Reality TV casts a dark shadow on a tiny movement

As a tiny home builder and dweller, I feel anxious about showing off our home. For too long, I’ve held back from posting pictures and updates. I’ve come to realize my resistant inner force is based on a preconceived idea of how our home “should be”. And it’s not just me.
With much searching, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with other Canadian tiny home enthusiasts who don’t put themselves out there. How can we move forward and share information with so many hiding in the shadows?

It all started when I began watching a few episodes of tiny home shows to collect information. I would surely discover details on solar or how people chose to source and store water. I still have no answers. Instead I was sucked into a fantasy.

The homes on these shows are gorgeous and somehow so cheap to build! I wanted my home to be a masterpiece. I forgot about how the numerous sponsors donating materials for exposure and the building crew that works for free to collect pay cheques from the network. When I invite people into my home who are educated by mainstream media they are unimpressed to say the least. And for some reason, I feel embarrassed of our accomplishments.

The plethora of tiny house or “off grid” reality TV shows have lost focus on what the movement is really about. In many episodes, builds have been impressively large spaces. The “tiny” label has been slapped onto these dwellings because they are smaller than the standard American house. The Americanization of this movement is bold. I see people wanting the biggest, the cleanest, the most expensive, and the newest home available to them. This consumerist angle is exactly what minimalists are trying to escape from. Most episodes are focused on interior design rather than efficiency or thriftiness. Yes, they may touch on reusing materials but it’s normally to the minimum such as, using scrap barn wood for that “rustic look”. Rarely, do builders hit up locations like Habitat for Humanity or look online to track down functional used materials.

The alternative housing movement is built on a green foundation. The bulk comes from collecting reused items that would otherwise be thrown away. This means buying used water pumps, tools, tanks, etc. for maybe five dollars less than the cost of purchasing it new because of the principle: less waste.
I was disappointed to learn that the reality TV show “Off the Grid” focuses very little on following off grid practices. They have shifted “off the grid” to represent living away from the rest of society. A lot of the time their homes are located on private slices of tropical paradise. Off the grid means being away from centralized electrical and water hookup but it’s so much more than that. I’m still shocked at how many instances clients explore houses that are semi-connected to the grid and how often they choose these homes because of the convenience. They are turned off by the idea of using a DIY outdoor shower or a latrine. Media is perpetuating the message that current luxuries are essential.

Though, I have not watched every episode of each series, I have had the misfortune of seeing composting toilets misrepresented on TV. One episode showed a thrill seeking young couple who were repulsed by the idea. One partner was quoted saying something along the lines of, “I’ll jump off a cliff any day, but pooping into a bucket is way too scary for me”. Another episode showed a composting toilet and relayed misleading information. They explained that you simply defecate into it all year round and rotate it only twice a year. The woman who was looking at it crinkled her nose and pretended to gag. As she expressed her distaste, the narrating voice neglected to address why composting toilets are used. They did not explain how much freshwater is being wasted every year so we can drop feces into it. The media does not want viewers to address the motivation behind the movement. The media wants to keep things appealing and glamorous.

The truth is that living off grid is not glamorous. It is not the lavish lifestyle that mainstream media plays it up to be. Tiny house dwellers put up with a lot of crap. Literally. We compost our own feces, we track mud and snow into our little dwellings, and we layer up and go outside and chip ice off of frozen over components. Last week, I went outside to adjust the urine pipe and it snapped. I covered my gloves in pee icicles. Our homes aren’t built to run themselves. This is the slow living movement: we run our homes.
The media is crippling this movement. Articles are surfacing providing negative feedback from those who moved tiny without understanding what they were jumping into. This coverage is damaging a powerful movement that is set out to change our relationship with the environment and embrace a lower stress lifestyle.

It’s time to fight back. It’s time to be unapologetic about who we are. So yes, I will move forward and post pictures of our home. We are living in it with some exposed wires and incomplete walls. Our composting toilet is not yet “finished” but works wonderfully. We do not have modern storage built so that everything gets packed away neatly. The overall aesthetics have no importance. Our home is functional and it’s a work in progress. I have no shame because we are doing the best we can and I hope that others in the same boat can do the same.

