temple university tiny home

The Temple University Tiny Home

By Maria Saxton Ph.D.
Jan 4, 2020

In 2015, Temple University’s Office of Sustainability hosted a one-day design charette that included 35 students from 18 disciplines. The charrette’s goal was to develop conceptual designs for a tiny home and its site. From its inception, the project has involved student groups, faculty members, departments, and organizations from multiple disciplines, one of the project’s primary intents. Another goal? To design and build an educational showpiece for the university that encourages interaction with and the demonstration of sustainable design. 

tiny home temple university
Photo Credt: Temple Office of Sustainability

The following year, the university created a design-build course to bring the charette’s concept to reality. Students contributing to the project included engineering students in a year-long Senior Design course, landscape architecture students through a studio course, and architecture students through the design-build course. Designing and building the tiny home gave students hands-on (and life-changing) experience not always available in a traditional classroom. 

In 2017, the Office of Sustainability—including Rebecca Collins, director; Caroline Burkholder, manager; and Adebola Duro-Aina, an “energy extern” and graduate student— along with architecture and engineering students, compiled documentation for the Living Building Challenge’s Petal Certification

The Living Building Challenge uses a flower metaphor as a framework for the Petal Certification. The flower represents regenerative buildings that receive energy from the sun, nutrients from the soil, and water from the sky. Like flowers, these buildings are also designed to provide shelter, support the surrounding ecosystem, and inspire the people who use them. The petals represent materials, place, water, energy, health and happiness, equity, and beauty. In April 2019, Temple University’s tiny home received Petal Certification. 

tiny home Temple University Office of Sustainability
Photo Credt: Temple Office of Sustainability

Tiny Home Packed with Sustainability 

The Temple Tiny House, which students designed and built, packs a lot of sustainable design into its 175 square feet. The sustainability aspects of the net-zero home include a 1.9 KW solar array with salt-water battery storage, a high-performance thermal envelope, a passive solar closet for heating and cooling the building, Aquion Aspen 48S batteries, and an Outback FlexPower Inverter. Four rain barrels collect rainwater, while a 50-square-foot living roof provides storm-water management via native plants that require little maintenance while attracting beneficial pollinators. 

Natural daylight and ventilation, LED lighting, and finishes with zero-percent VOCs add to the project’s sustainability. The students chose to keep the home disconnected from city water and installed a compost toilet. The students recycled 80 percent of the construction debris. The exterior includes cork siding, a rapidly renewable resource. Inside, the students reused roof slate as a flooring material. 

Temple’s project was the first Living Building Challenge-certified home in Philadelphia. While working toward the Petal Certification, the students and the Office of Sustainability were also assembling a Climate Action Plan for Temple University. The Petal Certification was a symbolic way to push the envelope and think beyond sustainability to focus on regenerative methods. The team also wanted to lead the region and harvest the incredible energy of students by challenging them with the highest possible standard of excellence. 

tiny home temple university solar panels
Photo Credt: Temple Office of Sustainability

A Teaching Tool 

Temple’s tiny home, while built to livable standards, functions as a teaching tool for students and the surrounding community. It's a small-scale showcase of sustainability for the university and provides co-curricular and community engagement opportunities. Every semester, the university hosts tours and demonstrations at the house, to teach visitors about the sustainable design strategies and renewable energy systems incorporated into the structure. The university also embeds home tours and presentations in a variety of courses—in particular, general education courses that allow students to see elements of sustainable design and regenerative architecture in practice rather than theory. 

Temple University has also hosted tours for local high school students exploring architecture as a career. A vocational training group toured the tiny home and studied its solar power array. Meanwhile, local groups and the City of Philadelphia are looking at tiny houses and other small-scale living solutions as potential solutions for its affordable housing challenges. The hope is that Temple’s tiny home can serve as design inspiration for future small-scale homes that prioritize sustainability and strive for zero net energy.

Temple’s tiny home also supports Temple’s Community Garden. The community garden is a student-led volunteer organization that provides an outlet for innovation and experimentation in organic urban agriculture. The garden and tiny house are on university property near a student residence hall and dining facility. The tiny home serves as programming space for the community garden, provides storage for the gardeners, space to dry herbs, and a place to start crops in the winter months. 

The garden’s weekly farm stand gives away food to students and neighbors to help address food insecurity. Together, the tiny home and urban garden create an ecosystem that teaches visitors about sustainable practices at home and on the land. 

tiny home temple university garden
Photo Credt: Temple Office of Sustainability

Takeaways for Homeowners

Collins, Burkholder, and Duro-Aina, of Temple University’s Office of Sustainability, have a lot to say about Temple’s tiny home as a teaching tool for homeowners—especially those striving to incorporate more sustainable strategies. Concerning materials, for instance, they emphasize that sustainability doesn’t mean unattractive. Today’s materials, depending on where and how they’re used, vary in price, quality, and aesthetics.

These experts encourage homeowners to avoid “go-to” traditional materials that are easily accessible online and may not be the most environmentally responsible. Instead, they say, explore lesser-known materials. Case in point: The exterior of Temple’s tiny house is cork, which is aging naturally and beautifully; inside, the students used repurposed roof slate as flooring.

Another lesson for homeowners is site placement. Smart siting, especially with a new home, is key to taking advantage of sun and breezes to increase a home’s energy performance and efficiency. For instance, a south-facing wall should incorporate windows that allow for maximum natural light and solar gain during winter, while providing shading to block heat in the summer. Also, the principles of passive solar can be easily incorporated and augmented by adding thermal mass that stores the warmth from the sun and slowly releases it into the home over time.

tiny home templye university rain barrel
Photo Credt: Temple Office of Sustainability

The team advises homeowners to embrace the natural beauty and aesthetic of native plants—whether by incorporating them into a green or live roof or landscaping. Native plants help and support pollinators and biodiversity while providing homeowners with reduced maintenance, water, and fertilizer. Add a rain barrel to collect rainwater for watering native plants during prolonged drought, or to water other organic perennial or vegetable gardens. In Philadelphia, programs are available to help with the costs of this equipment. 

Let’s add one more thing: Think about going tiny. Tiny homes are becoming more popular as homeowners downsize for financial, maintenance, or environmental reasons. As this series on student-designed and –constructed small homes shows, these houses are easy to design and build. Moreover, they’re easy to pack with passive solar and other sustainable design strategies. At the very least, there’s so much we can learn from tiny homes, including learning to live abundantly with less. 

Do you love this series on tiny homes designed and built by students? We certainly do, especially when you consider how these projects allow students to put their theories and ideas about sustainability into practice while learning construction skills. So far, we’ve explored tiny home projects at Appalachian State UniversityAuburn University, and Western Washington University. These articles show how people can design and construct small, sustainable homes with little to no previous experience--and reap tremendous rewards.

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