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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Tiny Houses: The Next Generation of Living?

I barely have any belongings.  Currently everything in my dorm room – minus a couple boxes of memorabilia at home – is all I have. I’m astonished when I look at my packed suitcases at the end of the school year. I think, “Wow, that’s my life in there.”  I moved to Delhi at the age of 11 and spent summers back where I grew up on Long Island. Every summer, my parents would give me a budget for all clothes, accessories, gadgets, I wanted to buy. I never shopped in India – mainly because of the lack of good retail options. Essentially I would buy a new wardrobe and wear the clothes out every year. I fell into a pattern of buying and discarding – not in the least bit sustainable, I know now.  I attribute my lack of things to my move – it was a huge lifestyle change. When I moved back to the States for college, I was simply amazed at the number of things all my friends had – boxes and boxes of shoes, bags, belts, coats. Just stuff and more STUFF.

Tiny home living is about whittling down to essentials – getting rid of the meaningless. In Washington, D.C., a group called Boneyard Studios is building a community of 150 to 200 square feet houses to showcase as an option for affordable and green living.

A completed tiny house on the Boneyard lot in Washington, D.C.

Lee Pera, a group member, lived in 26 houses and apartments in six different countries. “With all this moving I’ve become very adept at adapting to any type of situation I find myself in,” she wrote in her online bio.

Matt Battin, an architect and builder working on the project, describes himself as a “nomad.”

“I’ve enough spent time camping – backpacking – so there’s a real notion of thinking about how little you need and being able to carry just the essentials,” he said in an interview I conducted. “And also, having one thing do as many things as possible.”

One of the three houses currently under construction on the lot.

A major advantage of tiny houses is affordability – houses sell between $20,000 to $50,000. Those prices are considerably less than that of a two-bedroom apartment in a hip D.C neighborhood. Over 5 million homes were foreclosed in 2011 and the average price of a used home is $245,000, according to the Boneyard Studios website.

The main room in a completed tiny house.

The Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. spearheaded the movement in 2000.

The idea of tiny homes gained traction and now Boneyard Studios is the first tiny house community in any American city. The group is hoping to tap into the niche market here in Washington – and it may just be successful, as the trend is toward smaller homes. From 1950 to the start of the millennium, the size of the average American home increased 230 percent, while the number of people living in it fell 23 percent. Though, in the past decade, according to this paper by the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a new single-family home declined.


Picture courtesy of National Association of Home Builders

The utility bills for the houses on Boneyard lot will be minimal. In this interview with Urban Turf, one of the builders Brian Levy said, “Typically, the plans on the Tumbleweed site are for structures that require a hook-up for electricity, water and sewer. On this lot, we have electric, but don’t have a sewer connection or a water connection.” These houses will have water tanks on board and the group will also harvest rainwater. In terms of sewage, incinerating toilets, which are waterless systems, will be used to turn human waste into ash.

Washington is a unique place in that it’s filled with transients such as federal workers and college students. Hardly anyone is actually from the District. The tiny, mobile homes, Lee said in my interview with her, can be attractive to this population. Another unique feature is that there is also a lot of dead space to build on, like alley lots. Now compare this with densely-populated cities like New York.

In New York, where apartment prices are also sky-high, residents have to think creatively and make sacrifices to get things to, well, fit, into their tiny apartments. The video below is captivating:

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Hackers: The Practical Green Activists

Hackerspaces Logo

The symbol of the Hackerspaces movement (Courtesy Hackerspaces)

“Green” is a pretty popular thing to be right now. It’s fashionable and practical – you can be part of the latest trend while also doing some good, and all it takes it the decision to modify some aspect of your life. Maybe you save energy, maybe you buy sustainability sourced products, maybe you compost or sort the recycling for your entire block. No matter what you do, you decided to be green, made a plan, and then went for it.

Story after story, we’ve been reporting all year on people who have made conscious choices to be green. This time, though, we found a group that may be more green than all the rest combined – and they don’t even think of themselves as environmentalists.