Here’s to the revolution!

Get in touch with us. Share YOUR story,

– The Copper House


23 thoughts on “Reality TV casts a dark shadow on a tiny movement

  1. Scott Reply

    Why are you watching TV and expecting to see reality? Nothing on TV is real, certainly not the reality shows.

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      Truer word’s have never been spoken! I was still holding onto a little hope…

  2. shedwildly Reply

    Thank you for writing this… as a fellow gridless self made tiny house dweller I am experiencing all the same feelings. I dont want to share photos of my space.. because its not “Martha Stewart” magazine worth. Thank you for inspiring me to love me… just the way I am. Exposed walls and frozen pee pipes and all!

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      I’m glad to hear you could relate. Please, do share your photos and your story. It’s inspiring and motivating to everyone out there feeling the same thing.

  3. Runaway Shanty Reply

    Thank you so much for posting your thoughts!

    We just shared your post on our page with these thoughts:

    “Here’s to admitting that we hate how long the construction of our tiny house is taking…

    Why? Because even though we have started to plan our tiny lifestyle four years ago, our home still isn’t finished. It’s really nagging on my patience especially since the media creates the idea that many others can build theirs more beautifully for less time and less money. Sometimes I feel like we’ve been expelled from the movement because we just don’t fit into the perfect scheme.

    And then I realize that this is nonsense. The tiny house movement is not what you see on reality TV, where glamorous homes magically come together within just a few weeks. It’s mostly about all the people you don’t see. People like you and me. People who go the extra mile to find about zoning laws, people who spend days or weeks searching for reusable items, people who invest their own time to share their knowledge with others during meetings and workshops, people who try to come up with new ideas to reduce their footprint on this planet, people who work their *** off to make enough money so they can afford all the materials (definitely us).

    And that’s exactly what it really is: A “powerful movement that is set out to change our relationship with the environment and embrace a lower stress lifestyle.” (quote from article below)

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad these shows are raising awareness for simpler living and old, outdated regulations, but they also create an unrealistic impressions of what it means to live tiny.

    Now that I know that, I’m much happier with our project. Let’s hope that this Saturday and Sunday we will be able to continue our interior construction because last weekend the snowstorm forced us to postpone our plans. That’s what reality does to you!”

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      Thank you so much for sharing. This quote of yours really nailed it on the head.

      “It’s mostly about all the people you don’t see. People like you and me. People who go the extra mile to find about zoning laws, people who spend days or weeks searching for reusable items, people who invest their own time to share their knowledge with others during meetings and workshops, people who try to come up with new ideas to reduce their footprint on this planet, people who work their *** off to make enough money so they can afford all the materials (definitely us)”

      Beautiful. Keep blogging and encouraging other to keep trudging foreword. Power to the people.

  4. Dionne Leapley Reply

    Very well said!

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      Thank you for reading!

  5. jwmerrett Reply

    I really appreciate your point of view. We weren’t so much into recycling but have embraced our composting toilet and have built a recirculating shower that only requires 5 gallons per use. We’ve also put us solar panels to offset our use of electricity and reduce the need for coal/gas generators. For us, going Tiny was about reducing our financial footprint to relieve the stress of feeding a larger house. We’re setting up bee hives to get tax exemption on our land. Catching water off of the shed roof. We’re really working to get our total monthly housing cost down to under $100. I look forward to going through your blog to steal ideas. We’re in the same boat for a lot of it. Partially sided walls. Plumbing and electrical hanging out of the walls. We still haven’t put down base boards or trimmed the windows but we’re working along as we can and as we can afford. Still better than giving all of our money away to someone else just to have a lot of space we don’t need.

    ~ Jay & Kim http://dreamsbytheacre.blogspot.com

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      What you are doing sounds great. It reduces the need to “work to live” and also leaves a smaller environmental footprint. We should all have pride in our exposed wires and plumbing. It’s a constant reminder of how hard we have worked.
      P.S.
      I haven’t heard of a recirculating shower. I’m looking into it right now- very cool.

