Featured Changemaker: CHRISTOPHER CARSON SMITH on Finding Home, Dreaming Big, and Living Small
What is home, and how do we find it? Philanthropiece’s Youth Global Leadership Program Coordinator, Alicia Conte, recently sat down with Christopher Carson Smith, director/producer of the documentary TINY: A Story About Living Small, to explore these questions. Christopher not only shares with us the process of building a Tiny House, but also his journey to understand questions around sustainability, home, and what really makes us happy.
Can you tell me a little about the Tiny House Movement and how you have become situated inside of it?
I was turning 30, finishing up my Graduate Degree, and thinking about what I wanted to work toward next. I realized from school and other endeavors that I really do have an ability and tendency to start working toward goals and achieve them. I’ve always had a dream to buy land in the mountains and build a home, and I thought, Why wait? Why not do it now? I decided to investigate buying land, and within a few days, I found out I could afford it. So I bought a parcel of land outside of Hartsel, Colorado.
Then I started to think about what it would take to build a home on the land, like a cabin. When I started to investigate further, I realized that there are a lot of laws and codes that restrict building. For example, the state won’t let you build a home smaller than 600 square feet, and you are required to have a driveway for emergency vehicles to access your home. I read a Yes! Magazine article on the Tiny House Movement, and realized that this was something that I wanted to pursue and be a part of. I also realized that by putting a Tiny House on wheels, I could bypass a lot of the building restrictions.
What does “home” mean to you?
My dad was in the military, so I grew up moving from place to place. My parents divorced when I was young, and I never had one place that I considered home. In fact, almost every year one of my parents would move and switch houses. I never got attached to one specific structure, and I believe that this is largely what has compelled me to establish some sort of “homestead”– a place to come back to. For me, there is nothing intrinsic in a house that makes it home; it’s the people you surround yourself with and the stories you create through living there. That’s what home really is for me.
Tiny homes are not for everyone, and you could argue that you need to be in a certain place in life for this type of lifestyle to work. The message is in the mentality of living small; as Jay Schaefer, a Tiny House Movement promoter says, a tiny house is simply a “place where space is used well, and not wasted.” In this way, living small can be scaled up.
How did you figure out how to build your Tiny House?
I had never built anything before, and had no prior experience with construction. I did a lot of research, talked to people, and figured it out as I went along. I made some mistakes, but the way builders construct homes is traditionally done so in a way where they can make mistakes, and no one really notices. It’s impossible to build a house perfectly; I was so worried about doing a good job that I realized I probably did it better than most, because it is my home. I was so invested in it, and for this reason I didn’t cut corners.
Overall, building the house was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done… besides making the film. Throughout the building process I was also finishing graduate school, working full time, and filming the documentary. My girlfriend Merete (writer, co-director/producer) was hugely supportive throughout the entire process. We originally thought it would only take one summer to build, but when we got to September it still wasn’t finished. So we’d sell something to make some more money, and then build a bit more, and it went on like that.
Are there any significant challenges that have marked your journey?
Every step felt like the most challenging thing I’d done. This was a huge take-away overall from the process. Big projects– or problems in general– are usually made up of a series of smaller challenges. If you can stay focused on what you’re doing in the moment, it makes the whole thing seem manageable. This is what I learned, and it really transcends all aspects of life. People don’t start things because they don’t want to finish them.
When we set out to make the film we only intended for it to be 30 minutes long. We initially thought we’d produce a short documentary, and put it on the internet for free. But then we started thinking, What if we make a feature-length film and submit it to big festivals, in order to reach more people? It was a challenging choice to make at first, and we had to say no to smaller festivals in order to (and in hope of) getting accepted into larger ones. This required a certain confidence and belief in our own ability to make it all happen.
What events in your life have shaped your values, and how does what you’re doing reflect those values?