Hacking (the traditional kind – not the people writing viruses and breaking into mainframes, who are actually called “crackers”) is, simply put, the art of modifying, repairing and rebuilding technology oneself to suit particular needs. It’s repairing the screen on your iPhone instead of buying a new one. It’s 3D printing a custom-designed case for your homebrew Linux minicomputer instead of buying one at the store. In one particularly interesting case it was attaching electrodes to sandwiches and bananas to create edible musical instruments. It’s creation, simply put, and not necessarily with the intent of being at all environmentally friendly. The mindset, though, makes hacking green almost every single time.

The Self-Repair Manifesto

The Self-Repair Manifesto (Courtesy iFixit)

My partner Ellie McCutcheon and I recently visited our local Hackerspace, HacDC, to see what exactly was green about the hacking process. We found a mindset that focuses on a huge problem in the modern world: waste. Our culture has, in some ways, become waste-centric as everything becomes disposable. We produce over 6.6 billion pounds of electronic waste each year and that number is on the rise, with less than 18% of those discarded electronics actually making it to recycling. The rest go to landfills where toxic chemicals within can seep into the environment – the detailed stats are disturbing, but worth digging into. That sort of information goes a long way towards propping up the first point of iFixit’s Self-Repair Manifesto: Repair is Better Than Recycling. Why even tangle with the troubled recycling process if you can just reuse?

One of the HacDC members, Julia Longtin, may have explained the anti-waste mindset best:

By saving components, reusing devices and ensuring anything that is beyond repair is properly recycled the hackers go further than most of us in terms of environmental protection. That’s without a green initiative or New Year’s Resolution – it’s just how they do things. Meanwhile, think about your old cell phones – did they all wind up in the right place?

HacDC's Fractal Logo

HacDC’s Fractal Logo (Courtesy HacDC)

It’s not just about waste, either. There are some key forward-looking, environmentally friendly technologies that the hacker group plays around with as well. Many people at HacDC are working with 3D printers, one of the most promising green manufacturing technologies, and they’re doing it with green materials – instead of the more popular petroleum-based printing materials, they’re using one based off corn. They’re even printing their own replacement parts, a practice that some say could change the global economy. They’re also using environmentally-friendly materials to etch circuit boards, in direct contrast to the industry-standard practice of using highly corrosive and decidedly environmentally-unfriendly ferric chloride, as HacDC member Jon Horner explains:

So is hacking green? Even though it’s not on purpose, it looks like a “yes.” The best part? They’re quite willing to bring you up to speed if you want to do it yourself. So next time that smartphone breaks, think on it for a minute before rushing off to the store. Maybe a little time invested in repair is a good way for you to do your green deed for the day.

Mike DeVito

The Mysterious Disappearance of Energy


Many things in life are categorized as mysteries. From who ate the last cookie in the cookie jar, to why the Cubs will never win the world series, some of these mysteries may never be solved…


image credit: google images

These past couple of weeks, my partner Clara (shout out hey-yo) and I embarked on a journey to solve one of these mysteries.

The mystery we decided to look into is a Mysterious disappearance…The DISAPPEARANCE of Energy (insert your own dramatic music for added dramatic effect here).

After many sleepless nights of trying to figure who was responsible for such a crime we came to the conclusion that there was an obvious suspect, the average American family.

You see, after narrowing down our large suspect pool, when coming to the conclusion with help from our friends Scottie Bittle and Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned out the Lights (2009) it seemed to be the perfect crime.

In recent years Americans have become known as OVER-consumers of well… everything. As pointed out in the movie Super Size Me.

ImageAmericans have become known for their over indulgence in fast food which is very unhealthy. At the same time Americans are not only over consuming food, they are also over consuming ENERGY. As Bittle and Johnson pointed out the percentage of Americans who own more and more consumer products that emit lots of energy has spiked since 1980.

But why is that the case?

