Alum builds tiny house on big philosophical ground

October 18, 2012 •

HARTSEL, Colo.—Christopher Smith knew he wanted to sink down some roots, preferably on a mountainside. He just didn’t know that the process would require so much time, sweat and money.

“I pretty much had no construction experience,” Smith said. “I didn’t own any tools, so there was a pretty big learning curve.”

Countless hours of physical toil and a steep cerebral climb went into building his tiny house, which casts a small shadow in South Park, Colo. Smith takes heart in knowing that the journey to build the 133-square-foot home, as well as to craft a film about tiny homes, fills him with a satisfaction that can’t be measured.

Venturing into the unknown was of no serious concern to Smith, who credits much of that fearlessness to the education he received at the University of Colorado. He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy at CU-Boulder and in 2011 completed a Master of Public Administration degree through an accelerated, one-year program at CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs.

“School and graduate school, in particular, helped me to have the drive, this wherewithal and confidence, to just go out and do things … take on big projects,” said Smith, 31. “I have a recognition that I can sort of make things happen.”

Constantly moving during his childhood—his father was in the Army, based mostly on the East Coast—served to instill in Smith a dream of one day planting roots in a place that fed his soul.

“I just decided it didn’t make sense to wait,” said Smith, who began building the tiny house while finishing his graduate program. “I thought, ‘If this is a dream of mine that will happen someday,’ I might as well just go ahead and do it.”

A graphic designer and programmer on the side, he bought five acres on the east side of the South Park valley. Before enrolling at CU-Boulder, Smith studied filmmaking in Australia and spent time traveling in Africa and New Zealand. He developed an interest in documentary filmmaking and wanting to make a difference through visual storytelling. While at CU-Boulder, he participated in the INVST Community Leadership Program, which combines community service with leadership courses.

“My background is very much in wanting to have some sort of positive impact on the planet,” Smith said. He wanted to work on a film project around the time he bought the land and began planning the tiny house.

Portrait of Mueller and Smith by Kevin Hoth.

His girlfriend, Merete Mueller, suggested that he combine the two projects. Her background is in project management and writing, so “our skills kind of all worked together,” Smith said.

He did most of the construction himself. There were many do-overs, and incessant trips to Home Depot. The construction of the 7-by-19-foot home took more than 1,000 hours—from May 2011 to April 2012, built at a friend’s mother’s farmland outside of Boulder—and cost about $25,000.

For financial and philosophical reasons Smith chose not to build the home into a foundation and with a water well. He wanted to be off the grid, in the spirit of philosopher-naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

“For me, building a tiny house in the wilderness was Thoreauian,” he said. “It was a return to distilling life and the home down to its simplest form. To get at the essence of what it is to be human, really. And thinking about where your water and energy consumption comes from was part of that experience.”

He built the home out of beetle-kill wood and reclaimed materials. It has a bathroom (composting toilet) and kitchen below a loft that can sleep two people. In the front of the home is a living room with a multi-use table, a sofa (room for four adults) and a large window that offers a sweeping view of the valley. A portable solar generator provides electricity and a propane stove delivers heat.

Now Smith is finishing a film —“Tiny: A Story About Living Small”—and would like to enter it into some film festivals, including the Denver Film Festival.

“We used my process of building a small house and downsizing and questioning what is a home to me as an opportunity to talk about this growing tiny house movement,” he said.

Meanwhile, the average U.S. home size has doubled from 1970 to 2007, Smith said. A question asked in the film is whether consuming more and more space in a home—the quintessential American dream—actually enhances a person’s life.

“It’s a fine line to walk between turning people off with the questions and acknowledging that this isn’t a sustainable culture, really, of the house arms race that we’re in,” he said.

For Smith, the process of building his home and situating it—albeit on a trailer—on his land proved to be a real-world lesson in what he was learning about in public administration. He learned, for example, why he needs to have a driveway, even though the tiny house doesn’t have a foundation (emergency vehicle access), and prove he had a septic system (health code).

“Having done the MPA allows me to understand where those rules are coming from,” he said. “Whereas I think a lot of people would see them as annoying governmental interferences in their lives.”

Also, the degree gives him an edge as a documentary filmmaker, Smith said. “I kind of wanted to have those credentials so those things I say in my filmmaking can’t be easily dismissed. At least show that I have done my due diligence in something before I set out to, say, criticize something. So I see the degree as being perfectly in line with what I’m doing.”

And on a hillside in central Colorado, Smith sees a home that is perfectly suited to fulfilling a lifetime dream. Just outside of Hartsel, a big piece of Smith’s heart sits.

At 9,000 feet.

In a trailer hitch.

“I never really had a place that I could call home in the traditional sense,” he said. “So part of wanting to buy land in the mountain was saying this is a place I can come back to for the rest of my life. Even though it’s not where I’m spending most of my time it’s meant to be more of a home.”

He’s proven that tiny, especially when you’ve designed and built it, certainly can be more.

For more information about Smith’s and Mueller’s tiny house project, see:

Chris Casey is internal media specialist at CU-Denver. This is reprinted with permission.