Expert Take: Tiny Homes and Green Building the Perfect Pair

In the green building industry, size matters. However, this does not necessarily translate into “bigger is better.”

Nevertheless, average home size has increased more than 61 percent since 1973, while household sizes have shrunk. Currently, the United States averages 1,000-square-feet of living space per person.

“That number is obscene,” says Andrew Morrison, co-founder of Tiny House Enterprises, LLC and educational building resource, TinyHouseBuild.com.

“There is no way that each person, and this includes children by the way, needs 1,000-square-feet to be comfortable, safe, healthy and happy. In fact, I would argue that it impedes those end results in reality.”

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Andrew Morrison, at this year’s Greenbuild.

Morrison, who spoke on the subject at this year’s Greenbuild International Conference, argues that reducing the square footage of homes provides the most impactful change to our collective carbon footprint. Innovations such as efficient lighting, HVAC systems and improved thermal performance can still prove to be uneconomical if the average residential square footage continues to rise.

“The materials needed to build these homes are massive and the long-term condition is wasteful. If we want to build green, energy efficient homes, they need to be small homes,” he says.

Natural Materials and Efficient Technologies

As Morrison states, it’s a fairly simple concept—the smaller the home, the more efficient and effective the aforementioned technologies will become. However, building materials also play an extremely important role, and Morrison stresses that natural materials are always the best approach due to lack of VOCs and emission of toxic gases.

Morrison points to options such as straw bale, light straw-clay, and other natural construction materials. However, if builders or homeowners don’t wish to build something from earthen materials, there are alternatives such as wood frame construction, recycled steel frame construction and more. Natural materials can still play a role here too, as these frames can be insulated with wool, cotton or mineral wool.

“The key is to pick the least toxic materials you can find and to reduce your carbon footprint from construction material to conditioning requirements,” says Morrison.

Legality and Lessons Learned

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Andrew Morrison’s tiny home, which he calls “hOMe.”

As many professionals in the tiny home industry know, legality is crucial to finding success in the fusion of tiny housing and green building. As it currently stands, this is a major roadblock.

However, Morrison is actively challenging the legal limitations of these housing codes. He recently penned the tiny house appendix for the International Residential Code (IRC) and has won two of three supporting votes through the International Code Council (ICC) approval process. Currently in the third stage of voting,

Morrison is hoping for a final win that would allow the proposed appendix to appear in the 2018 IRC.

“This would be a game changer and allow for lower ceiling heights, alternate forms of emergency egress, sleeping loft legality and other details specific to the small scale of tiny houses,” says Morrison.

Legal issues aside, Morrison still believes green builders can accomplish plenty by moving away from the “bigger is better” belief and protect resources by minimizing their use. 

“Place your focus on smart design and minimize the simple approach of adding square footage to impress a client. Instead, impress that client by wowing them with advanced and creative design in a small space,” he says.

By adhering to this methodology, green builders can ensure that all of their clients’ needs are met while also protecting the environment, protecting the occupants and drastically reducing the cost of the home—both in construction and in long-term occupancy.