What better way to reduce one’s carbon footprint than to literally reduce the size of your house’s footprint? This seems to be the logic behind the “tiny house” movement, well represented on this engaging and beautiful blog. The tiny house movement is centered around the design and construction of truly tiny homes, most under 500 square feet, some less than 200 square feet. These homes are frequently built on trailers, so that they can be mobile (and also skirt some laws that require homes to be larger). For anyone with fond memories of living in a dorm room, these houses seem appealing, even romantic.
But are they actually sustainable? Does reducing the footprint of a home actually promote sustainability? Large homes for few people are certainly not particularly sustainable, especially when it comes to heating and cooling such a space. But do small homes do any better?
Take a look at this picture from company ProtoHaus (clicking on the image will open the full size image in a new window).
To me, this space seems exceptionally appealing and beautiful. The kitchen looks small but is well-stocked. There appears to be a refrigerator and range to the left, with a sink on the right. In the rear of the house is the bathroom, complete with stall shower. The living space looks inviting, and the loft bed looks plenty roomy. I can see myself being happy here, especially with all the natural light.
So what is stopping this particular design from being used en masse, a small space for the masses? The issue is that the design works only as a free-standing building, and only then when well placed in a quiet residential area. In other words, the effectiveness of tiny houses depends on rural and suburban living.
Imagine taking this exact design and implementing it as part of a high rise apartment building, one of the most energy efficient living situations. What would you lose? First, there would be no way to get natural light from all four sides of the house. Yet natural light is one of the aspects that makes this design so livable. If only one wall of this apartment had windows, and if some of the apartments were closely abutting another building, reducing the amount of sunshine, then this small space would start to feel quite claustrophobic.
Second, the noise from outside would require extensive soundproofing. There’s nothing wrong with so much soundproofing, but it does not make the design particularly easy to reproduce. If walls between apartments need to be a foot of concrete and all windows and doors need to be impenetrable, then building costs are much higher and certain design characteristics that are regularly put into buildings old and new need to be changed quite a bit. No one constructs a shell of a building with the expectation that it will be carved up into really tiny apartments that are also really heavy. But without that soundproofing, the apartment feels much less private. If you can hear your neighbors literally three feet away from you in the hallway, the small space loses its appeal.
Third, height becomes a real challenge. The loft space is so nice in a small house because it makes use of space that otherwise might go to waste. It also solves the problem of where to put the biggest piece of furniture that most people own. But apartment buildings aren’t usually constructed to take advantage of that kind of space and the triangle shape of the loft has no place in a modern building. Thus the apartment must either be doubled in square footage (essentially have an added room) or be a two story loft.
The ProtoHaus aesthetic is incredibly appealing, but in actuality, it is only great when land space gives the privacy not granted by the indoor living space. This house in the middle of an acre plot of land is wonderful. But packed one on top of another in an apartment building means too much privacy is lost. A tiny house is thus great when part of a rural landscape or suburban neighborhood. When space is at a premium, as it is in a major city, we oddly enough need more room inside, not less.
Further problematic is how much time a tiny house encourages you to spend outside of the house. A well-designed space is certainly appealing, but how functional is the space? Many activities that could take place in the home (like, for example, entertaining guests, doing exercises, craft projects, etc.) are impossible in such a small living space. Thus individuals must spend a lot of time out of their tiny homes and in public spaces like coffee shops. As a big fan of friendly public spaces, this sounds nice, but if the home must be placed outside of a city, getting to those places often requires driving. This further reduces any environmental benefits of a house with a tiny footprint.
Thus advocating for tiny houses as a way to save the planet presents a false choice. If the choice is where to live in the suburbs, a small or large house, then the small house is obviously the ecologically friendly option. But the real choice is where to live in the first place, in an environmentally friendly place or not; in this case, selecting a tiny house may be less environmentally friendly than finding a larger apartment in a city.
Of course, many people do find need or reason to live outside of big cities; I myself do just that living here in Madison, WI. But for those advocating environmentally friendly living and also pitching ascetic small spaces and off-the-grid lifestyles, tiny houses do not offer a reasonable solution. Their design is not suited for apartment living and they still require a larger footprint than a large apartment building, given their required cushion of space. City life may not be for everyone, but tiny house living asks for greater compromise and is not as good for the environment. I love the house and design, but hate the lack of sustainability.
Update: For more argumentation about why off-the-grid lifestyles are not sustainable, consider reading this post.