As a kid, my dad would pile the family into a van, and we’d drive from DC to Utah, Las Vegas, and beyond. We spent summers around open space and a sense of possibility. I’ve realized that these experiences fostered a great appreciation and love for nature in myself that is very intense.
I also attended film school in Australia, and during summer break I would travel around New Zealand because I missed the mountains. I would hitchhike for weeks, and the people who picked me up often wanted to talk about US foreign policy; this pushed me to start thinking about the world more intensely. I decided not to go back to film school. I ended up finding the INVST Community Leadership Program at CU Boulder, and this program helped move all this thinking a step forward. I helped to re-design and also to facilitate the Domestic Summer Service Learning Experience, a month-long experiential learning trip through the Southwestern US, looking at the relationship between the environment and local communities. This experience had a huge effect on me, and left me wanting to bring filmmaking and environmentalism together.
What is a moment in your life that you are particularly proud of?
Finishing the house was a huge one, as well as finishing the film and getting it into the South by Southwest Film Festival. I’m also proud of the video that I created for New Era Colorado’s “Campaign For Local Power,” which went viral and helped to defeat ballot measure 310 in Boulder.
Lots of filmmakers don’t get the recognition they deserve– about 50,000 films are made per year, and only 500 get picked up for distribution. I feel very lucky and proud of what we’ve accomplished with TINY.
Have you noticed any disparities between your personal intentions of becoming a “Tiny Houser,” and how you are perceived by the general public?
In filming, there is always the risk of becoming associated with the subjects you film; there is always a risk of being labeled. The “risk” I take in living in a Tiny House, is: What if I move out? Will people call me a hypocrite and say it wasn’t possible? We get a lot of media on living in the house but not on making the documentary, because the media wants to tokenize it. But for me, it will always be about home, and about a sense of place.
In what ways have building a Tiny House opened up your life?
The Tiny House has pushed me to spend more time out in the community. The house is off the grid and lacks running water, so I have to go into town for water. I want to have a connection with where the resources that sustain my life come from, and living in a Tiny House pushes me to do so. When you have less space, you outsource other parts of your life. I have more time to volunteer, more time to travel. Before TINY, when I would travel, I was paying rent for a place I never was in. Now I can travel for work and for fun, and not pay rent.
An overarching Tiny House mentality is that from challenges come rewards. Living small means being uncomfortable and letting go of some things. For me, it can be a constant battle of I want this thing, but do I need it? Is it worth it in terms of the cost to the environment? This whole process has made me more conscious of buying and owning material things.
Where does this impulse to acquire consumer goods come from?
It’s learned in our culture, and causes people to measure happiness by how much stuff they have. I think that people who don’t make that much money would be happy if there weren’t other, wealthier people to measure themselves against, and to make them feel like they’re missing out.
What sustains you?
The moments when you realize you are making an impact. When someone comes up to me after a screening of TINY and tells me that it made them cry, or says, “I’m going to go home and clean out my garage,” or “You captured something I was missing in my life.” In some ways, our film could have a huge impact. Maybe one million people will see it, and even if 10 percent think about the impact they have on the planet, that’s a huge number.
One thing I love about filmmaking– especially documentary-making– is that there are many different phases to it. There is research, production, filming and meeting inspiring people, and then post-production. You can close yourself in a room during editing and create something artistic, and have this cathartic experience, but then you get to bring it out into the world, and to talk to people about it. I need that, because I get bored pretty easily.
So, what’s next?
I’m currently finishing up some things with TINY, and touring around to different film festivals…and there are a lot of other things that go along with making a documentary that you wouldn’t think of!
I’m also the Assistant Editor for The Heist, which is a documentary being filmed by the same people who produced The Cove. The Heist is an incredible film which tells the story of mass extinction happening right now. They say we are in the phase of “anthropocenic” extinction, meaning it’s human-caused. We are currently losing 30,000 species per year, and that’s probably a low estimate. Overall, TINY has opened so many doors to opportunities in my life.