      1. jwmerrett Reply

        The recirculating shower is basically a catch basin (I cut the top off of a 5 gallon water jug) underneath the shower that is then drawn back through a filter and pumped back to the shower. Ours goes through a tankless heater in the process. I use a 12v battery and an “on demand” pump. I just have one pipe running to the shower from the pump. It all goes through a filter before it goes into the pump. I use a simple sediment filter and change it once per week.

        1. Fill the reservoir with 5 gallons of fresh water.
        2. Turn on the pump. This activates the water heater. The water goes through the shower and back into the reservoir.
        3. When the water is hot enough, take your shower.
        4. When done with shower, dump the reservoir. Refill and start over if you have another family member in waiting.

        Since the water going into the heater is warmer with each pass through the system, turn down the temp on the heater as the water approaches your desired shower temperature. I use a floating thermometer to watch the temp of the water in the reservoir. If you let the temp get too high on the water, run the shower for a couple of minutes until it cools down enough for you. You’ll lose some heat as the water passes through the shower. We’ve taken 10 min showers without the temperature dropping too much. On warm nights, we turn the water heater off as we start the shower. It stays warm plenty long to finish. A lot depends on the temperature in your house. With the water pre-heated and the heater on low, you can take an indefinitely long hot shower. That’s that beauty of the tankless heater. By recycling the water, there’s no need to hurry, you’re only using 5 gallons per session. It’s actually cleaner than taking a bath in a tub since we run the water through a filter on it’s route.

        A couple of notes. Use the restroom before you get in. No more peeing in the shower! You won’t forget this more than once. Agonizing to stand there and take a full shower when you really need to go! lol I guess you could put in a simple urinal in your shower if you don’t want to give up this ritual. 🙂 Catch and set aside a gallon of water out of the shower as soon as you get started. This will be for your final rinse. Enjoy your “soaking” time up front. Stand (or sit – I keep a chair handy for days I want to relax for a while) under the shower for as long as you like. 5 min or 30, it doesn’t matter. Then, when you’re through with your relaxation time, soap up and rinse off. Turn off the shower and use the pitcher of water you set aside earlier for a final rinse of fresh warm water.

        I still get out of the shower every time, smiling about the fact that I can take a half hour shower and save 95% of the water that I would typically take with no guilt. It’s a little extra work in that you have to dump the water out after each use but the relief of guilt over depleting our natural resources because of being lazy is no easy burden to carry either.

        Send me an email (jaymerrett6@yahoo.com) if you need more detail. I also have some pics at our blog listed in the comment above.

        1. livingtinycanada Reply

          Rad. When I get the time I’m going to have to write something about this to spread the knowledge. I will reference you post. I will shoot you an email in the next little while.

  6. k. a. h. Reply

    Back in the mid 90’s was the first time I saw a tiny home in Backwoods Home Magazine. I laugh at idea its a new movement. My husband and I bought our 696 sq ft home, which we call our tiny home mansion. Now while I enjoy seeing what the builders come up with, it sickens me how society finds they cannot live without dual bathroom sinks, granite countertops, and an open floor plan. These people are not meant for the tiny home world. You need to have “gumption”. If the s*** hit the fan right now, those people wouldn’t survive. The ones they put on these shows do not have a clue what its all about.

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      It’s interesting to hear that tiny homes were developing in the mid 90’s and it’s just catching momentum now. I had no idea.

      And I agree, seeing what is out there is always enjoyable. As is, figuring out how people actually do it!

      There are already tons of tiny homes on the market from people who bought them and didn’t enjoy the lifestyle. It’s sad to watch. But hey, someone, somewhere is getting their dream home for cheap!

  7. The Field Recordist Reply

    Entrepreneurs are good at spotting niche markets- first promote a magazine dedicated to the subject, which of course promotes those “must have” products, then expand your market by sponsored TV series and ads. It all boils down to one word “consumerism”.

    Don’t fall for it – do your own thing – you will be admired for it, and most importantly you will be proud of the fact that you have developed and built your tiny home based on your own ideas, and not on someone else’s ideas and products!

    Happy living.

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      Yes! SO MANY must have articles. There are a few items that are game changers but a lot of it is super indulgent.

