck. Most are built on wheels to make them portable. And to make them legal.

“It’s just been an evolution of basically mandatory consumption laws,” Shafer says of the legalities of tiny homes. “We have to live in fairly large houses.” Shafer is referring to the International Residential Building Codes, a law adopted by many U.S. cities that requires homes to be no less than 600 square feet. While there is no minimum size requirement for a home in Boulder County, there is a room area requirement.

It works like this: Any dwelling has to have one inhabitable room that is at least 120 square feet. A home is required to have a place for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation. As long as you have those factors, technically you could build a tiny home in Boulder County without putting it on wheels. In most places, however, by building atop a trailer, the structure becomes a mobile home and satisfies a loophole in the code.

But what drives people to downsize so drastically?

Smith asked that question in the midst of constructing his home. The journey to find the answer inspired the documentary he created with his girlfriend, Merete Mueller, Tiny: A Story About Living Small, which recently premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. The documentary details the lives of those who have made the move.

“I did it for environmental reasons,” Smith says. “But I was surprised to learn that most people do it for financial reasons. A fair amount who lost their house in the crisis, they lost their job and were worried about long-term living. A lot of people choosing to downsize, are doing it for bigger values in their quality of life.”

John Griffin, a carpenter, echoed that sentiment in the 148-square-foot house he’s building in Louisville. “You get your own space,” says Griffin. “When you think about someone today just getting out of school—or maybe you’ve been out of school for a while—getting the money together to buy a house is a challenge and it’s a burden. So if people could get enough money for a down payment for a house, you know, it would be enough to pay for this. And they’d be mortgage free. Debt free.”

In fact, from 1970 to 2010 home sizes have nearly doubled. But in Tiny, Smith and Mueller found that many people no longer equate quality of life with quantity of space. Instead, they equate the downsize with freedom.

Smith called it a freedom from “being chained to an expensive home you have to worry about.” Shafer called it freedom from the mansions, “which are the real debtor’s prisons.” Griffin called it freedom from accumulating debt. In many ways, it’s also a freedom from convenience.

“When I cook, I have to think of where my water will come from,” says Smith, who trucks in jugs to his land. “Being a little closer to the process makes like simpler. It’s gratifying. I feel more connected to the world for that reason.”

In fact, that’s how the Tiny House Movement began. It was an attempt to get back in touch with the environment, to edit out life’s excess in order to appreciate what’s left behind. Or, that’s how the pioneer of the movement, Henry David Thoreau, put it in the book that started it all: Walden. Thoreau lived in a 10-by-15-foot cottage in the woods for two years, two months and two days. When he came out he wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”