Panoramic windows overlooking mountain lakes, galleries stylized in cozy sleeping caves and clever storage space under the stairs: anyone on Instagram is sure to browse photos of tiny homes. But is their ecological footprint really as small as theirs, could tiny homes be the home of the future – and when does a tiny home become a big problem?
Tiny homes tend to be more expensive per square meter than regular homes. This does not make it attractive as an investment. But many tiny home enthusiasts are moving to tiny homes primarily for the sake of sustainability. However, in some cases, this plan may not work, because the small is not the same as the small.
A short life on wheels
There are three types of tiny homes: the mobile home on wheels, the semi-motorable home that can be transported on a private truck, and the classic estate.
It is estimated that tiny homes on wheels can only be used for 30 to 50 years. It depends on how often they are used, the weather conditions they are exposed to, the type of construction, the quality of the building materials used, and how often they are actually driven on a trailer. In a classic home, after 20-30 years, some roof and window work is usually due, because the life of mobile tiny homes sometimes ends.
However, this is not only a problem if the tiny house is to become a retirement home – but also for our environment. After all, a shorter service life is usually associated with a larger CO2 footprint.
What do you do with waste water?
Tiny homes have long found a home in the USA. The reason they are not often found in Germany is mainly due to German building code. Because building regulations and complex approval procedures make it difficult for fans of small homes in this country to move into their own tiny home.
Like any other house, a small house must also be developed, i.e. connected to electricity, water, roads and sewage system. Because chic, pristine-wheeled homes are not sustainable. “As a rule, it is not legally possible to place such a house permanently in nature,” explains expert Marvin Knoller. The environmental engineer is the co-founder of a research group on alternative forms of housing.
There is space for the smallest hut
Small houses have an obvious advantage: they are also suitable for small plots. “There are ecologically responsible tiny homes: small forms of living that are used where there is still space but no ordinary home is suitable, for example on fire walls.”
So a small home can hug the exterior wall of an existing home and use the existing home’s power and water lines with some structural measures. “Of course, it would be ideal if several small housing units were stacked on top of each other.” In this way, the limited space in urban areas will be used reasonably and sustainably.
Small extra homes in gaps in cities can also change socially a lot. “For example, parents who want to downsize after the kids have moved home can move into a smaller home, thus providing their larger apartment or home for families with multiple people and greater space requirements,” Knoller says.
In this scenario, a couple could build a small house in their own backyard and leave the big house to their children’s families. This concept can also create new cohesion between people. “Small homes are especially sustainable when they go hand in hand with a sharing and sharing economy,” says Knoller, explaining his research findings. Not every resident of a small house needs their own training. Washing machines and garden tools can simply be shared in small home settlements – this also saves resources.
Minimalism – a concept for special people
Those who choose a tiny home aren’t usually looking for a seemingly good life under an Instagram filter. Moving into a tiny home is often all about wanting a more mindful lifestyle. “You also have to reduce yourself, you have to realize that beforehand,” Knoller says. “Before you go into a little house, you have to put things in order, because you can only take the necessities with you.”
Read more: Minimalism: 3 good ways to get started
Without cleaning, a tiny home quickly becomes overcrowded: on average, everyone in Germany has 10,000 items in their home and spreads them out over an average of 47.4 square meters per person. On the other hand, a small house provides only 10 to 55 square meters of living space, and large houses are usually occupied by several people. There isn’t a lot of space for unused clutter – even if the interior design of small homes often offers very clever storage space. If you want to have more space, more things, or more roommates at some point, you will have to look for a larger living space.
Surface: Small homes are often not energy efficient
Smaller homes have much more surface area to volume ratio than a larger home. “In summer, the roof of a relatively large building is exposed to a lot of heat and heats up accordingly. In winter, the house loses heat more easily vice versa,” Knoller explains one of the drawbacks of small houses. This is why high-quality insulation is key to a sustainable Tiny House.
However, since mobile homes can be only 2.55 meters wide and 3.5 tons in weight, they are often poorly insulated. The wall of a small mobile home is often only 10 cm thick. In terms of energy, a tiny house is closer to luxury camping than to a full house (passive). “Rolling variables are not sustainable for many reasons,” Knoller summarizes.
But even semi-mobile homes can have a problem with insulation: In today’s classic homes, the walls are now designed in such a way that they “breathe” and water vapor can be directed outward through the walls. This is not often possible with small cottages. Many small homes have what are called spreading open walls. This means that water vapor from breathing, cooking or showering in the home can condense on the walls. Accordingly, the walls are prone to mold because the water vapor condenses on the thin walls, which are therefore cold in winter, and cannot escape to the outside.
On the other hand, if small houses are built as real estate like ordinary houses, then more sustainable materials and construction methods can also be used and thus the house can be constructed in a reasonable and efficient manner. “Especially when using photovoltaics and green roofs,” Knoller adds.
Good life in a small house
“You need less building materials for a small house than for a big one,” Knoller says. “However, you can’t say in general whether it’s environmental or not.” Whether the tiny house will be the house of the future depends primarily on three things: where the house is, the type of house and how the residents behave. Anyone who puts their home on a solid foundation and insulates it well, lives in it for a long time and uses energy and resources consciously, can create a piece of sustainability in just a few square metres.
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