Tiny houses, or at least small ones

My students started discussing something they had head about online – tiny houses.  One student read about someone who was living in a 94 square foot house.  The group decided that he had gone to far and was just being ridiculous.

I turned the question back to them and asked if they could live in a 1000 square foot house, and almost all agreed that would be quite nice.  The average home size in the US is 2400 square feet.

Our economy is changing some of this.  The housing market currently has 40 million McMansions that can’t be sold.   Meanwhile the market needs 30 million more small homes and 10 million attached homes – homes with smaller pricetags and smaller footprints.

The backlash?  Tiny homes.  Below are 5 floor plan options for the Gifford 99-square foot home by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.  It can be purchased assembled for $13,999.

My students would never live in this house, but they could learn a few lessons from it.  The first is about efficiency in design – a place for everything and everything in its place.  Three of the above designs “lack” a bed – a space filled with a sleeping loft or a built-in Murphy bed.

Living a small-footprint life doesn’t mean you have to be cramped into this tiny space.  Tumbleweed also has small home designs for sale, such as the 2-bedroom 750 square food Sebastarosa below.

The best thing about a small house is that it makes living simpler easy, and bonds the people inside the house to each other.  It’s hard to hold onto piles of stuff from your past.  It’s hard to buy more than you need.  The space encourages you to prioritize what is most important in your life and include only that.  It also encourages you to live outside as much as your climate allows.

Besides, can you imagine the lot price for this house?


Staying warm on a cold indoor day

I am one of those people who is always cold.  Especially in the winter, and especially after I cuddle down on my sofa in the evening.  My husband and I argue over the thermostat, and I am trying my best to find ways to not to crank up the dial.

1) Hot cocoa or hot tea – don’t even drink it, just hold it in your hands and don’t put it down. This is one of the few methods that work for fingers.

2) Cats – this is the other method that works for cold fingers.  You can substitute dog or rat or bunny – whatever warmblooded fuzzy animal you have on hand.

3) Shawls – I cannot go as far as a snuggie, but I have a pile of shawls to keep  my shoulders warm.

Trey is modelling this years fine wrap.

4) Heating pad or hot water bottle – toss it under a shawl or blanket and it works wonders.

5) Double-curtain your window – or use an insulated / thermal curtain.  Even double paned windows can often use some extra help on a cold day.

6) Check for drafts – walk around the room with incense or a candle to trace and the caulk areas where drafts are getting in.

7) Humidifier – dry house air really adds to the feeling of cold.  Raising the humidity level and add a few degrees to your experienced temperature (same as humidity on a summer day).

8) Plants – they also hold humidity, keep them watered so they don’t dry out.

9) Lap blankets – the more the merrier.  I sometimes have so many on my legs on the sofa that I can barely move (just like as a child in bed with all those blankets.)

10) I hate to push a brand – but – Smart Wool Socks.  Yes,  I love them.

11) Comparisons – slip on your shoes and do a quick lap around the outside of the house.  I guarantee the inside will fill much warmer.

12) Red hots candies – they may not work, but then you still have red hots candies.  Sympathetic magic.

Weekly heroes: Double down and plant it edition

How do you help a devastated neighborhood recover from blight?  In New Orleans, Growing Home from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has a Good Idea (capitalized just like Winnie the Pooh would).

Image from Growing Home

Hurricane Katrina left many homes destroyed and neighborhoods with dwindling populations facing a scattered pile of overgrown vacant lots.  Growing Home gives homeowners a grant for $10,000 off the price of the lot next door as long as they agree to improve it and plant a garden.  Everybody wins.  The homeowner has a double lot and a higher property value, the community has a lovely garden instead of blight, the city increases tax revenues.

Image from Growing Home

New landowners can grow how they want to: some plant vegetable gardens, some flowers, some create play spaces for children in the neighborhood, and some even open up as community gardens.  Improvements encouraged by the organization include native trees, lot water meters, rain barrels, compost piles, and fences.

Image from Growing Home

If this sounds good, Growing Home has a page full of resources not only for participants in their program, but also those who want to start up programs in other cities.

Eco-modding: the car of tomorrow tomorrow (literally)

I remember when I first heard about car modification.  I was watching the movie Clerks, and heard the customer ask about Mini Trucker Magazine.  I was boggled, what was a mini-truck anyway?  It turns out, there is a wide world of people who love their cars, and people who can improve their cars one piece at a time.

Today, a group of men and women have updated the whole concept with a sustainability twist in Ecomodding.  Ecomodders tinker with and change their cars with an eye for fuel economy instead of speed.

Ecomodders are known for starting with small cars – think Toyota Camry or Geo Metro. The process normally starts with some improvements to aerodynamics, then perhaps a conversion to run on plug-in electricity along with gas.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Perhaps a home ethanol still.

The best thing about it is that anyone with a little bit of either experience or brains can start this hobby with a handful of tools, so owning a sustainable car is not limited to those who can afford the price tag on a new Prius.

