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Living Little: Tiny House Shows How Every Inch Matters in Sustainable Living

Northwestern Tiny House

The very tiny, zero net-energy house -- with a toilet in the shower -- will produce its own electricity using solar panels and also collect all of its water.

“We designed the house with the motto that the greenest square foot is the one you don’t build,” said Kaycee Overcash, a recent graduate of Northwestern University who is the co-project manager of the Tiny House project.

Overcash is one of a group of students and a few young alumni from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science who designed the house to teach people about sustainability, living simply and creatively using the space one has. Construction began in the spring, and the team intends to complete the home by Sept. 1.

The Northwestern group and its house are part of a movement that is gaining steam, thanks in large part to high energy prices and an increased interest in sustainability: the small-house movement. And a tiny house is very small, defined by some enthusiasts as less than 140 square feet.

The foundation of the 128-square-foot house is a trailer. If all goes as planned, the Tiny House will serve as a display to the community of the tiny house movement and the importance of using space as a resource.

Designed to be fully independent and operate off the grid, the Tiny House will have everything a person needs to live comfortably: a living room, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping loft, storage area, an awning for shade and even a fireplace.

“We’re not asking everyone to move into houses this size,” said Alejandro Sklar, a Tiny House team member. “Instead, we want to demonstrate what can be done with such a small space and teach people to utilize every inch they inhabit, whether that be a garden they harvest food from and use gray water to sustain or a loft they turn into a wind tunnel to ventilate a home.”

As far as Overcash knows, only one other student group in the country is involved in a similar project, but it may not be off grid.

Jay Shafer, who has lived in three tiny houses and is the founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, was the students’ inspiration. He’ll be in town Aug. 6 and 7 to conduct a tiny house workshop, and the Northwestern team hopes he’ll have time to come to campus and meet them and their house.

The Tiny House started as a project in a Segal Design Institute course with Shafer as the student team’s “client” and then found a home with the student-driven Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) group. Segal, ESW and the Tiny House project epitomize one of the goals of a McCormick education: to use engineering, design and innovation to help solve global problems like energy and sustainability.

Tiny House team members Kaycee Overcash, William Fan, Laurel Lau and Alejandro Sklar talked with science and engineering editor Megan Fellman on how the project is going and what they are planning for the upcoming year.

Student working on Tiny HouseHow did this project get started?

FAN: About two years ago, I saw a New York Times article describing tiny houses. The idea really struck a chord in me, and I felt it strongly symbolized the ideals of sustainability. I started asking friends if they would be interested in starting the project and eventually we asked to begin a project in the Segal Design Institute’s 298/398 Interdisciplinary Design Projects sequence.

Mert Iseri and I attended a workshop taught by Jay Shafer prior to beginning the project in order to gauge how realistic a project of this scale would be. At the workshop we asked Jay to be our client for the design project.

During the Segal course, we wanted to make sure we didn’t just create another tiny house but added to the idea. What makes our design unique is the implementation of off-grid technologies in the house.

OVERCASH: Since Will and Mert met Jay, we have been in communication with him many times with questions about designing our home.

Explain how this evolved from a Segal Design Institute course project to now being an Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) project.

OVERCASH: The 298/398 design project was the original six-person team (William Fan, Kaycee Overcash, Kimberly Huang, Alejandro Sklar, Alexandra Letuchy and Mert Iseri) that began January of 2010 and ended June of 2010. We then decided as a group to continue the project.

FAN: I actually served as president for ESW for two years, and this project was a clear fit for the goals of the group. In the end, our tiny home represents an alternative to our current housing system that we believe is sustainable.

Segal, which encourages you to take ideas and run with them, has been the basis for our design philosophies at ESW. We apply a lot of what we learn, such as project management or brainstorming skills, to our projects. Segal also provides great resources for the work in ESW, not just engaged and knowledgeable professors, but working environments, like the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center shop, that allows us to mock up or build our work.

What is the small-house movement and what role did it play in the start of the Tiny House project?

FAN: The small-house movement has been credited to [architect] Sarah Susanka after the release of her book in 1998. However, its basic philosophies are nothing new: a countermovement against materialism. You can trace its history to Walden Pond, the 1960s counterculture or really any of the major religions.

The small-house movement has made a huge impact in our design. Specifically, our design strongly resembles Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses design. We are really building off of his ideas and adding our off-grid implementation.

Besides Jay, the movement has provided a significant amount of resources from online build guides and designs to people interested in taking our surveys.

LAU: The small-house movement encourages people to think about the economic and environmental costs excessive housing space adds to our lives. Living simply encourages careful examination of our basic needs.

Describe what the inside of the house will be like once it’s finished.

OVERCASH: There will be a loft, a small kitchen, a living space, a bathroom with a composting toilet -- and the entire bathroom is the shower -- a storage space and multiple windows.