  8. Christopher Fugle Reply

    I too was a little shocked by the behind-the-scenes goings on on a tv show. Many years ago when room transformation shows were just getting off the ground with tiny budgets, I replaced a makeup artist who no longer was able to fill her contract and suggested I take the weekend position. 16hr days doing TV makeup, powdering down the crew and painting-nailing-sanding & sewing to get the place finished before the final showing. The designer shows up weeks before to discuss what the owners will accept/tolerate and they sign off a contract that allows the “transformation” to be reversed if they are unhappy to a base off white if needed. They meet up a few more times and the crew director walks them through camera angles and proper ‘natural’ responses when the camera is on.Yes there was a whole lot of hard work but in the end the show was well planned out in advance against the grain of the “rushed style of decorating” it promoted. In the case of a hand built tiny home, where every stud is screwed and nailed in place, tarps thrown around, swearing and crying, and eventually a water proof shell is in place. Guests show up and make suggestions on decorating and redesign ideas having no back knowledge of the 1,000s of hours of sweat producing work that was done. Or that the 4 sq. foot gain of needed closet space was at the sacrifice of steps to the loft leaving you to a ladder instead. Or that the scars on the back of your hands from the soldering and plumbing work were well earned reminders. Know that your love is in your details. Your passion is in the design you worked so hard on. And that your vision like life is not always a direct path but one the meanders along enjoying the views, smelling the coffee grounds and producing compost rich soils for the amazing home grown veggies.

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      Wow, that’s crazy. I guessed it was intense but that’s pretty elaborate!

      You’re right. It’s all in the passion which can get skipped over on TV.

  9. Julie Reply

    When we made the decision to buy a school bus and make it into a full-time home, there were no tiny living reality TV shows to look to as a reference. We simply did our best to make our home as beautiful and functional as possible, and I think we did that very well. While a lot of people make a fuss over so called “luxury” tiny homes, I know as well as you do that most of them defeat the purpose (part of the reason the tiny movement is so important is that it provides affordable housing for many. Remove that aspect, and you remove a lot of the purpose of the movement.) I hope you won’t let those shows put a damper on your drive and dedication to finishing your home as you see fit. This movement is not one size fits all, so be true to your family and their needs, and you’ll be fine. Thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting read.

    1. livingtinycanada Reply

      I love finding people who have been doing it since the beginning. Sounds like you were really going against the grain.

      Thanks for the read! 🙂

  10. Jane on Whidbey Reply

    Thanks for voicing my concerns, too. It’s not helping us much. The local planning board wants me to give them blueprints, inspect, and file for permits for my house that was built in 2014. Not gonna happen. I’m not sure how I’m going to get around it later, but for now, I have to move. Crazy. I live on a dirt road with 4 other houses, one of which has a flaming asshole of a mouth. It’s kind of nice that I won’t be living near him for long.
    The ignorance, fear, and rigidity are hard to deal with, without having to conform to ‘housing’ standards while we’re trying to be kinder and gentler on the earth. I’m looking for more evolved neighbors. My tiny isn’t quite finished, either, and I’m glad I never invited them in. I’m sure my bucket toilet would have driven them to complain sooner.
    Good luck to you, and keep on chipping away at the little jobs. I find it easiest to add a goal to a post-it, and then arrange the post-its in the order of urgency. Things get re-prioritized as needed.

    Thanks for the article. It’s good to read it the way I see it, too. lol

  11. webbermd Reply

    I appreciate this article. We too live off the grid. Our home isn’t tiny, but it isn’t large compared to a typical suburban home. We are finally inviting acquaintances over to our home beyond close family and friends. Things aren’t all finished like a turn key construction. We have been working on and living in our debt free home these past 4 years with more to finish. It doesn’t matter what others think of our off grid lifestyle, what matters is how they see our perception of living it, and we love it.

  12. LC Reply

    Here’s a great laugh…. I know someone who is “planning on going tiny”, but wants a THOW with 2 bathrooms.! No, not a large family, a married couple with no children or pets! This is a standing joke in our 175sf tiny house occupied by 4 adults and a cat.

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