As someone who has lived in the city and now lives somewhere fairly rural, I can say with certainty that there are huge benefits to not being in a busy urban center, whether you live in a tiny home or not. Being intrinsically more eco-friendly is not one of them, however.
Sure, I regularly eye up plots of land and muse about building a prefabricated tiny home, cob house, or straw bale A-frame house. And maybe I will someday. But, for most people, downsizing from a sprawling suburban or rural home to a well-placed and well-designed apartment is likely one of the greenest choices you can make for housing.
In the first article in this series, I examined the benefits of tiny homes and prefabricated homes. This time, I’ll take a look at some of the downsides to container homes, tiny homes, and some prefabricated homes.
Shipping container homes
While brightly colored containers might look fantastic when set up as housing and seem like a great way of repurposing big hunks of metal, the reality is that containers are a terrible choice as building materials for a living space. What’s more, many tiny home designs are horribly energy inefficient and a pain to live in, even if they look great.
Consider container homes. These shipping containers are sometimes brand new when they are used to create a home, although many will have been decommissioned as shipping containers. If they are being repurposed, this can make using them as the shell of a home seem like a good plan. In reality, the containers may be contaminated with residue from toxic chemicals and even if that’s not the case, the scrap metal is much better off being recycled for use in products that require metal, rather than in a home design that would be better served by wood or other materials.
Why is a big metal box not the best material for a home? Well, for one, metal is a very effective conductor of heat. This means that containers are terrible for keeping cool in summer or warm in winter. To make them livable in most climates, you’d need to essentially build around the container, packing in insulation on all sides to prevent heat escaping and to keep heat out on hot summer days. This will dramatically reduce the living space and take more materials and ingenuity than just building an apartment from scratch with more suitable materials. Indeed, if you live in a climate with temperature extremes and low humidity, you may want to opt for an earth-sheltered home instead.
All in all, shipping containers are a poor choice for prefabricated housing. However, if they are donated, decontaminated, and serve a symbolic purpose while providing houses for those in need, they are certainly worthy of attention.
So, what about other types of tiny homes, including the more ‘traditional’ steep pitch cathedral roof design?
On the face of it you’d think that a home designed to have a smaller footprint and that appeals to a certain kind of demographic that tends to be environmentally conscious would be inherently eco-friendly. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
First, tiny homes are basically mobile microapartments on wheels, meaning that they may well be treated as vehicles rather than actual buildings in some jurisdictions. The result of this is that they can’t be ‘parked’ in some places for more than 24 hours. So, a tiny home owner would also need some way to relocate the home, and this would likely be a giant gas-guzzling truck and trailer. Add to this the terrible aerodynamics of most tiny home designs and it’s worth thinking about whether an RV, which is designed for this exact purpose, may be the real tiny home of choice for a nomadic lifestyle.
Now, assuming that you do have somewhere at least semi-permanent to park your tiny home, consider that the home will still probably sit off the ground on wheels and that it shares no common walls or other edges with other buildings. This means that the tiny home occupant gets no benefit from passive heating and cooling as would happen in a condominium, row house, townhouse, duplex, or other multi-family dwelling. And, as every side is exposed to the elements, rather than just one side as with many apartments, the heat loss and upkeep of a tiny home is also higher.
If you do decide to build a tiny home and have somewhere more permanent to set it down, consider using a slab on grade foundation rather than wheels and build sideways instead of up. This will help maximize interior space while minimizing exterior walls and exposure to the elements. It will also improve the longevity of your home and its attractiveness to potential buyers should you need to sell.
This is one thing that isn’t often talked about in regard to tiny homes and other bespoke prefabricated home designs. Less conventional homes are much harder to sell, but you’re more likely to need to sell a tiny home as you age. That loft sleeping area may seem ideal in your thirties or forties but climbing a ladder up to bed isn’t exactly ideal if you develop mobility issues, including in your more senior years. And, if you do need to sell, your pool of potential buyers is much smaller than for a standard family home or apartment, meaning you may have to take a financial hit if you need to move quickly.
Because tiny homes are designed to balance living space with mobility, they are usually no more than around 8.5 feet wide (so they can fit on a trailer) and have a steep sloping roof. This doesn’t give a lot of room for insulation, especially up top, so either tiny homes are costly to heat or they rely on distinctly problematic blown polyethylene foam insulation. Pretty soon, the tiny home design starts to look like a nightmare for greenhouse gas emissions.
Eco-friendly insulation alternatives do exist that work well in tiny homes, such as Roxul mineral wool, a recycled stone dust insulation. This material tends to have at least an R48 insulation rating, which is around twice as much as is found in most tiny home designs. For most places in Canada, an energy efficient home requires insulation with an R32 rating.
Tiny homes are also classified in most places as mobile homes, meaning that they do not have to meet the strict building code requirements of a standard home. This could mean that your heating costs are much higher and that various other things, including safety features, are absent.
Single family vs. multifamily dwellings
There are other downsides to building a tiny home, such as having sole responsibility for utility hook-ups and other infrastructure, such as septic, wells, and even some appliances. And, given the tiny nature of your tiny home, you may need to track down non-standard smaller sized appliances to fit the space, which can cost more than standard sized appliances and may not be as energy efficient.
In contrast, living in a tiny home stacked beside and/or on top of another tiny home, i.e. an apartment in a condominium, allows you to take advantage of the economics of cost-sharing for all kinds of amenities, including laundry, heating, ventilation, water, sewage, recycling, garbage disposal, and storage. The economy of scale also comes into play for the materials used to construct your home in the first place.
Low-rise and high-rise buildings also create opportunities for community-based support. By this I mean things like babysitting, pet-sitting, elder care, tool-sharing, and just general day to day activities. A sharing economy can help reduce the amount of ‘stuff’ we each need individually and the amount of driving we do to access amenities when we live out in the sticks.
The most eco-friendly living space is one that is no bigger than you actually need to feel comfortable and that is close to public transit hubs, your workplace, friends and family. A good example of this is the laneway house movement in Vancouver, BC. These houses are, in essence, stationary tiny homes built to strict building codes. They encourage housing density in a manageable way that is attractive to a wide range of people and prefabricated laneway houses can be cost-effective, energy-efficient, and eco-friendly.
Next in this series of articles, I’ll dig into the environmental impact of conventional construction compared to the materials, waste, and energy involved in building prefabricated homes. I’ll also look at how to build an eco-friendly prefabricated tiny home. And, finally, I’ll offer a round-up of some of the best eco-friendly prefabricated homes, tiny and otherwise, in North America today.
- The environmental impact of conventional construction versus prefabricated homes
- How to build an eco-friendly prefabricated home
- Eco-friendly home design
- Living off-grid – is it really eco-friendly?
- Eco-friendly insulation.
- The best eco-friendly prefabricated homes.