Author Archives: esoser

Tiny Houses: Rethinking How We Live

Think about all the things that you own. Clothes, electronics, kitchenware–everything. Now imagine you had to take all of that stuff and cram it into 200 square feet. Not only that, but you have to fit a bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen into that space.

Welcome to the tiny house movement.

These small houses can be found across the country, but one group is looking to take the movement out of obscurity and into the limelight–from backwoods and backyards to an urban setting.

Courtesy of Google Images

Boneyard Studios is showcasing and promoting the tiny house lifestyle in Washington, DC. It is the first attempt to take the tiny house concept and build a multi-house community in a city.

The tiny home builders at the Boneyard Lot in Northeast DC immediately made me feel welcome. The sun was shining, friends were there to help with the build, and there was a buzz in the air that something truly exciting was happening–that these people were revolutionary. I was ready to join them and start building my own tiny house then and there.

The philosophy of the tiny house movement can be boiled down to three words–affordable, efficient, green. But is it worth leaving the lifestyle I have become so accustomed to? Could I really live in a tiny house?

In terms of cost, there is no doubt they are more affordable than traditional homes (or even apartments) in Washington, DC.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Washington, DC estimates, the median cost of  rent is $1,216 per month. For over 60,000 renters that is 35 percent or more of their annual income going towards housing.

Annual mortgage costs are even higher, with a annual median cost of $26,700.

Fencl Tiny House FloorplansCourtesy of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.

Fencl Tiny House Floorplans
Courtesy of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.

If I were to order a tiny house blueprint from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the total cost of materials would be $23,000.

That one time cost is more expensive than renting or buying a traditional house or apartment upfront, but in the long run is cheaper. Not to mention, if I were to move the house could come with me if it were mounted on a trailer.

The efficiency of tiny houses is second to none.

Matt Battin, a consulting architect at Boneyard Studios, compared designing a tiny house to a game of Tetris. It’s all about finding the best way to fit in all the pieces of the home in the least amount of space as possible.

These houses make the most of the space that they have. Tather than being built like a traditional home–with the intention of filling it with stuff once the shell is complete–tiny houses are built from the inside out.

There is a consciousness of space and using that space effectively among tiny house builders that has become lost in the mainstream of our culture.

Finally, these tiny houses are inherently green.

Efficient Tiny House Kitchen
Courtesy of Google Images

The size of the house reduces heating and cooling costs, they can be completely powered by solar panels at a fraction of the cost to power a traditional home with solar energy, and there are even incinerating toilets that help reduce water consumption.

Through the proper application of green technology it would be possible to live net-zero and completely off the grid in a tiny home.

Even if the house were connected to the a city power grid and took water in like a traditional home, energy and water consumption and costs would be significantly reduced.

Overall, living in a tiny house would be great. It’s one of the rare instances in which cheap and green go hand in hand.

Once I left the lot the rose-tinted glasses faded and I began to think practically.

Despite the pros, there is one major con–it is a complete shift away from everything I have become accustomed to in terms of culture and comfort. I like having space to move around and to have stuff.

The goal of Boneyard Studios is not to make money. It is merely to present a new model for living and to challenge the status quo. I may not be in the market for a tiny home, but they certainly have gotten me to rethink how I live.

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Costly Natural Disasters: A Matter of Where We Live

Tornadoes ravaged the Midwest in 2011, costing nearly $27.5 billion.

I’m just going to come right out and say it. The record breaking number of costly natural disasters in 2011 is not just a coincidence.

The average number of natural disasters that cost the United States over $1 billion each annually has steadily been trending upwards since the 1980s. In fact, based on records kept by the National Climatic Data Center, the average number of annual $1 billion-plus natural disasters has tripled since then (from about two per year to six).

Now this is the part of the blogpost when I would normally fault the human race and our incessant contribution to climate change because of our big cars and wasteful habits. While I cannot deny that we need to start altering our lifestyles in ways that would leave a less harmful impact on the environment, climate change is only part of the story when discussing the radical increase in these costly natural disasters.

According to an article published in Scientific American, only one-thirds of the global cost of natural disasters can be attributed to disasters that were the result of climate change:

Passage from Scientific American (January 10th, 2012)

In the case of these two disasters, the costly damage can be attributed to population growth in areas that are known to be vulnerable to such disasters.

But wait…these examples are both international. Surely this wouldn’t happen in the United States. Wrong. In this country, we also have a tendency to build in at risk areas and this is an extremely costly decision.

In Matthew Kahn’s book, Climatopolis, he argues that one of the major issues that the United States will face as a result of climate change is that people who live in at risk urban centers will all be forced to move because of the continuous damaged caused by catastrophic weather events.

This is not something that will happen in the future. This is happening now.

Year in and year out, the same part of the United States experiences costly damage as a result of natural disasters. Of the ten $1 billion-plus natural disasters between January and August of this year, half of them were caused by severe weather in states bordering or near the Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Jeanne

Image Courtesy of Kakela
Hurricane Jeanne, 2004

This is nothing new. The top five at-risk states directly border the Gulf of Mexico and pay billions of dollars annually because of hurricane damage.

If you ask me, and many experts, it is time for us to reconsider where we are building (and re-building) our cities.

And in case you were wondering, we are currently on pace to outdo last year’s record of 14 billion dollar-plus natural disasters.