Firstly, according to Bittle and Johnson, in 1973, the average floor space of an American home was 1,660 square feet. It has since increased 52 percent to 2,521 square feet in 2007.

With that additional space comes the American’s necessity to buy more consumer goods.

That natural tendency along with various economic changes creates the perfect crime.


google images

 As the average family size has decreased and the household size as increased, the additional space has been filled with more and more STUFF! Stuff like computers, microwaves, refrigerators, televisions, ipads, tablets, phones. All adding to the average carbon footprint emitted per household in America.

Looking forward  With this trend the household consumption of Energy will continue to rise as household size continues to grow thus continuing this poor trend for the environment.

In their Annual Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected what the US energy per capita usage would look like by 2035. They concluded that even if

“The increase in efficiency, driven by new standards and improved technology were to take place, it is not high enough to offset the growth in the number of households and electricity consumption in “other” uses.”

These “other” uses are accounted by for the over consumption of goods that fill up the newfound space that continues to be a trend.

This projection establishes the importance of reducing one’s carbon footprint. Given the ever increasing population, household size and tendency to buy consumer goods, these three American trends establish motive and cause for the crime at hand.

Who thought that such a simple fact could provide insight into one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time.

Rather than letting this mysterious disappearance become one of the life long unanswered mysteries, we can do something about it. By simply cutting down on ones carbon footprint,  we can solve this mystery once and for all.

Case Closed.


Surprise Surprise

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More space, more stuff inside the American household

Ever wonder why you have so much stuff?

Take a look right now around your bedroom, your office, your kitchen even.

Every home has a room like this. Photo credit: puuikibeach on Flickr (CC license)

As your eyes scan the room, do the questions “What is this and why do I own it?” enter your thoughts?

Are you already deciding what’s got to go next spring cleaning?

Seriously though, why do we have so much stuff?

One part to answering that question is first considering the size of your room or house. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The bigger our space, the more stuff we can physically fit in it.

And that’s precisely what’s going on . The average floor space of a new American house has gotten dramatically larger in just one generation, resulting in a high consumption of goods and energy.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson’s Who Turned Out the Lights (2009) states that in 1973, the average floor space of an American home was 1,660 square feet. It has since increased 52 percent to 2,521 square feet in 2007. However, this was happening during a period when the average American family was actually getting smaller.

Huh? You can infer then that families do not seek bigger homes to house more children but to house more of their gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

Credit: DIYLOL.com

You may not know about the whozits and whatzits Hipster Ariel uses underwater but we above ground buy and use things now that didn’t even exist 30 years ago (see table below). If it did exist like a personal computer, the average American could not afford it.

Credit: Who Turned Out the Lights by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

That’s all changed now. Microwave, dishwasher, TV, air-conditioning–those are the least obscure items in your home I’m sure.  The U.S.’s total consumer debt also affirms that Americans know how to consume. As of May 2011, total consumer debt in the U.S. was at $2.43 trillion. Total consumer debt per household averaged $16,046 which was down from $35,245 prior to the economic depression in 2008.

When people live in bigger places, they will also naturally have more rooms to light, heat and cool. Not only might our vast consumption of goods and services dangerous in accumulating debt, but our high consumption of energy also means trouble for the average household’s carbon footprint. Dishwashers, laundry machines, microwaves, computers, TVs–all these are used daily and eat up energy.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “in 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh, an average of 958 kilowatthours (kWh) per month.”

Looking back, every home I lived in was larger than the last, which only meant a bigger yard sale in the spring, autumn or both. It also meant more space to clean, more floors to vacuum. As a young girl who disliked weekly chores, I would have been okay with living in a smaller house. Would you consider living in a smaller house to avoid hoarding unnecessary stuff and exhausting lots of energy on keeping unoccupied rooms lit, warm, or cool? I know I am.

If you want to talk more, follow me at @pennibean. #thinkFWD

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Are We In or Are We Out?






