a story about living small

A film by Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith


While our documentary, TINY, focuses on the stories of people who have chosen to downsize even though they have the option of living much larger lifestyles, around the world and in the US many people live tiny by necessity and not by choice.

With this in mind, there is great work being done to apply the innovations, ideas and sprit of the Tiny House movement to design and build small-scale structures that are truly livable, for everyone. From Tiny House villages for the homeless to research on infill development and designing diverse and sustainable urban neighborhoods, here are a few of our favorite projects and resources:

The Rural Studio at Auburn University

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The Rural Studio was building modern, small-scale homes for low-income residents in Alabama long before the Tiny House movement brought the “Small is Cool” ethos to the mainstream. Central to the program’s mission is the creation of social and design solutions from within the communities that most need them, rather than a top-down, outside-in approach. Students live in the neighborhoods where their projects are located, getting to know the neighbors and thereby discovering needs that they may otherwise have overlooked. In addition to aesthetics, the Studio also prioritizes energy efficiency and durability, saving future owners from excessive maintenance and utility bills. Teams of 3-5 students—a combo of grads, undergrads and apprentices—work on a number of public projects throughout the year, while one team remains devoted to improving and expanding the ever-evolving $20K project – $20,000 because according to program organizers that price is “the most expensive mortgage a person receiving today’s median Social Security check of $758 a month can realistically pay.” These homes may be small but are exceptionally designed, prioritizing high ceilings, natural lighting, air flow and ventilation, and front porches to encourage social time.

“Rural Studio launched its affordable housing program in 2005. We were eager to make our work more relevant to the needs of west Alabama, the Southeast, and possibly the entire country. We looked at the omnipresent American trailer park, where homes, counterintuitively, depreciate each year they are occupied. We wanted to create an attractive small house that would appreciate in value while accommodating residents who are unable to qualify for credit.”

Merete wrote this article about the Rural Studio for elephantjournal.com back in 2009

This article is also a great introduction to the Rural Studio’s work via Slate.com


Infill Development, Urban Density and Diversity

Dr. Karen Chapple, a professor of urban planning at UC Berkeley, appears briefly in our film to speak about the applications of the Tiny House movement to building more sustainable communities. A featurette on the DVD of TINY explores her work a bit more.

Dr. Chapple and her students believe that small-scale backyard cottages (on the order of 300-400 square feet) could be a great solution for affordable housing in the Bay Area. Not only would these backyard units be cheaper for the city to build that traditional apartment-style housing projects, they would more evenly distribute low income residents throughout already existing neighborhoods rather than piling poor people into one centralized city block. This means more diverse neighborhoods, with many different ages and income levels living together.

In urban planning speak, building on un-used urban spaces—on vacant lots, in backyards, between existing commercial and residential spaces—is known as “infill development.” As cities continue to expand, considering infill development rather than continuing to build out the edges of our cities into sprawling suburbs can help us to develop more sustainably. Higher density also means better and more centralized public transportation and stronger city services such as parks, libraries and other common spaces.

Dr. Chapple and her students recently published a study identifying exactly how many of these backyard units could be legally built in the SF Bay Area, and what impact they might have on the city as a whole.

Read more about Karen Chapple and her work here.

Read an article about the net-zero cottage that Karen Chapple built in her own backyard as a case study here.


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Boneyard Studios in Washington, DC is another great example of urban-style Tiny House living. Currently housing four Tiny Houses, the plot is an active case-study for the ways that Tiny Houses may occupy un-used urban spaces. Read more about Boneyard Studios here.

This article in Grist.org provides a great overview of some of these issues, including the work being done at Boneyard Studios. 


Tiny House Communities for the Homeless

We are excited to learn about the many Tiny House villages for the homeless that are popping up around the country. These projects (many of which have just been developed within the last few months and are still raising funds and experimenting with this model) addressing an immediate need for shelter and emphasizing a strong sense of community as well as other human services geared towards helping the chronically and temporarily homeless get back on their feet.

Community First! Village in Austin, Texas run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes

Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington

Second Wind Cottages in Newfield, NY (just outside of Ithaca, NY)

Occupy Madison Village, Madison Wisconsin

For further reading, here are a few of our favorite articles on the subject: 

Grist.org, How Tiny Houses Can Work for Both the Haves and Have-Nots

“In some areas of the country, a very small home isn’t just a model for the eco-conscious and design-inclined to pursue radical downsizing. Instead, it represents an opportunity for the homeless, mentally ill, and otherwise disenfranchised to get a toehold on upward mobility.”

Yes Magazine, “Tiny Houses for The Homeless: An Affordable Solution Catches On.”


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