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Rian Ervin/MEDILL

Northwestern University's Tiny House project is available for public viewing March 5 to 10 and is located at the Evanston campus at 2133 Sheridan Road.

Tiny house, not so tiny concept

by Rian Ervin and Alexandra Pisano
March 08, 2012


Produced by Alexandra Pisano/MEDILL. Data from U.S. Census Bureau, Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Information Administration, Tony Slade and Dee Williams

By the numbers: Average U.S. home versus a tiny house


Alexandra Pisano and Rian Ervin/MEDILL

The average American home is 24 times larger than a tiny house.

Dwarfed by immense stone buildings, a 128-square-foot house sits on the campus of Northwestern University.

Smaller than a one-car garage and slightly wider than arms width, the house is specifically designed to save space. Tables fold up and down, the couch expands and retracts and the bedroom is a loft suspended above the living area.     

A class project that began two years ago as a study of a growing environmental movement rapidly evolved into construction of a tiny, energy-efficient house.

Ranging from 50 to 200 square feet, tiny houses are growing in popularity among the green living community and represent an extreme effort to live sustainably.

Environmentally friendly and inexpensive to keep up, these pocket-sized dwellings have everything a person needs to live comfortably, if on a much smaller scale. They stand in stark contrast to the average American home, which is about 2,400 square feet according to 2010 census data -- 24 times larger than a tiny house.

Northwestern University student Nirajan Rajkarnikar, who was involved in the construction of the project, said the house is completely self-sustaining.

It is constructed entirely of environmentally friendly materials including double-paned windows and bamboo floors. The windows, along with extra insulation, allow the house to be heated only with a small space heater.

Solar panels provide electricity, and the roof collects rainwater in a 400-gallon water pillow underneath the house. The water is then cycled through a filtration system.

The house, which contains a kitchen, living room, and loft area for sleeping and storage, maximizes space. An accordion couch made out of cardboard can expand to seat eight people. A low-flow shower head and composting toilet complete the green package.

The tiny house is available for public viewing for the first time this week, and will be used for future demonstrations and to spread information about sustainability, Rajkarnikar said.

Could you live in a house the size of a closet?

Seven and a half years ago, Dee Williams downsized from her 3-bedroom, 1,500 square-foot bungalow to a cozy, 84 square-foot tiny house, which she built mainly from recycled materials.

Building the house was, “an awesome process,” Williams said. “It challenged me, broke me down and built me back up again.”

Williams salvaged wood from dumpsters and used shredded blue-jean scraps for insulation to lower her construction footprint.

She recently co-founded Portland Alternative Dwellings, a tiny house construction company located in Portland, Oregon.

“I do think the bigger nugget to crack is how you spend your money, how you behave as a consumer and how you connect to other people in your community and environment,” Williams said.

While anyone can go out and buy a product to be “more green,” not everyone can voluntarily downsize their life to the point of living in a friend’s backyard, showering at work and cutting back on belongings.

Williams now owns only three pairs of shoes and has to borrow a dress if she wants to go out somewhere nice.

Besides saving big bucks, Williams said she enjoys tiny house living because of it has caused her to become more eco-conscious. “I feel like I’m walking my talk a little bit more,” she said.

Williams said she gets a lot of visitors, ranging from the curious to the serious. “I get people who drive down the alley, look at my house and say: ‘is it a dog house? A shed? A wood house?’”

Williams said living in a tiny house has changed her purchasing habits, her relationships with her friends and her connection with the outdoors for the best. “No one can wake up to rain on the roof the way I do,” she said.

Not ready to move into your own tiny house?

There are many things you can do to make sure your home is energy efficient without downsizing, said Tony Slade, owner of DESIGNFirst, an eco-friendly construction company in Itasca.

First, have your home professionally inspected for energy inefficiencies, Slade said. He recommended calling your local government to see it offers free inspections.

Professional companies also will give you detailed and useful information on how to make your home more energy efficient, he said. DESIGNFirst offers free energy usage audits.

Unplugging electronics that aren’t in use is a great place to start, Slade said.

You should also check your home for cold or hot spots to see where outside air is getting in. Make sure your attic in particular is airtight, he said.

Insulating leaks and weatherizing your home properly will not only make your household more energy efficient, but also save you money on heating bills.

“You can make back every dollar you invested,” Slade said.

“Why wouldn’t you do it?” he asked. “For me, it’s a no-brainer.”