In 2011, grad student Christopher Carson Smith bought a small parcel of land in Hartsel, Colorado with the intention of building a tiny house on it. He had moved around yearly as a child growing up in a military family, and had always dreamed of one day establishing a "homestead" of his own. The area was beautiful, but so remote that the nearest stoplight was a 35-minute drive away. Smith had no prior experience with construction, but he expected to spend around three months working on the house. Instead, the building process for the 124-square-foot home took a year.
"There weren't very many examples of tiny houses when I started building mine," says Smith. "I wasn't sure what was possible because a lot of people hadn't done it yet, but now that I've been in dozens of tiny houses, I see what a difference certain choices make."
Smith ended up making a documentary about the experience with Merete Mueller, his girlfriend at the time, called TINY: A Story About Living Small. Although he had intended for the off-the-grid house, which had no running water, to be a weekend getaway, he fell in love with it, and ended up living there full-time. Smith has since moved out of his 7-by-19 home to work in film in Los Angeles. Curbed recently sat down with him to chat about living in a tiny house, what he would do differently if he built it today, and why he ended up leaving it.
Curbed: Would you say that you're sort of a tiny house pioneer?
Christopher: Yeah, I guess I would. There were people who came before us but in the grand scale of how many people who are into it now, I guess we're one of the first.
What was it like living in a house that was just 124 square feet?
Well, it turns out that I don't need a lot of space to live comfortably as long as I have my basic needs taken care of, so I've enjoyed it. I was even in it during the big Colorado floods of fall 2013. I got stuck in it for three days. When you're in it for three days and don't leave, you feel like, 'okay I kind of wish I would go somewhere else.' But personally I'm not one to spend a lot of time at home, and that's one of the things that's great about tiny houses. They sort of encourage you to export a lot of the functions of your home into your community.
How did you settle upon the design for your tiny house?
Mine's actually pretty rustic. I went really simple because I had never built anything before this house, so I tried to keep it simple so I could accomplish it. The trick with tiny houses, which aren't on a foundation, is figuring out things like plumbing and heating and where you're going to get your power from, especially if it's off grid. People have been coming up with amazing solutions to that, but those examples didn't exist when I built it, so I erred on the side of making it simple. If I had it to do over again I would borrow a lot of those ideas.
What sort of things would you incorporate if you were doing it now?
I didn't put plumbing in my house because my land didn't have running water, and so I knew I would be hauling water. There were plenty of tiny house people living that way at the time. When I was building it, I wasn't intending on living there full-time. For me, it was a house with some land that I could get away to for a week or two. But I ended up living in it for a year. Had I known that, I would have put in running water—it would've made my life so much easier. That's the one thing I don't like about it, and it has nothing to do with the size. I have drinking water in the bathroom, but if I needed to take a shower I would have to go to the gym and that was always kind of a pain. Now you see people with flush toilets, you see people with really nice showers, and when I visit them I'm so jealous.
Are there any other smaller design aspects that you would fix?
I have a ladder going up to my loft. I thought that would be fine, and it is fine, but in the middle of the night if you have to get up and go to the bathroom then going down a ladder is kind of a pain in the ass. These days people have figured out ways to put down stairs in creative ways. The second thing is, up in the loft I went for a normal pitched roof, but there's been examples of flat roofs or slightly slanting roofs or dormers, and any one of those would've created more space up there.
Would you make it bigger?
It might make it a little bigger. Tiny houses came about because there were certain limitations within the law that people were trying to work within, or trying to build on trailers. I would probably get a gooseneck trailer that was more like 30 feet long and then put the bed up on the gooseneck and have that whole floor space as a living space. It only adds 50 or 100 square feet, but that's the perfect amount. I would say my house is just a little bit cramped. It isn't too cramped to live in, but if I had just a bit more space I would feel totally comfortable.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do this?
Visit one. You need to figure out if are the type of person that would thrive in that situation, or if it would be a challenge for you. If you think you would thrive in it, then all I can say is jump in. It's a lot of time and money and mental energy, so it's good to have an honest conversation with yourself first because you do see a lot of people building a tiny house and then selling it within a year, and it's just because they got infatuated with the idea. That's not to say that tiny houses aren't a viable option for a lot of people. They're just not a viable option for everybody. In fact, I think tiny houses are great, but really most people should be targeting small houses. 400 to 800 square feet, or if you're a family, maybe 1,000 square feet or so.
How much time did it take to build yours? How much did it cost?
It took exactly one year. It cost about $26,000.
What was your place like before you downsized?
I was staying in my mom's town house in Boulder. She lived in South Africa, and I was in grad school up until building the tiny house, so I was renting their house. It was a two-bedroom with two-and-a-half baths and a basement. It was a pretty big place, close to 2000 square feet, and I was there by myself a lot of that time.
Why did you decide to leave your tiny house? Were you frustrated?
Not at all. I got offered a job editing and filming, so it just made sense to me to be in L.A. I couldn't bring the house because there's nowhere to park it out here. Most cities have laws against living in R.Vs, and tiny houses by their definition technically meet those standards.
What's your place like in L.A.? Do you have a pool?
No, I rent a room. There are four roommates in a four-bedroom house. I actually have more space now, even though it's just a bedroom.
Do you miss your tiny house now that you're in L.A.?
Oh yeah. I make it back to Colorado every other month to stay in it for about a week.
Last question: Does it make you mad when people on blogs call your house cute?
No, not at all. I kind of like it. I mean it is cute. That's what's so insidious about tiny houses. If they were just trailers nobody would want to be in them. It's challenging the idea of what a home is, and you can only really do that through design.