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."

Friday, July 17, 2009

A $250, low-carbon vacation

There's nothing like a bit of time away, and last weekend's trip was a wonderful one. As an added bonus, it had a minimal environmental impact. Also, it combined some of my favourite things: camping, dancing and eating.

We headed to Richmond, Quebec, for the Ooh la la festival, a weekend of music, contra dancing and quebecois folk dancing. If you like twirling about on the dance floor and are not fiddle-averse, it's an excellent little festival in an attractive town.

So, what made this trip an economical and environmentally friendly one?

I've always enjoyed a road trip. They so often seem to lead to adventure. Reminds me of this time in Montana...but that's another story. The round trip from Toronto to Richmond is 1362 km. In a Ford Windstar van, that means about 0.43 tonnes of CO2 (according to the calculator at Kuzuka). That's a lot of carbon to pump into the atmosphere. But with five adults in the van, that's less than a tenth of a tonne each, and about $40 in gas each for an out-of-province vacation. Not bad.
The trick to carpooling is to plan ahead, make sure there's enough room for everyone to be comfortable, and make sure the travelling companions are compatable. It doesn't work if some people really want to get to their destination quickly and others want to see the sights along the way. To futher save time and money, consider stopping somewhere pretty for a picnic along the way. We happened upon a nice roadside turnout along the St. Lawrence River, and enjoyed the wee break very much.

Camping is not necessarily environmentally friendly. Campfires and inefficient cookstoves can be a problem, and hauling trailers increases fuel consumption by a lot.
We were in Richmond to dance, so didn't tend to hang around the campsite, so no need for fires. And all our food was provided, so no need for cookstoves. Because we all used tents, the fuel cost of hauling our gear was minimal. Also, we chose a campsite within 2km of the dance hall, which made it possible to walk home (possible, though not always an appealing option after many hours of dancing). Also, our site came to $44 for the weekend, so pretty cost-effective.

One of the best things about the Ooh la la festival is the food. It's mostly vegetarian and locally produced. It's also beautifully presented and delicious. Vegetarian food is almost always better for the environment.
But why was a vegetarian diet so welcome last weekend? Because we were dancing. It's vigorous activity, and heavy meals don't lend themselves to good nights of dancing. Lighter fare keeps you light on your toes, though a good dose of carbohydrates helped to keep me dancing all night long. That said, a little chicken on the Saturday night was welcome.
(If anyone did need something less healthy, the chip shop down the road had decent ice cream, as well as almost two dozen kinds of poutine...what exactly is the point of vegetable poutine?)
Communal cooking is a great way to save energy. It takes much less to cook for 200 people than it does to have 200 people cooking their own meals. Also, the festival provided plates, cutlery and mugs, so very little garbage was produced.

While the bands, incuding Crowfoot, provided fantastic music for dancing, a lot of the joy of dancing comes from the people you're with. Contra dancing is a wonderfully social pasttime. The halls tend not to be air conditioned, so it can get hot, but eveyrone expects that. The main energy draws are lighting, sound equipment and fans. But the sound systems aren't very big, and the workshops tended to be acoustic, so I'm not terribly concerned about the energy draw. More efficient lighting would always help, but it's tough to find good, affordable dance floors.

All in all, it was well worth the roughly $250 my mini-vacation cost. And it was a chance to get out of town, have a great time dancing, and not have to worry about the environmental cost. For anyone who likes dancing, I certainly recommend Ooh la la. I'm certainly looking forward to the Toronto Island Dance in a couple of weeks.