Interest is surging in tiny homes – livable dwelling units that typically measure under 400 square feet. Much of this interest is driven by media coverage that claims that living in tiny homes is good for the planet.
It may seem intuitively obvious that downsizing to a tiny home would reduce one’s environmental impact, since it means occupying a much smaller space and consuming fewer resources. But little research has been done to actually measure how people’s environmental behaviors change when they make this drastic move.
For my doctorate in environmental design and planning, I sought to fill this gap in knowledge by developing a study that could provide measurable evidence on how downsizing influences environmental impacts. First I surveyed 80 downsizers who had lived in tiny homes for a year or more, to calculate their ecological footprints in prior housing and current ecological footprints in their tiny houses. Then I conducted nine in-depth interviews to learn about behaviors that changed after downsizing.
I found that among 80 tiny-home downsizers located across the United States, ecological footprints were reduced by about 45 percent on average. Surprisingly, I found that downsizing can influence many parts of one’s lifestyle and reduce impacts on the environment in unexpected ways.
The unsustainable US housing model
In recent decades, the building trend has been to “go big.” Newly constructed homes in the United States generally have a larger average square footage than in any other country in the world.
In 1973 the average newly constructed U.S. home measured 1,660 square feet. By 2017 that average had increased to 2,631 square feet – a 63 percent increase. This growth has harmed the environment in many ways, including loss of green space, increased air pollution and energy consumption, and ecosystem fragmentation, which can reduce biodiversity.
The concept of minimalist living has existed for centuries, but the modern tiny-house movement became a trend only in the early 2000s, when one of the first tiny-home building companies was founded. Tiny homes are an innovative housing approach that can reduce building material waste and excessive consumption. There is no universal definition for a tiny home, but they generally are small, efficient spaces that value quality over quantity.
People choose to downsize to tiny homes for many reasons. They may include living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, simplifying their lives and possessions, becoming more mobile or achieving financial freedom, since tiny homes typically cost significantly less than the average American home.
Many assessments of the tiny-house movement have asserted without quantitative evidence that individuals who downsize to tiny homes will have a significantly lower environmental impact. On the other hand, some reviews hint that tiny-home living may lend itself to unsustainable practices.
Understanding footprint changes after downsizing
This study examined tiny-home downsizers’ environmental impacts by measuring their individual ecological footprints. This metric calculates human demand on nature by providing a measurement of land needed to sustain current consumption behaviors.
To do this, I calculated their spatial footprints in terms of global hectares, considering housing, transportation, food, goods and services. For reference, one global hectare is equivalent to about 2.5 acres, or about the size of a single soccer field.
I found that among 80 tiny-home downsizers located across the United States, the average ecological footprint was 3.87 global hectares, or about 9.5 acres. This means that it would require 9.5 acres to support that person’s lifestyle for one year. Before moving into tiny homes, these respondents’ average footprint was 7.01 global hectares (17.3 acres). For comparison, the average American’s footprint is 8.4 global hectares, or 20.8 acres.