The Tiny Housing Crisis: Part I

When I hear the words “housing crisis” the first thing that comes to my mind is how millions of middle class Americans nearly lost their retirement in the near economic meltdown of 2008. With the Dow hovering at record levels again, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy…

I also think about Hurricane Katrina, and a half-million people let out to dry for weeks. The words describe my feelings for College Graduates entering a marketplace of stagnant wages with crippling debt. I think about the cost of end of life care, and what that is going to look like in the years ahead. I think about the state prisons closing, and the repercussions that will be felt in local government. I think about the unprecedented rate of foreclosures sweeping our entire nation. I think about young families I meet right here in Redwood City, struggling to pay rent and in danger of homelessness, and I think about the 500 people in our city who sleep unsheltered or in vehicles every night.

I watched powerlessly as my rent crept up and up as a result of people locked out of ownership entering the rental market. I think about the thousands of indigent and derelict in my own community and wonder… I wonder what they think of when they hear the words “housing crisis.”

These rent hikes have forced me to move my residence four times over the past two years, and I should be too busy dealing with my own personal “housing crisis” to be writing about these things, but it is nice to step away from a project which ended up consuming a year of my life, and tackle a smaller project that has the potential to be complete in just a few hours…. something relaxing and attainable … like a 3 part blog series about why the tiny house was built in the first place

Advocating for that the design principles which have been applied to the solution of my own personal housing crisis is important, as there is vast potential to create solutions for any human problem whose root economic cause is housing. We humans have been quite busy for the last couple centuries and created a global economy which has adopted the attitude of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal in the way we design our cities, countries, and even social institutions. Materials science has been designed around the standards of beat, heat, and treat. All of this is on the precipice of a giant change, and we have begun to see glimmers of the change express themselves in the free marketplace. Not only is there strong political will for advancement of sustainable technologies, we are reaching the pinnacle of economic necessity for the change. Nobody can see the road up past the hill in front of us quite yet, but if it’s a cliff we are going off it together.

Sustainability can be a convoluted concept, but when expressed as a system of design principles I begin to understand what it requires. These Priciples are: Efficiency, Dispersability, Adaptability, Economy, and Simplicity. Working together, these principles mimic life, and have promoted the proliferation of so many different species over the years until we came along. Sustainability is quite the opposite of extract, produce, ship, consume, dispose. Sustainability is closing the loop because we have realized that “dispose” is going to have to become “replenish” if we want to have a chance at inhabiting this planet for centuries to come.

One needs look no further than their own trash bins to see a direct example of the market demanding we close some of these systems of extraction and disposal; more are certain to come. We are beginning to see the proliferation of businesses and organizations which specialize in recovering resources from post-consumer goods such as electronics waste, building materials, and bicycles. Closing the system is already becoming an economic necessity, as the profitability of these existing ventures demonstrates.

I find little comfort, however, that private enterprise can continue to provide the level of comfort and convenience that has been sustained by rampant consumption thus far. In Rome 100 AD people were flushing toilets, half a century later and they are casting it in the street. History repeats itself. Wouldn’t it be prudent to prepare for the worst case scenario?

When confronted with the statistic that 40% of greenhouse gases are produced by heating and electrifying our homes, the realization occurs that it will take efforts more drastic than bicycling one a week and producing fuel efficient cars to arrest carbon dioxide levels. Energy costs are going up; it will be more expensive to maintain the level of energy consumption of the home as we move into the future and the occupants will have to decide to pay the price, or heat portions of the home. Our home will not be faced with that expense. You can heat the 900 cubic feet with a candle. With 40 square feet of glass on the broad sides I can get excellent solar gain in the winter months, but with a foundation on wheels I can find a shade tree or turn my ugly side at the sun to cope with the most blistering of summer heat. We’re betting on natural gas and propane to step up as major energy players in the years to come, but future predictions aside, our hot water will cost about eight dollars a month and our meals about the same. When I absolutely need electricity, I can buy my own solar panel and won’t be contractually obligated to sell my electricity at a loss to the municipal energy company because technically I am a travel trailer and can charge my own 12V system however I want. Look out for “home-brew” solar setups, clubs, and neighborhood collectives going into the future. A couple small panels is all that will be needed to keep our digital lives afloat, and I hardly see a need to pay taxes for charging a battery (taxes apply to purchase) with a solar panel (taxes apply to purchase.)

Efficiency was incorporated into manufacture as well. The statement “no trees died during construction of this project,” cannot be made, however, with confidence I proclaim “fewer trees were harvested than I can personally replenish in my lifetime.” Much of the material used in the manufacture of the cottage was diverted landfill waste from Whole House Building Supply, re-stores, freecycle, craigslist, sidewalk, curbside donations from personal friends from their own remodel projects, and in some cases I personally dove into dumpsters. The site of manufacture is a salvage building materials warehouse, where the business owner generously granted space to me for this project in exchange for opening it up as a demonstration item for customers. Needless to say, I didn’t have to do much hauling around of materials.
We’re told as a nation by our leaders that we need to pay down debt and live within our means. What does that look like on a national level? Won’t we all be affected on a personal level?

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