Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tiny home or apartment?

I wrote a story about the tiny homes movement in today's Globe & Mail. It was a fun story to work on. The people involved in the movement are interesting, and Sasha McIntyre was absolutely delightful to meet. I'm also generally in favour of finding creative ways to live comfortably while using fewer resources.

But, much as I like many of the tiny house designs, there are problems with this approach to housing. Since one cannot tackle every aspect of an issue in an 800-word story, I'd like to discuss some of them here.

Size matters, but it's not everything
As Sasha McIntyre and others pointed out, it takes less natural gas or electricity to heat a house of 140 or 500 square feet than it does to heat a 2000 or 3000 sq.ft. house. In her case, it seems that home ownership was a top priority. That makes a lot of sense, since she and her husband, John Lei, both work in an industry prone to layoffs. Owning a house mortgage-free is an important safety net for them.

If the environment were the top priority of people in the movement, however, they wouldn't be in tiny detatched houses. They'd be in apartments. Apartments have fewer exterior walls and don't lose massive amounts of heat through the roof of every unit. They often have shared laundry and other facilities, and that can reduce duplication.

For the people in the story, it just didn't make sense. McIntosh and Lei could have had a condo, and did before buying a house. Will Pederson lives on a farm where he doesn't own the land, so his mobile Tarleton makes a lot of sense.

The answer: clustering
One interview I didn't have room to include in the Globe story was with Gregory Johnson. He runs the ResourcesForLife website, works on computers at the University of Iowa, and is a leading proponent of the tiny homes movement. His 140 sq.ft. house doesn't have a bathroom.

Why not? Because he'd prefer to share certain resources with other tiny house owners in a clustered community. Right now, his hosue is parked in his parents' backyard and he uses either their washroom or the one at work or the gym. Some might see that as cheating, but for him it's a sensible trade-off.

"I built it with the idea of it being part of a community, so there would be a larger, central shared community centre with shower and exercise room. There could be a composting toilet I could stow away when not in use," he said during our interview. Environmental (and cost) benefits come through reducing the number of kitchens, washrooms or exercise rooms, he noted. "It's less duplication. Rather than having ten of those, we have one."

But is clustering a solution?
Clustering helps with reducing duplication. It helps with creating strong communities of like-minded people, if you can find people you want to share facilities with. But it doesn't help with other big environmental drains, such as heating. You still have exposed walls, ceilings and, in some cases, floors, on everyone's sleeping areas. So still not as energy-efficient as a good apartment block. Maybe nicer to live in, but not more efficient.

Victoria architect John Gower pointed me to Royal Homes in Toronto, which might have an answer. They make pre-fab houses, including one model in their Royal Q line that's under 700 sq.ft. But where savings really stack up is when you take units and put them together into a multiplex. Fewer exposed walls and less duplication can lead to big environmental savings, and on a smaller footprint than a cluster of fully detached houses.

I live on the lower two floors of an attached Victorian house in Toronto. The shared walls make a big difference to my heating bills.

Building to code and beyond
I view the building code as an absolute minimum standard for construction. In my opinion, a well-built house will exceed the code requirements in many areas, notably insulation, and will also exceed basic LEED requirements.

My biggest complaint with some of the tiny house designs coming out of the United States is that they don't meet code. Some, like the Tumbleweed designs, are on trailers. As I understand it, this is at least partly because some jurisdictions don't recognize buildings that small as houses, and thus it's difficult to get the permits one would need.

We really should revise our by-laws in most municipalities to make it easier to build a diverse range of house styles and sizes. Then tiny homes would meed certain minimum standards. Because they're trailers, they're not necessarily hooked up properly to a power system. Some may have extension cords running to them, and that's worrisome.

From an environmental standpoint, insulation is also a problem. The Tarleton, for example, has 2x4 walls, not 2x6 as required for houses in most of Canada. This is a problem because most houses are insulated with fibreglass batts, and it takes a 6-inch cavity to accommodate an R20 batt. A 2x4 wall will only have R14 (though one could do better with three inches of sprayed foam). As for the ceiling, you need thick joists to have a cathedral ceiling with R40 insulation.

