Are People Who Live in Tiny Houses More Likely to Be TreeHuggers?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter's Tiny House/ Dave LeBlanc

A new study finds that they do have greener lifestyles and smaller footprints.

A fascinating new study finds that when people downsize to tiny homes, they adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles. PhD candidate Maria Saxton writes that, "It may seem intuitively obvious that downsizing to a tiny home would reduce one’s environmental impact, since it means occupying a much smaller space and consuming fewer resources." But she goes beyond that, studying 80 tiny home downsizers, and finds that their ecological footprints were reduced by about 45 percent on average.

Saxton studied the "spatial footprints" of tiny householders, which measures "how much of the biological capacity of the planet is required by a given human activity or population" – or how much land it takes for each of us to survive. There are a number of calculators out there, so it is a useful tool for taking all the different inputs into account. It is measured in 'global hectares', the area required to support our given lifestyles. Saxton writes:

I found that among 80 tiny home downsizers located across the United States, the average ecological footprint was 3.87 global hectares, or about 9.5 acres. This means that it would require 9.5 acres to support that person’s lifestyle for one year. Before moving into tiny homes, these respondents’ average footprint was 7.01 global hectares (17.3 acres). For comparison, the average American’s footprint is 8.4 global hectares, or 20.8 acres.
Saxton Infographic

Maria Saxton/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is intuitive that living in smaller spaces means you have a smaller footprint. But Saxton found that it goes beyond that:

My most interesting finding was that housing was not the only component of participants’ ecological footprints that changed. On average, every major component of downsizers’ lifestyles, including food, transportation and consumption of goods and services, was positively influenced.

People generally developed more ecologically conscious eating habits, bought less stuff, recycled more. "I found that downsizing was an important step toward reducing ecological footprints and encouraging pro-environmental behaviors."

Of course, there could be all kinds of things going on here. Many who move to tiny homes are retirees, self employed or not working, so they spend a lot less money than they used to. When you are out in the country and have to drag everything to the dump and pay by the bag, you tend to be very careful about recycling and minimizing the amount of garbage you generate. You don't have to be an environmentalist to avoid getting dinged for bag charges. When you are carrying water in jugs (20 percent had no running water), you tend to use less of it.

Saxton notes also that some people drove longer distances because that's where their tiny homes were parked; others ate out more often because they had such tiny kitchens. But in general, Saxton concludes,

"All participants in this study reduced their footprints by downsizing to tiny homes, even if they did not downsize for environmental reasons. This indicates that downsizing leads people to adopt behaviors that are better for the environment."

This begs the question I always ask, which is: How do tiny houses differ from apartments in the city? As one response to this tweet noted, these apartments are "tiny homes.... touching each other."

A decade ago, David Owen wrote Green Metropolis:Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability. In my review I noted:

New Yorkers use less energy and create less greenhouse gases than anyone else in America; that is because they tend to live in smaller spaces with shared walls, have less room to buy and keep stuff, often don't own cars (or if they do, use them a lot less) and walk a lot.

I would be very interested in seeing Saxton's methodology applied to urban apartment dwellers, who pretty much live like tiny householders but without the car. I suspect that their global hectares might be even lower than those in tiny households, who still do have to drive a lot.

I do not mean to discount Saxton's study in any way, but surely, this happens whether it is a tiny house or whether it is just about downsizing, where you have less space.