Why Small Is the New Green

An advertisement for the Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen ad

On Tuesday afternoons I turn into Adjunct Professor Alter, teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto. After class, I was hanging around TreeHugger's virtual water cooler describing the long (297 slides) presentation when TreeHugger Mike suggested that I should video them.

That's hard to do, but I thought there must be other ways to present the information. Then I remembered the Pecha Kucha, invented in 2003 by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham as a way of forcing long-winded and slide-heavy designers to make their presentations concise and fast-paced, limiting them to 20 slides at 20 seconds each, about the time it takes to read this much copy. So here is Pecha Kucha TreeHugger slideshow about why that Volkswagen ad was right, we should think small.

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The Graph

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy; click here for larger image

Let's start with The Graph That Explains Everything, Livermore Laboratory's energy use graph. It shows plain as day that our single biggest energy problem is transportation, burning petroleum in cars, moving between our houses (the 3rd biggest consumer of energy and our businesses, the 4th. I can't tell you what proportion of that industrial sector is making those cars and refining that petroleum, but it's probably pretty big too. In the face of such massive numbers, the energy savings from more insulation or a smart thermostat look pretty picayune.

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What's the point?

credit: National building Museum

In fact, even as we add insulation and smart thermostats and double glaze our windows, our energy consumption per capita just keeps going up as our houses keep getting bigger and our families keep getting smaller and of course, the cost of paying for it all keeps going up.

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Miss Blacktop and Miss Concrete

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

How did it come to this? Thank Miss Blacktop and Miss Concrete and President Eisenhower and the American Government, that encouraged the massive development of the interstate highway system, decentralization of industry and commerce to make it harder for the Russkies to nuke, and rapid and almost instant suburbanization of housing, all tied together by concrete ribbons and filled with that symbol of personal freedom and success, the automobile.

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Broken System

credit: wikipedia

It didn't quite work out as planned. As Christopher Caldwell notes in the Financial Times, instead we got:

...despoliation of the environment, dependence on foreign oil, overburdening of state and local budgets, abandonment of the inner-city poor and reckless speculation in real-estate development.

The system was broken.

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Fresh Veggies

credit: Williamson Chong

It wasn't just the roads. Everything conspires to make our homes, our cars and our fridges larger; our trips to the store longer. That's why I keep saying that small fridges make good cities: People who have them are out in their community every day buy what is seasonal and fresh, buy as much as they need, responding to the marketplace, the baker, vegetable store and neighbourhood vendor. Instead, we drive an SUV to do two weeks shopping at the Superstore and have giant fridges to keep it all in, lose touch with our neighborhood.

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Portion Sizes

credit: Portion sizes going up

It's not just our houses and our cars and our fridges; our portion sizes grow as fast as our houses. It takes more space to grow it all, more space to store it, more waste to get rid of and more carbon to add to our atmosphere. And because of it we have all got bigger too, and have a health and obesity crisis, Because it's all about size.

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credit: Cover of Prefab, 2002

There were a lot of people looking for alternatives. One idea that pretty much exploded with the publishing of this book by Allison Arieff and Burkhart was prefabrication; smaller designs that were narrow enough to go down the road, mass-produced so that they could be more affordable, gorgeous and desirable and really well designed so that not an inch was wasted.

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IPod of Homes

credit: Micro Compact Homes

There were so many attempts to build the iPod of homes, the little box that had everything, to make everything smaller and more efficient, and to crank them out in quantity. But as Allison Arieff noted a few years after her book, it's expensive and difficult.

Absent economies of scale, the dreamed-of cost savings are basically impossible to achieve. Imagine building a custom car on a Ford assembly line and you can get a sense of how that might work.

Instead of small, affordable units, prefab now is popular in big custom houses, mostly big second homes for the wealthy. Prefab lives, but it never became the answer to the problem of living with less.

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Jay Shafer

credit: The small house book cover

Jay Shafer started building tiny houses in about 2002; according to our first post, "He wanted a house with a low environmental impact, and he didn't want to maintain a lot of unused space. He calls his methodology "subtractive design". They were essentially little trailers with cute peaked roofs and little lofts. Justin wrote that they were " designed to be used as a home or a weekend escape or as a garden hut." But after the Great Recession of 2008 they became the inspiration for something much bigger, the Tiny House Movement. Thousands were out of work, losing their houses to foreclosure, lives in turmoil. Many saw tiny houses as a way of life simplification, self sufficiency, sound fiscal management and yes, environmental consciousness.

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Tiny Home Companies

credit: The Tiny Project

There are now dozens of companies making tiny houses, and lots of individuals designing and building them themselves. Some of them are just gorgeous, bright and airy; I love Alek Lisefski's Tiny Project. We have shown dozens of them and they are consistently among TreeHugger's most popular posts; there is clearly a yearning for this. Kim has written about Andrew Morrison's TED talk where he says "tiny homes allow one to "live within the scale of one's humanity." It's a poetic way to tie in all the benefits of scaling down one's lifestyle, simplifying consumption to lighten one's footprint, and maintain a sense of freedom and flexibility." I am not so sure.