 

 

 

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Microgrids: Breaking Dependence from Energy Monopolies

If growing up in Maryland taught me one thing it is that blackouts happen all the time. While Maryland may be one of the lesser appreciated states (for reasons I have never quite understood–afterall, we are the home of the Pig Woman of Cecil County), it is by no means a place you would expect to have frequent blackouts.

As a kid, I remember thunderstorms would cause outages in the summer, and blizzards would cause them in the winter. Outages that would last hours, if not days, at a time.

Photo courtesy of Mylius

My parents–seeing as they were the adults in the situation–would call our area electricity provider, Pepco, asking when the power would be switched back on. At the time I was confused as to why my parents were calling the pet store to ask about electricity  (I would learn in my later years that Pepco and Petco are different companies).

I now know that hamsters on wheels aren’t powering my house.

Since my more naive years, I have grown to resent Pepco (as have many Maryland residents).

My state’s dependence on Pepco for power sparked an interesting–and oh-so controversial–comparison in my mind. What could the state of California have done to save itself from the ulterior motives and energy monopoly of Enron during the early-2000s?*

Enron illegally shut down pipelines that fed into California as a mean of manipulating the market price of power. The people of California were forced to comply because Enron was the only game in town.

During Enron’s trials in 2005 there were $2 billion refund demands brought forth against the company on the grounds of conspiracy.

Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives

Granted, Pepco is by no means some evil corporation that is robbing the kindly citizens of Maryland of their hard earned money, but a valuable lesson from California’s dependence on Enron energy can be applied to my state’s energy situation.

As a part of a recent video project I met with Dr. Shalom Flank, the Chief Technical Officer and Architect of Pareto Energy.

Pareto is a start-up company based out of Washington, D.C. that has one concern–making communities responsible for their own energy.

Microgrid: Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

How do they propose to help communities self govern their energy? By installing microgrids.

A microgrid is a system that allows small clusters of energy users–for example, a neighborhood or college campus–to take energy from various suppliers for electric power. The microgrid works autonomously from the main power grid (in my case, Pepco) and can take energy from an array of different sources–such as wind turbines, hydroelectric stations, and solar panels.

Dr. Flank explained to me that microgrids were the solution to dependence on energy monopolies. That they are they way of the future for energy consumption.

Despite the promise of the technology, microgrids are, for the moment, uncommon, mainly because they are under promoted and require a hefty upfront investment.

While the initial cost may be great, living off a microgrid is undoubtedly a more efficient way of consuming energy. It is less expensive in the long run, it is more reliable than larger electricity providers, and–most importantly–it provides a cleaner source of electric power.

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*By no means am I accusing Pepco of being a corrupt company. I am simply using Maryland’s energy dependence as a comparable example to California’s energy dependence on Enron.

Making Life More Livable

A friend of mine from New York City told me that he doesn’t know how to drive. When I asked him how that was possible he said, “Because I don’t need to.”

As a born and raised suburbanite, a life without a car is difficult to imagine. Having a license is the ultimate symbol in freedom—driving from place to place without a care in the world (aside from gas prices, traffic, and state troopers). What could be better?

According to WalkScore.com, a website that ranks cities and neighborhoods based on walkability, New York is the most walkable

Photo credit to Jordan Melnick

city in the United States with a score of 85.3 out of 100. Assuming my friend did not live on Rikers Island (WalkScore: 5), he had all the amenities that I had. The difference being that I had to get in the car and drive to them.

A livable city is a city that makes a resident’s life more convenient by reducing the distance between their home and the things that they need to live comfortably (grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, etc.). In that regard, The Big Apple blows my hometown’s livability out of the water.

Now that I live in Washington, DC I have outgrown my romanticized love of driving—my car feels more like a metal money pit rather than my chariot to freedom.

Washington ranks as the 7th most walkable city on WalkScore.com. It also has the 4th best public transit score and the 6th best bike score in the United States.

In the past, Washington has been infamous for its inability to retain residents. However, within the past decade, DC has seen its first population increase since the 1950s.

Photo credit to Mr. T in DC

Coinciding with DC’s population growth has been a concerted effort by the city’s government to make Washington a more livable city. How you might ask? The city government has begun to implement its Sustainable Vision. One goal of the expansive plan is to make 75% of Washington entirely navigable by foot, public transportation, or by bike. An example of this dedication is the popularity and proliferation of Capital Bikeshare.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville ranks last on WalkScore.com with a walkability rating of 33 and does not rank in with its public transit or bike score.

Unlike Washington, Jacksonville does not provide the same expanse of alternative modes of transportation to their population. It is considered a “Car-Dependent” city and there is no plan to change that in their sustainability initiative. Also unlike Washington, Jacksonville has seen stalling population growth since the 1990s.

While Washington is growing, Jacksonville’s population growth is decreasing exponentially.

This evidence has made me think: it seems clear that the most livable cities happen to be the most environmentally sustainable cities as well. Washington, DC was recently ranked the 10th greenest city in the United States (New York City was ranked 2nd behind San Francisco).

As cities begin to make themselves more livable through the availability of alternative modes of transportation, fewer and fewer people will need to know how to drive in order to live comfortably.

Follow @planet_forward for the latest news on climate change, sustainability, and energy

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