Energy efficiency is a top priority for the diminutive dwellings being built by Cass Community Social Services for cash-strapped college students, young adults who have aged out of the foster care system, senior citizens and homeless people.
Nine inches of fiberglass insulation and vinyl windows by Genex Window and Door Co., which is based in the Detroit suburb of Warren, are two of the building products selected to keep utility bills at a minimum for the rent-to-own residents of the 250- to 400-square foot houses.
“It’s not only a small space but a green space,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of the agency and pastor of Cass Community United Methodist Church, as she stood inside a 300-square foot Tudor-style tiny house. “I’m told the electric and heating bills for the first house, in the middle of February, when it’s cold in Michigan, should be $32 because we have 9 inches of insulation and very energy efficient windows.”
The tiny house trend started as a way of living simple. Proponents extol the advantages of a minimalist lifestyle. They own fewer things, have less clutter. They reduce their energy consumption. They pay fewer bills. They spend less time on house work. They also can travel if their tiny house is on wheels — but that’s not the case with the Detroit homes, which are on foundations.
“Our people don’t own cars and we want to help repopulate a neighborhood,” Fowler said.
In the last couple years, the appeal of living small has broadened from do-it-yourselfers to low-income housing advocates to the general public. Now it could be on the verge of nationwide acceptance. On Dec. 6, the International Code Council approved an appendix to the 2018 International Residential Code, which sets minimum requirements for habitable structures. The appendix can be the model U.S. code for tiny houses used as primary residences…
The average size U.S. house has grown to 2,687 square feet, and 31 percent of newly constructed homes are at least 3,000 square feet, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. With residential and commercial buildings accounting for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and 12 percent of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, building size and materials matter.
“That’s why I’m involved with tiny houses,” said Robert Reed, past president of the American Tiny House Association, which represents the needs and values of the tiny house community.
“I see this ultimately as a sustainability issue. If you have a smaller footprint, the amount of carbon needed to keep your existence can be reduced if you do it well.”
Plastic products like insulation, foam board, foam spray — which will be used on future Detroit tiny houses — windows and doors help create a solid building envelope, he added.
“Tiny houses pose a unique problem because as you shrink the house, the ratio of volume to envelope changes,” Reed said. “In a tiny house, when you open a door, if you leave that sucker open for even a minute you’re going to completely change the air in the house out. That envelope is very important and you have to do everything you can to be efficient and keep in as much air as possible.”
The Florida-based American Tiny House Association works with local governments on zoning and building code issues that keep small structures — usually those less than 500 square feet — from being a viable, acceptable housing option. The same rules established to keep people safe can constrain innovation and make tiny living illegal. Issues related to pocket neighborhoods, like the one going up in Detroit, backyard cottages, reworking RV parks and collecting property taxes are finding their way onto public meeting agendas everywhere.
“Some empty nesters want to live in a tiny house in their backyard and lease their other house so they can travel,” Reed said, describing the common rally cry as “less stuff, more life.”
The cultural change around employment also is contributing to the popularity of tiny houses.