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Micro Communities

credit: Inhabitat via Flickr

Many of the people in tiny houses are living under the radar because they don't own land. They often don't have proper water supplies and toilets. It can be a hard, solitary life and many bail on it pretty quickly. Because most humans are social animals and want community. As Ben Brown of Placeshakers noted,

The trick to living large in small spaces is to have great public places to go to – preferably by foot or on a bike – once you’re outside your private retreat. .... No problem feeding the private, nesting impulse with cottage living; but the smaller the nest, the bigger the balancing need for community.

There are


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credit: Marco Pierazzi

But in many ways, the whole movement is a bit misguided. In fact, most of the world and many Americans already live in tiny homes; they are called apartments. That's where you want to live if you want to have a low ecological footprint, because the biggest single influence on your footprint is the way you get around, and many in cities live without cars. It usually is not that hard to do; as Birgit Lohmann told my students yesterday, in Milan where she lives, the street is your living room and theater, the restaurant is your dining room. They are not usually as small as Marco Pierazzi's 75 square foot apartment in Rome, but they are a lot smaller than most Americans are used to living in.

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Small Family Apartments

credit: Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture

In fact, in much of Europe and in cities like New York and Toronto, families are being raised in small apartments. If you live in the best part of town you don't want to leave just because the kids come along. A few years back we showed a 431 square foot apartment in Paris shared by two adults, two kids and a big Labrador. Comments were made like:

I do find this unbelievable - I feel sorry for the children since they barely have anywhere to play and weather is not always willing for them to be outside. In the US, the children would be taken.

But with good design, you can do so much to make a space feel bigger and serve more functions.

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Loft Beds

credit: Emmanuel Combarel Dominique Marrec

The bed is one of the biggest problems; it takes up a lot of space. And while we do use it more than any other piece of furniture we own, one of the best ways to find space to use while we are awake is to make go away. One popular way is to build a loft bed, if you have the headroom. Readers loved this idea by Emmanuel Combarel Dominique Marrec - hang it from the ceiling in a box.

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Hide the Bed

credit: tumidei

Sharing a bedroom is out of fashion in North America, although TreeHugger Katherine writes that when kids share a room, awesome things happen. One way they make it easier in Europe is to invest in furniture that packs a whole lot into small spaces and hides the bed when you don't need it. This stuff isn't cheap, but if it lets you stay in your little flat in Milan or Rome, or lets us raise families in smaller apartments, it's worth it.

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credit: Resource Furniture/ CLEI

It's not just for the kids either; there are also folding and moving beds for adults. CLEI of Italy makes some of the nicest, sold in North America by Resource Furniture. This bed folds up into a wall and the cat doesn't even have to move off that shelf. But this stuff is expensive. After showing this to my class, Birgit Lohmann of Designboom complained that this was not solution to our problems of living in smaller spaces for anyone but the very rich, that as designers we had to do better. A commenter agreed on an earlier post, noting:

[This] stuff is not priced for anyone in the middle or lower classes, and it is frustrating to see Treehugger and all these designers giving them so much play. Design something for the masses and this movement could take off.
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credit: City of New York

Perhaps it is beginning to all come together. In New York City, nARCHITECTS are building a prefab tower of very small units, with high ceilings for storage and built in Murphy beds. It may well lead to the scrapping of minimum unit areas for apartments in New York, imposed decades ago to deal with tenements filled with large families. In fact, many cities have legal requirements and bylaws that make smaller, affordable dwellings impossible to build; parking requirements for people without cars, minimum square footages to keep the tax base up and keep the riff-raff out. All of these make it harder to build greener, cheaper housing.

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credit: LifeEdited

TreeHugger's founder, Graham Hill, has demonstrated with his LifeEdited project that you can feed dinner for twelve, sleep four, work from home and fix your bike in 400 square feet with good design. This apartment doesn't have the answers for most people; as Birgit Lohmann noted, it's really expensive to look like you have nothing. But it has inspired a lot of people, and Graham has gone on to consult with developers about building tiny apartments.

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credit: Lloyd Alter

There are many places in the world that pull this off. I keep going back to Copenhagen, where people live in small houses and apartments, don't drive big cars, have fridges so small that Oprah had a fit, and are among the happiest and healthiest people in the world. You can do it differently. Actually, I didn't need twenty slides, I made the point ten years ago when I started this TreeHugger gig, and wrote in my bio:

In the course of his work developing small residential units and prefabs, Lloyd became convinced that we just use too much of everything- too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money, and that the key to sustainability is to simply use less. And, the key to happily using less is to design things better.

All the rest is commentary.