Nuclear Power Plant

To be or not to be; that is the question.

As the United States election nears, both candidates have talked about their support of an “all of the above energy approach.” However, does that include nuclear power?  Both candidates may say yes, but that ignores the practical limitations of this type of alternative energy.

Don’t get me wrong- nuclear power definitely has its benefits. But the debate we are having is the wrong one. It’s no longer a simple discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear energy. The real question we need to answer is did we already miss out on making nuclear energy a key to our energy future?

Pro and anti nuclear power lobbies argue over the positives and negatives of this source of energy. Groups in favor will say that it is a domestically centered technology with no greenhouse gas emissions. The waste created on average per person could fit inside of one normal can of Coke. The waste generated could be stored in part of an uninhabitable desert in Nevada.


Yucca Mountain, Nevada
Proposed Nuclear Waste Dump

Groups against nuclear power will say that it is not safe, citing examples that include Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. If we are going to upgrade our technology industry, why not change to a totally safe source?

But all of these are moot points. The time to have this constant, never ending debate may already have passed. The answer seems to have been decided, and it looks like it is a firm “no” when it comes to nuclear power.

Fifteen countries around the world have economies that rely on a greater percentage of nuclear power than the United States. In contrast, France ranks #1 in this category, with over 70% of its energy emanating from nuclear power. This amounts to four times of the capacity of the United States. During this past year, the first new power plant was commissioned since 1978. Unfortunately, it takes over eight billion dollars and a decade to actually build a nuclear power plant. This means that even if the government decided to build a massive expansion of nuclear power plants across the country, nuclear energy would not find its way to consumers until the 2020’s.

Fukushima Disaster in Japan

While the United States appears to be asleep at the wheel, other countries like China are ramping up development. China is currently building thirty new nuclear power plants. It is nice to sit around and discuss the basics of nuclear power, but at a certain point a decision has to be made. Is nuclear power an actual part of the “all of the above approach” or not? Which brings us back to the original question, is nuclear energy in the United States to be or not to be?

The cost of rebuilding on disaster-prone land

Aerial view of tornado damage in Alabama. An outbreak of 343 tornadoes in central and southern states caused 321 deaths in 2011. Credit: NOAA

Last year was one for the record books. In the U.S., a total of 14 weather and climate disasters each caused upwards of $1 billion in damages. The disasters killed 735 people.

A study as noted in this article examined man-made natural disaster losses between 1980 and 2011 and concluded that the losses in North America nearly quintupled in that period. The insured losses cost a spectacular $510 billion.

Time series of billion dollar-plus disasters in the U.S. Credit: NOAA/NCDC

What caused the extreme weather conditions? There is no direct answer and the connection between climate change and extreme weather is debated. What’s science without controversy anyway? The escalating cost of these disasters can be attributed to government policies that encourage development in high-risk areas.

In Climatopolis, Matthew Kahn, writes that the anticipation of government protection proceeding a disaster creates incentives for builders to take perilous risks. He talks about the “tough love” policy advocated by Milton Friedman. The policy encourages people to move away from at-risk areas, or at least use better, sustainable building materials.

“Milton Friedman would offer no government money to rebuild damaged cities, a move that would short-circuit the current system,” Kahn writes. “Without any guarantee of government bailout, developers would have to think long and hard and really understand the risks they face before committing to building in a flood plain.”

Economist Gary Becker explains the concept in the “Good Samaritan” paradox:

Think about the behavior of loving parents toward their children. The parents are always there to help if their children need financial help. At the same time, parents want to teach their children about how to spend money wisely and to work and study hard. If the parents’ threats aren’t backed up with actual behavior, the kids will expect help whenever they find themselves in trouble. Becker writes, “parents might then be indirectly encouraging the very behavior by their children that they want them to avoid.”

It isn’t the most efficient use of the public’s tax dollars or of safety to promote development in high-risk disaster areas. In short, free insurance leads to bad location decisions.

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