Small House has Big Impact

Engineering students at Northwestern University push efficient design.

With difficulties in the housing market, many are reconsidering the mantra, “Bigger is better.” Downsizing is not limited to empty-nesters or retirees anymore. But how far is too far?

Engineering students at Northwestern University thought 130 square feet would be just right. Sustainability advocates have long called for smaller, more efficient homes. Engineers haven’t missed that call.

Building a house may sound like an ambitious class project, but that’s exactly how the “Tiny House” project got started.  It is an ongoing student collaboration to bring sustainability awareness to the Northwestern community and beyond. It has since grown into a mission to inspire future endeavors towards improving sustainable living.

Not only is the house small, it’s self-supporting. It generates its own utility inputs and outputs without the need to connect to any outside sources. This is partially attributable to high-efficiency electrical devices and solar power generated from the 140 square foot roof.

This house goes well beyond electrical efficiency. Other, environmentally friendly choices the students made involved the building materials. The roof is made from Enviroshake, which is 95% recovered plastic. The structure is made from FSC-certified wood. That certification ensures the wood is sustainably harvested.

Conditioning air is one of a home’s largest energy requirements.  This scales with building size, so smaller is always better. But that’s not good enough. To fully address this inefficiency, the house has no air conditioning at all. Instead, it uses clever design in the roof line and window placement to keep it cool. It uses a small wood-burning stove for heat.

If that sounds like a deal-breaker, there is good news. The house also uses highly efficient Icynene spray foam insulation. Not only does this foam provide a complete air barrier, it does not contain harmful chemicals like polyurethane foams.

This house is not only off the grid. It is mobile. That means there is no way to connect it to a well or city water. No problem. The house collects rain water from the roof and stores it for later use. A four-stage filtration system cleans it up before it reaches the faucet. Hot water? That is courtesy of a solar hot water system.

Efficiency in design is not a passing trend. Increasingly, it is a necessity. Is a “Tiny House” a little too small for you? Many of the ideas and technologies the students at Northwestern University incorporated can also be applied to larger versions. Engineers are constantly pushing the limits of efficiency at all size scales. Even “tiny” steps can make a big difference.

 The video below describes the Tiny House Project:

 Images courtesy of: Northwestern Tiny House Project