TINY: A Story About Living Small

TINY: A Story About Living Small (Directors: Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith): Tiny home: a living structure that can range anywhere from 60 to 500 square feet and is typically in the 120 to 200 square foot range. Tiny homes are usually built on flatbed trailers, which make them both easily mobile and qualifies them as “temporary structures”, allowing for compliance with zoning laws and building codes.

Tiny home living is a growing movement embraced by people wishing to make a smaller environmental impact, for financial reasons, and because they generally just want to simplify their lives. Christopher Smith aspired to such a lifestyle, so shortly before his 30th birthday, he purchased a five acre plot of land in Colorado and subsequently set about building his own tiny home, with the assistance of his girlfriend, Merete Mueller. The pair decided to document their experience for a short film, but further explorations into the tiny home movement saw the project, aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, expand to TINY: A Story About Living Small‘s now 62 minute running time.

The co-directors, neither of whom had any building experience, soon come to find that even extra small-scale house construction is more challenging and time-consuming than they expected. Most of the construction work is actually done by Smith, who frequently relies on instructional YouTube videos to guide him and doesn’t come close to completing the project in the four month period originally estimated. Very few of the construction-related obstacles encountered are shown, to the film’s slight detriment (Smith admitted in the post-screening Q&A that they were mostly edited out). There’s a lot of people out there who, like me, possess less-than-stellar handyman skills and showing more of those trials and tribulations would have made Smith’s building experience a little more relatable, as well as added an extra level of small intrigue to the proceedings. Even still, by the time the project is completed, the tremendous sense of accomplishment felt by the amiable Smith and Mueller makes for a satisfying payoff for the viewer as well. An interesting side story also develops as the home takes shape involving the couple’s questionable future together, due to Mueller’s desire to pursue her writing career in New York City.

Interspersed with the scenes showing the couple’s building project are interviews with other tiny home dwellers and tours (very short tours, naturally) of their diminutive abodes. There are repeated testimonials about how much happier they all are with their downsized manner of living and the freedom it allows them, financially and in other ways (such as maintaining a clutter-free existence that relies just on essentials). A couple of different tiny home residents talk about working for years at white collar jobs that took up most of their lives and left them unfulfilled, leading them to reexamine their priorities and make the big change to living small.

Smith and Mueller’s delightful documentary provides an insightful look into the fascinating tiny home movement, with thought-provoking discussions on the meaning of “home” and how that concept fits into the context of the ever-changing American Dream.


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Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio (Director: Samuel Wainwright Douglas): Believing strongly that architecture is not just for rich people living in cities like New York or Chicago, Auburn professor Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1993 in Hale County, Alabama, many of whose inhabitants live in abject poverty. The studio was established as a way for students to gain some practical experience while also helping the rural communities around it. Since its founding, students and instructors have lived and worked together to build everything from houses, animal shelters, churches and even a boys’ and girls’ club.

Although Mockbee himself died in 2001, director Douglas uses a wealth of interview footage from 1999 in which Mockbee passionately argues that architects must be a part of the community they’re designing for. He’s also adamant that students of architecture actually get to build some of their academic projects, unlike at many schools where student work is strictly theoretical. Not everyone has agreed with Mockbee’s ideas; Yale professor and architect Peter Eisenman doesn’t believe, for instance, that he needs to know the people who will be living or working in the buildings he designs to know what they need. But Mockbee and his colleagues at the Rural Studio argue just the opposite. The film follows a few of his students and their projects over the past ten years.

Using mostly recycled and donated materials, the architect/builders of the Rural Studio are hoping to make a positive impact on some of the most neglected communities in America. Although for some, this will mark a phase on their professional journey, Mockbee’s passionate desire was for this experience to change his students’ lives forever. Although we don’t get a sense of where most of the participants have ended up, it’s clear that Mockbee’s ideas have influenced other architects and organizations. In Utah, Design/Build Bluff constructs similar projects on Navajo reservations, while Architecture for Humanity is doing this kind of socially-conscious architecture all over the world.

Citizen Architect is a fitting tribute to a man more of us should know about. I was happy to see some of the work that he and his students have accomplished in Alabama, but I’m even happier to see that his influence has begun to spread far beyond the rural South. As the film notes, there are far more people living in shantytowns and rural areas than there are living in the traditional centres where architects have historically plied their trade. Hopefully, more of them will understand how much they are needed outside the glittering cities of glass and steel.

Official site of the film



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