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Published on November 14th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans

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Case Studies in Small Home Living

Build a better world?  Build community?  Build your life?  Building is such a valued activity in the U.S. and Canada that we use the verb to show value, to enhance all kinds of activities.  We build up a nest egg, our careers, even our bodies. With our relatively low population density, our frontier-driven nations seem destined to fill up the empty space on the horizon.  Will there ever be an end to the space?  Will there ever come a time when we’ve built too much?

These are questions that small house movement advocates asks.  We wonder just how much space we need to be happy, is less really more, and can we really build a green future?

The Fact File on Large Home Living

Small HouseI’m a small house builder.  I started my work as a conventional repair person and soon evolved into an “eco,” or natural builder.  New green technologies and traditional, natural methods combine to offer less toxic, more energy-efficient home spaces, and I was proud to be involved in this wonderful industry.  But a report in Environmental Building News in 1999 turned my thoughts.  It confirmed a suspicion that had been lurking in the depths of my mind . . .

The report provided a few simple graphs and tables.  One showed the remarkable growth in U.S. house size from 1950-1999, and the simultaneous drop in people-per-house.  It showed that Americans have quickly become the most housed people in the history of humanity—on average, North Americans now have about 4 times more space per person in new houses than they did in 1950!  Another graph compared energy efficiency with house size, showing that a small, poorly insulated house was considerably more efficient than a large, well-insulated house.

In other words, compare that little, 1,000 sq ft clapboard or brick bungalow in the older neighborhood near downtown with the new 2,400 sq ft “green” and “energy-efficient” house on the edge of town, and you’ll find the older house uses less energy.  And, of course, the materials are already there.  It begs the question: Can a tear-down ever be green?

Environmental Implications

The EBN article led me to begin my own research.  For eight years, most of them accompanied by photographer Nigel Valdez, I studied the small house movement and its mirror, the big house movement.  I began by studying the environmental impacts of the housing boom and saw the EBN article had just touched the surface of the research.  The U.S. Census, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and dozens of university researchers have created piles of data that proves . . . well, it proves the obvious.  Just as driving almost any motorcycle (or even better, riding a bike) takes less fuel than driving almost any car, smaller dwelling spaces (or even better, tiny ones) almost without exception use less energy than larger ones.

The influence of the big house trend has widespread ramifications.  According to one study, human-driven machines now move more soil each year than the world’s rivers.  Another study conducted by biologists and published in Nature in 2003, showed that the main threat to the panda bear’s existence is not the increasing human population in China—Chinese population growth is starting to level off.  But modern, much-smaller Chinese families have taken to living in tremendously more space per capita than ever before.  And research directly indicates that these new subdivisions are the primary threat to the panda.  The scientists found similar trends for species all over the world, in places with radically different cultures such as Kenya, India, and Australia.

We can, if we choose, provide fairly comfortable homes to everyone in North America at a fairly low cost.  We could even do this without paving over another inch of soil.  So why don’t we?  What are we lacking? . . . . The solution will lie in somehow changing how we care for ourselves and each other . . .

Large House ForeclosureIf the big house trend were creating unprecedented happiness for homeowners, at least humanists might be satisfied.  But some signs indicate that big houses burden us more than they please us—a Worldwatch report states that 30% of U.S. houses are severely undermaintained.  The economist Michael Hudson, among others, has shown that mortgages are an increasing burden on family budgets.  Indeed, even at the time of this writing, the foreclosure rate is growing fast—wages have not risen in years, and some families now find it easier to give the keys to their big house back to the bank and rent a much smaller apartment.

The vacancy rate of “ownership” homes is on the rise.  According to the U.S. Census, with 10.4 million homes vacant in 2004, the United States had over 40 empty homes per homeless person.

Small House Case Studies—Space Negotiation and Personal Relationships

But our research didn’t center on dismal statistics.  Instead, we spent most of our time looking at how very small spaces can be made wonderfully comfortable and beautiful, and discovering the small house movement and the hundreds of people who are living their small house dream.

  • Patricia Kerns is one of them.  She retired early from her work as a lawyer, sold everything she owned, and moved out into the country where she built her own tiny (200 sq foot) house with her own hands – even though, as she puts it, “My only prior construction experience was hanging diplomas.”
  • Lynn Baskind and Jack Britton are two others.  They downsized a few times in their life, and eventually threw their house keys into the ocean and departed for a 14-year trip on a 30-foot sailboat!
  • The Federoffs, a family of two adults and eight children, are environmentalists who insist that their large family uses far less energy than a typical family of four.  With 2,100 sq ft (they wanted less, but the bank would not provide a loan for anything smaller), the children share just two bedrooms (one for girls, one for boys), and stay at home for school.
  • The 16 residents of Prag House represent a different approach.  Each has about 500 luxurious square feet in a huge mansion they share, including two living rooms, an exercise room, porches, and a workshop.  In some ways they are the cutting edge of the small house movement:  they converted a former ego-mansion, once shared by only three people, into an eco-mansion.  Because they share walls and appliances and are located in the center of a city, their per capita energy use is much lower than average.  Like some other cities, Seattle (where they are located), has recognized the benefits of higher density and has recently passed zoning ordinances encouraging this type of conversion.

Small House Features

Of course, all these interviews and floor plans and pictures we took condensed into certain themes, and eventually, we published a book.  We saw similar design and decoration patterns throughout the small house trend.  It’s impossible to share them all within this small space, but here are the basic design features that usually “live in” comfortable small houses:

  • Windows with a view, but also a “backside”—that is, a wall or two with no or only small clerestory windows that provide a safe, secure sense at one side of the dwelling.
  • Soft finishes—since residents are so close to the walls, and sometimes the ceilings, they want finishes they like to touch.
  • Niches, bays, tiny lofts, and other mini-spaces, smaller than a room.
  • Circulation patterns that don’t cut through spaces, but allow places to be uninterrupted.

Small Porch

  • Porches, patios, decks and roof space, outdoor showers, kitchens and dining “rooms” that increase the living space without increasing heating and cooling costs.
  • A location close to a public, natural area, or to urban public common space.
  • Residents that enjoy each other, or enjoy the solitude of living alone.

Small House Features

Of course, all these interviews and floor plans and pictures we took condensed into certain themes, and eventually, we published a book.  We saw similar design and decoration patterns throughout the small house trend.  It’s impossible to share them all within this small space, but here are the basic design features that usually “live in” comfortable small houses:

After years of research, we realized that these last two points are probably the most critical ones.  The small house movement is especially a social fix to a technological problem.  We have the technology to build huge homes, to fell forests of trees in a single day, to pave miles in a few weeks.  We can, if we choose, provide fairly comfortable homes to everyone in North America at a fairly low cost.  We could even do this without paving over another inch of soil.  So why don’t we?  What are we lacking?

No one is completely sure, but we’re looking for solutions.  We know it will have something to do with how we design indoor space, and how we live in it.   It will have to do with how we value space and time, and how we show that value through the way we finance and permit construction, and the way we tax it.  It will have something to do with how we share space, publicly and privately.  The solution will lie in somehow changing how we care for ourselves and each other . . .

Article Contributors: Shay Solomon





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