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From the article Living Little by Megan Fellman
How 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
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.
What 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.
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.
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.
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.