Lately I've been intrigued by the idea of living well in a smaller home. Like many of you, I've been dismayed by the attempts to call huge luxury homes "green" because they have cork floors in the media room and every massive appliance is Energy Star rated. Given the state of the economy, people are getting the idea that a smaller home is better. Smaller certainly has a better chance of being truly greener.
I've lived in typical suburban homes all my life, the kind with two or three bedrooms and maybe a family room, between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet of living space and a back yard. I still own such a home where I spend the greater part of the year.
Why is living in this 23-foot trailer so enjoyable? In part it is where the trailer is--a beautiful place with a mild climate. In part it's being with family I love. But it's more than that.
I made a list of what I enjoy about this trailer:
1. Companionship with my husband.
We can be together while doing separate things--watching TV, reading, consulting work, writing this blog. We talk. We have fun. We enjoy being together quietly, each engrossed in our own activity. In a big house we keep losing each other.
2. More time for recreation.
There is still cleaning and maintenance, but a lot less than for a house. My husband goes paragliding and I go cycling. We have our own hobbies and interests, but we do a lot of everyday tasks as a team. Most of our time is discretionary. We cherish spontaneity.
3. Connectivity to the out-of-doors.
This trailer of one room plus a bathroom has seven windows, three operational skylights, and two doors with separate screen doors. It's always light and bright no matter what the angle of the sun or amount of cloud cover. We can regulate the temperature and control the breezes as the day passes. There is a furnace if it's cold and if it's hot, we choose to use a fan instead of the air conditioner.
I awaken to bird songs. Butterflies flutter right outside my door. The rain pitter-patters on the roof. It is the most tranquil and relaxing place I have ever experienced since childhood summers on the little back porch of my family home.
4. An interior space with a place for everything, and everything in its place.
I've always admired the traditional Japanese home for its simple lines and lack of clutter. The built-ins of travel trailers or other RV's, if nicely done, give this same feeling of serenity while keeping everything you really need handy where you use it. After living in a completely built-in room, the boxy rooms of typical home construction and free-standing furniture seem to waste a great deal of space, and large spaces can be very unhandy. Storage is often too high, too low, or too deep to grab things, use them, and put them right back. In traditional homes, functionality and comfort often take a back seat to style and show.
5. A really comfortable bed.
The queen-sized platform bed has a thin mattress, so we put a $20 foam topper on it. It's totally comfortable. We spent a great deal more money to sleep as well in our house. We move arm bolsters from the couch to the bed to prop up our pillows when we want to sit up and read, and I also knit there. Built-in lighting and cabinetry make it a delightful spot for many activities, keeping everything I'm using handy. We have an inexpensive comforter as the top layer of the bedding and don't worry about the wear we are giving it by using our bed as an activity center.
The bed is an important space for sorting things out, but those things get put away promptly. We keep it an uncluttered, inviting spot to work a Sudoku puzzle, nap, or just stretch out our backs.
6. Efficient use of energy and resources.
Perhaps the single best green advantage of a small home is that you can't fill it with stuff that is not useful and used. There is no spot in our trailer for a table lamp, no spot to display collectibles, and only one short piece of wall on which to hang decoration. Kitchen appliances are kept to a bare minimum. There is no place for holiday decorations and no place to keep the stuff the rest of the year. It really extinguishes a woman's shopping habit! And that is a very green thing.
The small shower/tub doesn't let you get more than your feet soaking, but the built-in seat and hand-held shower option mimic the comfort of more spacious arrangements. One uses very little water without feeling deprived. The trailer toilet has been no problem for us and uses a very small amount of water as well. For a stationary trailer, there needs to be a sewer connection available close by. Dumping the black water and gray water tanks is a regular maintenance task of living in a travel trailer.
Obviously the trailer would not be energy efficient in a cold climate. The windows are single-pane, for instance. The water line would freeze. The furnace design requires that one window be cracked open at all times. In a mild climate, the ability to open skylights, to cool down rapidly when the sun gets low, and the small space if heat is necessary, make the trailer a fairly good green home.
How to apply the lessons learned?
As I've indicated in other posts about our trailer, we use the family house next to us for preparing supper, baking bread, doing laundry, and storing our recreational gear. We have access to a tool shed and a patio with a clothesline. We spend some time with my sister every day. Entertainment of mutual friends and family takes place in her home (though we once did have five for dinner in the trailer--cozy and fun!).
So, to enjoy our lifestyle, we do need more than just 176 square feet--that's the interior measurement I computed. One solution is to organize small homes around communal spaces, and many apartment and condominium complexes are set up like that today. Perhaps one day we will live in such an arrangement.
But how can we apply the lessons learned in our trailer to our situation back in Iowa, to the vast numbers of free-standing single family homes across the nation? The climate makes a huge difference to most people. When a bad Iowa winter comes along, people get cabin fever. Friction develops even in harmonious families. It's a wonderful thing to have a family room or basement workshop or game room for family members to escape to, and to get children out from underfoot.
The nation's large homes aren't going to go away because they are too spacious to be green. We need to find a way of retrofitting homes to meet new climate and energy challenges. We need to find ways of sheltering more people in these homes--raising the number of residents per home reduces the carbon footprint of everyone living there, without doing one thing more.
Given all that, there's still a need for new small home designs that utilize different construction methods, reducing raw materials consumption and construction waste. We need new small home designs that connect to communal spaces and others that work stand-alone in rural areas. We need designs that incorporate passive solar techniques and alternative energy sources, that collect rainwater from roofs and shunt gray water into gardens. Do-it-yourselfers have achieved these designs already, and the affluent can afford custom designs. Now we need to make it easier for the less adventurous ordinary folk to have the option to live this way also.
In my mind I am already thinking "outside the box" about the boxy rooms in my Iowa home that once seemed just fine, but now I realize they do not meet my needs as well as they could. For the time being, I can't make the house smaller or add more people to it, but I can use my list of valued features to make my home more convenient, more comfortable, more fun--and more green.