I’ve got a 10 year old Ford Escort.  It does well on gas, but I’m certain I could do better.   And I don’t mind (at all) it looking like an art-car.  I wonder where is a good place to start?

1975 Honda Civic met the 1975 U.S. Clean Air Act standards without a catalytic converter and it got 40 mpg.

Trading off my TV

We unplugged our TV a couple of years ago.  I wish I could say it was because of some mighty and noble reason, but really I just hated the cable company (Comcast is evil).  Since then I’ve been happier without the TV, but I have moments like today when I really want to turn something on just to watch.  I need some justification.

So – here goes – why it’s best to go without a TV – one item at a time.

1) Pro Wrestling – Go watch this at a bar.  First, your watching it with a crowd cheering things on – much more fun.  Second, the types of bars that put wrestling on the screen have the most interesting types of people in them.  (The first goes for most other sports, the second may just be wrestling.)

2) The Daily Show and Colbert Report are on line anyway, at any time I want to see them, with fewer commercials.

3) News – I really don’t miss CNN or Fox.  I especially don’t miss the coverage of Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, and whatever woman just killed her baby.  Checking the news online lets me avoid those.

4) Soaps aren’t even on anymore.

5) Reality TV – none of us really ever needed to watch that in the first place.  The only ones I miss are Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe – and I can get those at the library.

6) MTV and VH-1 don’t play music videos anymore, you can only get those online unless they are top-10 pop videos.

Places to go for TV:

1) Sports – bars

2) News – Dairy Queen, Super Gyros or any restaurant of that caliber.  It’s likely Fox or Headline News covering how a dingo ate someone’s baby.

3) HGTV– my doctor’s office.  They’ll never notice if someone is hanging out for an extra hour to learn about drywall.

4) Big events – Oscars, Superbowl – Someone is going to have a party and if not, cook food and take it over to a friends house, announcing that they are having the party.

5) Cat-sit (or dog-sit) for friends – they have TV.

Things I still miss:

Univision’s Sabado Gigante (sigh)

Needs and wants

In my next class, we are reading about the interaction between consumerism and energy use.   The first step is asking how do wants expand into needs?  In the developed world (and especially in America) we consume piles of stuff and explain most if it in terms of our needs.

Economist Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. developed a list of basic needs for humans where ever they may be.  These needs are more complex, and more complexly specified than the more familial Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These needs are non-hierarchical and operate more as an interactive system.

Subsistence – Creation, health, food, shelter skills, work feedback

Protection – security, society

Affection – friendship, family, love

Understanding – curiosity, education

Participation – responsibilities, interaction, community

Leisure – play, fantasy, intimacy, privacy

Creation – skills, work, feedback

Identity – belonging, groups, recognition

Freedom – autonomy, rights, dissent

As humans, we are complex beings, and it only makes sense that our needs are complex.  However, these needs are not tied to consumption of goods.  And, no matter how much we wish it were so, we cannot purchase that many of them.

How are these achievable?  Through community, spirituality, family.  Through developing a rich inner life, and that is one of the hardest things to do.  These needed become a means as well as an end.  Through belonging to a group, I gain responsibilities and friendship.  Through developing skills, I gain autonomy and recognition.  Focus on any of the higher needs brings about the fulfillment of other needs.

After that, we need to do something even harder – translate these deeply personal needs into something that becomes valued by our greater society.  This chart below (from Wikipedia)  shows multiple way of achieving those needs.  Most do not involve things.  Those that do are not necessarily ownable things.  More importantly, many of the ways of achieving these needs involve more than one person.  And that is what we need – more than one person and that allows personal beliefs to jump forward and become societal values.

Five tantalizing tales of bizarre recycling

You recycle, I recycle (at least most of the time) and we think  we’re probably both fairly serious about recycling.  No, no we’re not.  We live in a world where they are extreme recyclers – folks who take it one step beyond.

To be honest, most of these are reusing, which is a step above recycling.  Even better.

Bomb Proof Recycling

London has recently installed a series of newspaper recycling bins that are capable of containing or withstanding a serious bomb blast.  The bins are very expensive, but if they end up making any money, 1% of that will be donated to the World Wildlife Federation

Beer Bottle Temple Builders

A group of Buddhist Monks in Sisaket, Thailand collected very large numbers of bottles to build the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple.  As long as you make sure to wash off the labels, the walls become patterned stained glass windows.

Making paper out of poo

Much pooh contains lots of fiber; paper is made of fiber.  You can make paper out of horse, sheep, moose, panda, donkeys, and more.

My favorite is Mr. Ellie Pooh who makes elephant pooh into paper made into beautiful stationery products.


Freegans believe food should be free: that is a right and should accessible to all.  They also see our society as creating way too much waste.  Freegans set their lifestyle by collecting food and other necessary products from any place they can.  This includes dumpster diving, but can also include field gleaning or anything else in order to recycle perfectly good food.

Art Cars

Have a bunch of stuff and don’t know what to do with it?  Glue it to a car, just make it look pretty.  The art car phenomenon was beautifully unhip before recycling ever was.