Photos: Set designer Glenn Grassi thinks big about tiny (and livable) homes

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The fully functioning home in which Glenn Grassi is standing in isn't much larger than his bedroom was that time he joined the circus. It is significantly smaller than the sets he made and won national awards for during the two decades he spent in theater. It is smaller, even, than the RV he lived in for two-and-a-half years in and around Venice Beach.

There is a reason why he calls his art -- now someone else's home -- "little living."

It took Grassi a year to build the art and architecture project, and when he sits down on the bed, he takes up nearly half of it. Also in the home is a wood-burning stove, a chandelier, a water basin that turns into a sink, a bed that turns into a solar shower and a chair that turns into a compost toilet. Every inch has been created to serve multiple specific functions, with the goal of having the tiny trailer help encourage both a simpler life and a cleaner environment. The home's impact, says Grassi, should be as small as the interior.

"I put thought into every aspect of how this would be used," Grassi says. "I'm more artistic than I am technical, but this thing could withstand both a hurricane and a blizzard. It's a mix of art, function, and impact and how you can improve all three."

Grassi's most recent project is part of a much larger national trend to simplify life and forgo both the impact and pressure of home-owning by living in a trailer-towed home that fits somewhere between an RV and a closet in size. The tiny house, his first, belongs now to a teacher in Wichita, Kansas, who spent $16,500 on the mobile home in the hopes of leaving the grid. In August, she will take it to New Mexico, where she hopes to spend the rest of her life retired and parked on the property of her friends' bed and breakfast.

Grassi's focus on small but sustainable life stems from a series of truly terrible living situations and a career spent as the production manager for more than 10,000 shows. After graduating from the Art Institute of Colorado twenty years ago, Grassi moved to Hollywood with the now cliché goal of, well, making it. He took a job at the Improv and eventually transitioned to the design aspect of both movies and stage productions.

His first large-scale feat was prop-oriented: Grassi is responsible for the original designs of the drums in the first national tour of The Lion King. Although he is credited with set design in several tours, Grassi also held parts in two B-level movies, one of which was a cheesy B-thriller named Monster Man. "One day the monster had to leave early, and even though I was working on props, I was the only person who fit in his costume," Grassi says. "So I had to do this scene where I'm trying to kill a girl in a bathroom. I still see it on the Scy Fy channel sometimes."

It was also in California that he paid $1,200 a month for an apartment located immediately below a twelve-person rock band. When all attempts to make that work ended disastrously, Grassi decided to downsize both his apartment troubles and his rent payment. So he paid $300 a month for an RV he moved around various parts of California. "The clutter went away, and so did the worries about rent that come with living on the grid," Grassi says. "It was just like, 'Where do I want to live today? What do I want my view to be?' That being said, RVs are designed by people who have clearly never lived in an RV in their lives." The same thing goes for circus cars. After returning to Colorado five years ago, Grassi took a job as a prop manager for Ringling Bros. on the circus's Blue Tour. "It was the craziest experience of my life -- working with Siberian tigers and elephant poop in my face and all of these weird amazing people for sixty hours a week," Grassi says. But his bathroom-stall-sized bedroom, among other aspects of the job, drove him to run away from the circus after two months. "It was just unlivable."

As a result of those negatives, Grassi approached his first miniature house with both comfort and function in mind. His current work space, an enormous airport hangar in Erie, is both an art studio and a construction site. "It makes you think about every little inch," he says. "I've learned more about the technical aspects of construction in the past year than I knew in most of my career in Hollywood."

At the end of November, Grassi met Erie Mayor Joe Wilson while staging an open house for his creation in the parking lot of the local Safeway. Already a fan of the little living concept, Wilson is currently working on his own tiny house in New Mexico, and the two have since met several times to build Grassi's work into a sustainable area business. They've settled on a working name for their joint project -- Shrink and Rethink -- and are currently brainstorming how to expand its message in the area, making Erie an unofficial headquarters for little houses on the prairie.

"We both love the idea and thinks it's a really strong one in this economy and this environment," Grassi says. "He wants me to be on the creative side, and he'll be on the financial side. I'd love to find a plot of land where people can take the houses I make and live in a sustainable community."

For now, however, Grassi is happy just to be practicing the goal behind his art: After years of mortgage and student loan debt, he has finally slimmed his financial life down to debt-free status and focused his career on one project. "In this economy, I somehow created a job out of nothing -- and with nothing," Grassi says. "And for the first time in my adult life, I am completely out of debt. I owe no one anything."

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