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what we can learn frome tiny homes

What We Can Learn from Tiny Homes 

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jun 6, 2020

When it comes to tiny homes, we often marvel at their ingenious use of space, low carbon footprint, off-grid solar panel systems, and other impressive sustainable features. But, let's face it - not all of us are ready to ditch our 2,000 square-foot homes for a 250 square foot home on wheels.

If you are a homeowner or looking to build or buy a home in the near future, it is certainly possible to incorporate essential elements of sustainability into your home, even if it does not measure under 400 square feet (the most commonly accepted definition of what constitutes a tiny home). Below, we look at four lessons that the tiny home movement can teach us about sustainability. Then we delve into how we can adapt those lessons to our own homes, no matter their size.

Getaway Tiny House
Photo courtesy of Getaway

Limit the Square Footage of Your Home

Embodied Energy 

Limiting the square footage of your home is one of the most important things you can do to improve your house's overall sustainability. It should be evident that the smaller the home, the less raw materials are needed to build the home. While much of the discussion on home sustainability focuses on energy efficiency measures, the actual materials used to build a house also play a significant role. 

One study of apartment buildings in Portugal found that the operational energy for these buildings was less than 200 MJ/m2/year while the embodied energy was upwards of 2,300 MJ/m2/year. That means that the energy needed to heat, cool, and power a home was only about one-tenth of the overall annual energy usage tied up in the house. 

In construction terms, embodied energy is the total energy consumed by all the processes associated with the construction of a building. This energy total includes the mining and processing of natural resources used in home construction, the manufacturing processes of those materials, and transport and delivery to the house site. 

Many people recognize that the operational energy used to heat, cool, light, and power a home is much higher in larger houses than in smaller ones. However, the real energy expenditure is related to the embodied energy in the materials used to build the home. For this reason, many experts agree that it is usually a more sustainable choice to renovate an old house rather than constructing a new one. 

Considering that the US building sector is responsible for up to 48% of the nation's annual energy usage (including operational and embodied energy), even cutting back 100 square feet on your planned home construction or on the existing home you are planning to purchase can have a measurable effect in the overall sustainability of your home. 

Tiny Home Builders
Photo courtesy of Tiny Home Builders

Operational Energy

Another reason to consider limiting the square footage of the home is related to the operational energy needed for your home daily. Simply put, the larger the structure, the more energy is required to heat, cool, and power the dwelling.

In 2015, over 27% of household energy consumption went toward space heating in the US. An astounding 62% of household energy consumption went toward space heating in Canada in 2017. This useful online calculator allows you to measure how many BTUs it will take to heat your home depending on your climate zone. For example, a 3,000 square-foot located in the northern or most of the western part of the country would need between 150,000 and 180,000 BTUs to heat the home. In contrast, a house in the same region that was only 800 square feet would only need between 40,000 and 48,000 BTUs to keep the home at a comfortable temperature. 

Hauslein Tiny House Co
Photo Credit: Hauslein Tiny House Co

Over 228 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere per million BTUs of energy produced from burning coal and other fossil fuels. So, limiting the quantity of BTUs needed to heat your home is essential to lower your household's carbon footprint. 

Zen Tiny House
Photo courtesy of Zen Tiny House

Limiting Consumerism

A smaller home uses less energy (both embodied and operational), and it will also require less "stuff" to fill it up. A small family living in a large 3,000 square-foot home will find themselves buying furniture that they never use, wall hangings that they rarely look at, and other household items whose primary purpose is to fill up the empty space. 

While tiny homes take minimalism to an extreme, limiting the amount of stuff in your home is also a great way to make your home more sustainable. Sustainability can also be sophisticated, however.  Minimalist architecture focuses on simplicity to represent a greater sense of order and quality by focusing on the movement of natural light in and clean spaces. 

Tiny House Diekmann
Tiny House Dining. Photo Credit: Diekmann Tiny House

The Essence of Design

Tiny homes are notorious for their ability to make the most out of the space that they have. While larger homes usually have large areas of "dead space" that is not often used, tiny houses make use of every square inch of the space. 

The first and most important rule of design for tiny homes is that they design for function over aesthetics. Most homeowners purchase their living room furniture based on how they think the style will complement the rest of the décor in the room. Tiny homes, however, would prioritize multi-use or multi-function furniture over aesthetics. For instance, a couch might incorporate storage space in its interior. Or, a bed could have dresser drawers built into the frame. These are just two examples of the importance of planning and design in tiny homes

When planning to build a new home, a design that makes room for multi-functionality will almost always result in less square footage and more efficient use of space. For people shopping for an existing home, the creativity that comes with tiny home design can help you. Use this knowledge to discover how to turn that extra, unneeded bedroom into the office space you crave in a modestly sized home. 

Monarch Tiny Home Tiny House Blog
Monarch Tiny Home. Photo Credit: Tiny House Blog

Even if you are not ready to downsize to a fully off-grid, tiny home, there are still many important lessons to learn about how to make your own home more sustainable. You can limit the square footage in a home that you are planning to build or purchase. You can decrease the clutter in your space, and increase your focus on functionality in design. All these small steps add up and will help you move forward in your sustainability journey

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-06-23T14:41:58+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.