SKLAR: There is a lot of natural lighting. Also, we tried to keep the main space minimal, to make it feel spacious and open. We are hoping to use multi-purpose furniture that is not static but can be used in different ways under different circumstances. And we hope to install a folding desk/table against the wall, so the room can serve as both an office and a dining room, in addition to the living room.

Northwestern Tiny HouseWhat are its most interesting or unusual features?

SKLAR: The bathroom is pretty cool. The space takes up a mere 4 feet by 4.5 feet. Did I mention the entire thing is the shower, and the toilet uses ZERO gallons of water per flush?

FAN: The integration of a small space with off-grid technologies makes our home a strong solution for sustainable living. The efficient use of resources makes us a powerful story on all three fronts of sustainability: environmental, economic and social.

What really sets our home apart is the environment in which we are using these technologies. The Chicagoland area doesn’t provide nearly as much energy or water as a Florida or California climate, but our efficient design helps us maintain a high level of comfort.

Beyond the technology is the philosophy our home teaches. It internalizes the production of resources, which means you become part of the resource generation methods. It forces you to understand the processes included in the luxuries of our lives. It lifts the veil and makes you respect the blessings we’ve been given.

OVERCASH: I think the most interesting aspect of our house really is our systems, both electrical and plumbing. The rainwater system is the most interesting to me because it is not used as often as photovoltaics (solar panels), but is just as easy to implement. Especially our “water pillow” because it can be designed to fit any space needed. Since our home is so small, it was designed to fit underneath the trailer but still will be able to hold the amount of water we need. It can hold up to 400 gallons.

What does, “It will generate its own inputs and outputs without the need to connect to any outside sources” (from your website) mean?

OVERCASH: Basically this just means that our home is off grid. But more importantly is that it is a zero net-energy building; it creates all the energy that it uses and does not have an exterior source of power.

FAN: Many homes use alternative sources of power, but most of them still use the grid for additional power or as a backup supply.

Our home, on the other hand, solely uses solar energy to power the home while still retaining a relatively high standard of living, enough to power your laptop, a small refrigerator and lighting. Additionally, we have a rainwater collection system that provides approximately 8.4 gallons of water per day year round.

What is the rough timetable for the building of the house?

FAN: Our big deadline is the beginning of September, to coincide with the beginning of the school year. We hope to complete the home by then so we can begin touring and displaying the house around the community.

Currently, we are mostly done with the exterior build of the home. We also have completed the vast majority of our fundraising. Our next steps include installing the plumbing and electrical systems. After that, hopefully by mid August, we can install insulation and complete the final interior touches of the home.

What is the cost of building your Tiny House?

FAN: We’ve estimated the approximate cost without donations to be about $50,000. Fortunately, we’ve received numerous grants and cash donations as well as in-kind donations of materials and services. Our website -- -- lists all of our sponsors.

How many students and alumni are involved with the project this summer?

FAN: Over the summer, we have anywhere from eight to 10 involved members with a subset of this group who are local and available to build.

OVERCASH: We also have a lot of students who work with us during parts of the project and will return after the summer break.

Is this an unusual project for students to take on?

FAN: Our project is the only one I am aware of that has this level of student management with this type of sustainability message.

There was a tiny house called “the cube” built on a campus in the U.K., but it was a design of a professor. Beyond that, there is a big competition each year called the Solar Decathlon, but while its focus is still on sustainable homes, the houses are much larger and usually cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to build.

OVERCASH: I have only heard of one other campus building a house similar to this that I just found out about, at Green Mountain College in Vermont. They completed the structure of an 8-foot by 12-foot home in January 2011 and are hoping to make it use photovoltaics, but they do not mention water.

What are the biggest challenges in building the house?

OVERCASH: That we have never built a house before! Learning each step before we do it. And everything takes longer than you think.

FAN: We began the project with no construction experience and only a small network of professors and faculty. The learning process was fun, but no matter how much reading we did, it couldn’t supplement real experience. These hurdles could only be overcome with proper planning and an ability to make on-the-fly decisions during construction.

Conor Cameron, a friend and Northwestern alum who lives in Chicago, has been our construction guru. His degree is in economics and math, but he read a couple of books about building and picked it right up.

Gaining support financially and through the University also proved more challenging than expected. There were unknown risks and regulations that added complexity to our project. However, many people, including our professors and staff in risk management and facilities management, have been very helpful in working with us to tackle these problems.

What do you plan to do with the Tiny House once it is completed?

FAN: We will use the home on campus as an exhibit to help students and the community understand the value of sustainable design. We hope the house will serve as a starting point for additional sustainability initiatives that combine the philosophy of sustainability with innovation and design.

OVERCASH: We want students to continue to design for it and observe the efficiency of our systems, especially the photovoltaics. We also plan to survey people’s reactions to the small space through tours and visits to the home to help determine the overall success of the design. After one year the house will be deconstructed and recycled.

- Megan Fellman, University Relations