In Search of a Small But Functional (Solar) Home

This past Sunday I, along with other Worldwatch colleagues, paid a visit to the National Mall to examine the 20 houses entered in the 2009 Solar Decathlon.

2009 Solar Decathlon

2009 Solar Decathlon

I was extra excited as the author of The Not So Big House, Sarah Susanka, was one of the judges. This suggested to me that this year’s contest would focus not just on cutting edge solar technologies, but on creating functional small homes. Unfortunately, I seem to have been mistaken.

Just as solar providers tell you to first weatherize your house so that you can buy a smaller solar power system, even more important is retraining ourselves to live in smaller spaces, and be happy doing it. But the student designers have not internalized that sentiment (or can only think in student terms), so the majority of houses looked like dorm rooms or studio apartments: one giant room with a bed that folds down from the wall, or in one case, actually descends from the ceiling on cables!

The bed in the back is suspended by cables and descends from the ceiling.

The bed in the background is suspended by cables and descends from the ceiling. (Really.)

While having a 15 x 30 ft room is great for entertaining guests at dinner, it’s probably not the best design for a couple or a family of three. Some even openly stated that this is for 2-people only, like the Iowa State University entry, which described its design as for elderly couples that want to build a little house to “age in place” in their community. And the University of Puerto Rico walked around the whole size thing by saying that this was the main unit and as families or incomes grow, the occupants could add additional units, like the garage unit (really), or the bedroom unit. So I guess 800 square feet (the maximum size allowed) is just not a size people can see as functional with more than a couple. Yet with a population of 6.8 billion and rising and increasingly constrained ecological systems, we need to reassess what we really need—which I optimistically (or perhaps naïvely) thought the Decathlon participants might get. But they didn’t.

After touring many of the houses (there were unfortunately too many to see in one day’s visit) I’m still wondering: why couldn’t the designers—with the 800 square feet they were allotted—make the equivalent of a 1-bedroom or even 2-bedroom house? This is certainly feasible (I live in a 600 sq ft 1-bedroom apartment with a lot of space that, due to poor design, is underutilized). And with their creativity, they could have easily achieved this. For example, one house had a bunk bed that allowed for an office space underneath. Perfect for a small 8 x 10 ft kid’s room, for example.

SolarDecathalon 049

A Multi-functional Sleeping and Workspace (Cornell)

Then add a small bedroom for a couple and a kitchen/dining/living area and you’ve got yourself a functional small home. Even without solar, the ecological footprint of an 800 sq ft home for a family of three would be pretty good. Then add solar, a composting toilet system (or even a biogas generator), maybe a solar oven, and a few other bells and whistles and you’ve got yourself a home that Earth would be proud of. And if you have a second kid, well, convert the desk space into a second bunk bed.

The closest I saw to this was Cornell’s entry, which merged three silos into something like a Venn diagram. Yes, very ugly on the outside, nicely accentuated by the rust, but at least it had three functional rooms: a kitchen, a living area and a bedroom. So it can be done. (And if you don’t make your house out of silos, it can probably even look good and feel more spacious—the open kitchen/dining/living area is a good way to go for small spaces).

Cornell's Dual Purpose House and Grainary

Cornell's Dual Purpose House and Granary

What is sad though, is that this one example of divided rooms received 16th place for architecture. Sarah: should everyone really live in one big room?

Perhaps one failure of the designers came from how the very living room has evolved over the past 60 years or so. At the center of every living room what was it that I saw? Could it be? Yes, it was…the television!

I recognize that this is a reality in most homes today, but if you can have your bed descend from the ceiling, why not a hidden television and a couch that easily rotates and slides so that when TV is on the evening agenda (though perhaps not every evening), you can shift the room for that? (And while you’re probably thinking, that’s too much work, Iowa State had their old couple having to lift up their bed to store it in the wall each day. Poor Grandma!)

Why is the TV and Not the Family the Center of the Family Room?

Why is the TV, and Not the Family, the Center of the Family Room?

So, after all that bile, you’re probably not going to be surprised with my conclusion: we need to shift cultural norms around home sizes, and even what appliances are standard. If Decathlon participants had skipped the dishwasher, they could have freed up several more feet in the kitchen for example. And if they had skipped the TV…well, perhaps that’s too revolutionary to consider. Hopefully, next year’s Solar Decathlon won’t reinforce stereotypes that 800 sq ft homes are meant only for old people and young professionals pre-family, but that this size home can be quite comfortable even for a family of three, or, dare I say, four.

And readers, if any of you were involved with the Decathlon or visited, please pass this post along. I am throwing down the gauntlet: this is officially a challenge to the participants of the next Decathlon to design a 2-bedroom solar home with just 800 square feet to work with.

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