Because John Gower's houses are not trailers, the designs from BC Mountain Homes should meet code requirements in British Columbia, and therefore be more energy-efficient than the U.S. designs.

If you're seriously looking for a tiny house, carefully consider your options.
  1. Does the design I'm looking at meet or exceed building code requirements where I live?
  2. Can I share facilities to reduce duplication?
  3. Can the design be clustered to reduce exterior wall/ceiling space?
  4. How much land will I use? Am I using part of my land for something other than housing?
  5. Is mobility more important than environment?
  6. How much space do I need to live?
  7. Is my family likely to grow? Can my house expand to accommodate that?
In any case, tiny houses are more efficient than the monster suburban houses that typified 1980s and 1990s construction. In a tiny house, you're only heating the space you're actually using, not countless empty rooms. And your cooking, exercising, computing, breathing, help keep it warm in the winter.

Hopefully this movement spurs us to start thinking more economically. The way things are going, John Gower might be right that those monster houses will quickly lose resale value and become seen as "dinosaurs."


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the original Globe story and this post. Tiny homes are better than the monstrosities that are being built. There's no question about that. What they do is allow those who need a detached home (because of pets, for example) to enjoy the benefits of single, detached living and still reduce their environmental footprint.
It would be better, as you point out, to live in an apartment complex. What we really need are apartments that give us the best of both worlds: some green space, some flexibility (pets) and shared facilities.
Sadly, planners don't take a lot of those concerns and needs into account. It's hoped that articles such as this one can help change this.

David said...

Fiberglass insulation is about the worst choice for any kind of construction. Its insulation value actually decreases as temperatures go down, and it is nearly impossible to install without voids that produce air leaks.

You did mention foam--the best of which has about R7 per inch--giving a 2x4 wall closer to the R20. (The wood studs create a thermal bridge, on average, of R1.5 per inch so the composite figure for the wall is less than the value of the insulation times the thickness). In addition, it seals well enough to eliminate unwanted air leaks.

With decent windows, too, a tiny house can perform quite well compared to larger structures in many ways.

Reliance upon shared walls in apartments, too, is not as great an advantage as you make out. Someone has to live on the top floor and on the ends, for example.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for talking about the other issues and solutions involved. So many advocates of this or that "solution" do not examine the whole picture ie zoning, location, code, etc.

I live in a major metropolitan area in the US and our choices have been to purchase a very large old home that is within walking distance to my workplace. We rent out (illegally I will note) the extra rooms. Legally we're allowed two un-related roommates and we have a total of 6 adults in our home and one home based business. We share our garden space and are flexible with pets. This works out to a whopping 600 square feet per adult in our home. Huge by many standards but small for an individual apartment. The layout of an old house allows a great deal of privacy and personal space even within the shared spaces. We're pretty efficient with the bathrooms, kitchen and single washing machine. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of this as people are squeezed for money and look to live closer to their work or on a bus line etc.

Personally, it's extra work on our part to manage the house this way but it does cover our heating bill in the winter and is allowing us to save for that foam insulation.

David said...

Zoning laws that do not permit multiple occupancy of large, older spaces are insane today. Promoting higher density like this is far better for the resource use and the environment as well--and keeps such older dwellings from being torn down to build something new.

I live in a very small flat in Ukraine with my wife and stepson. This is the most common setup in Ukraine--flats in buildings ranging from three to twelve stories are most common, with three, five, and nine stories by far predominating. (We're on the bottom floor of a five story building). This helps make mass transit simple and ubiquitous--we have a transit stop about 75 feet from our door, and shopping within a few blocks for just about anything we might need.
By contrast, laws such as in your city are utterly stupid--they encourage urban sprawl and an enormous investment in infrastructure--which is now in sad repair in many cities.
Good luck with the further improvements of your property.

Anonymous said...

It's very frustrating in the US as there are very few communities that will permit smaller homes to be built. Homes are required to be larger than necessary.

Boston Gal said...

Thank you for the additional background info on the story - it was very helpful. Great work!

Deena Larsen said...

Yep. Getting zoning for our tiny house is going to be a major headache. ACK.