Considering (Smaller) Sustainable Housing Models

As a planner, designer, and millennial, I have struggled with what housing means in my life and how we can make housing leaner, greener, and better. First, the financial crisis of 2008 hit just as I finished my undergraduate degree. It laid bare troublesome vulnerabilities within our financial system, making me all too aware of the risks associated with a traditional home purchase. Second, houses are hungry things. They required large amounts of material to construct – the average U.S. single-family home requires 19 tons of concrete, 13,800 board-feet of lumber, and 3,000 square feet of insulation. They use large amounts of energy – 22% of total primary energy production in the US is used in the residential sector. Houses have been getting bigger, too. In 1970, the average U.S. house covered roughly 1,500 square feet. Four decades later, that average has ballooned to just below 2,700 square feet. So, what housing models work best to address these issues of size, arrangement, and consumption?

Enter the tiny house. It’s not a new concept: a home no bigger than a Winnebago, with a pitched roof, cedar lap siding, and shuddered windows. There is no agreed-upon size criterion to what makes a house tiny, but the general ethos starts with a standalone structure that is dramatically smaller than a traditional home – somewhere between 90 and 500 square feet.

“I love tiny houses for a number of environmental, economic and practical reasons,” comments Jay Shafer, “But what first attracted me to them was how much more beautiful a well utilized space is. Waste is ugly; efficiency is beautiful. I find poorly designed, over-sized houses hideous.” Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, Shafer’s original venture from which he has since moved on to start Four Lights Houses, helped popularize tiny houses in the late nineties. And the price is appealing. Buying a newly constructed tiny house is can run you between $20,000 and $50,000. Less debt, lower utility bills, and a simpler life – there are more attractive benefits of purchasing a micro home.

The biggest challenge for tiny homes, however, is finding a place to call them home. Most municipalities have a minimum square footage requirement written into zoning ordinances, restricting tiny homes from being cited on a traditional single-family lot. The intent of such regulations is to keep housing values consistent and manage development. The American Tiny House Association is working to change those zoning regulations but, ironically, these efforts just underline the fact that tiny houses may simply be a different housing solution that fits within existing, low-density development types, without addressing broader structural elements such as density and transit connectivity that make a more efficient city. Does a neatly organized development of tiny homes in a suburban setting work better than a more densely organized urban neighborhood? What other models are being tested to address these issues?

Micro-unit apartments have become the darling of the real estate industry. Similar in size to tiny homes, micro-units are located in a city’s core in higher density developments and intended to ease the barrier to entry to hot housing markets like New York City and Seattle. Coliving, think coworking space with bedrooms, similarly looks to cleverly merge reasonably sized housing units, shared spaces, and common interests among residents. And many coliving enterprises are now looking to capitalize on a demographic that is accustomed to amenities and connectedness. Enterprises like Krash operate spaces in Boston, NYC, and Washington DC meant to provide young professional-types with a unique live/create/socialize environment under one roof.

So, which model is best? Which model is most sustainable? While the mentality around tiny homes is one of rugged frontiersmen, there seems to be avoidance of some of the realities of sustainable housing for an increasingly crowded planet. Does a tiny house with a big yard and an SUV really reduce your footprint that much? There is a similarly pointed critique of the more urban micro-living arrangements. Recent reporting by the New York Times called coliving the millennial commune – a place to strategically self-segregate with like-minded, over-educated folk. And micro-units can be far from affordable, with rent in many markets north of $2,000/month. And within either model, what happens when one wants to raise a family?

But the broader lesson is that a more modestly scaled home can inspire a lifestyle that better matches a person’s ecological footprint to what our systems of energy, material, and food production can sustainability support into the future. If each square foot must be used intentionally, there is a structural limitation on consumption and material accumulation. More efficient models of housing are seeing growing demand, with the market responding most notably in a strong rental market. And more people are coming to understand that bigger is not always better.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 26, 2016.


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