The Need for Tiny Homes and 15-Minute Cities

Published on 1 January 2022

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

The billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk, has moved into a 375 square-feet (or 34 square-meter) prefabricated tiny home that costs 50,000 US dollars!  It is an energy-efficient studio apartment consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room, with all modern amenities.  Why would such a wealthy man dispose of his mansions and invest in a tiny home? Probably it is a training to live in a confined space for the Mars Program to colonize the red planet.  Or he is making a lifestyle adjustment to address climate change with energy-efficient living, as sustainable energy use is vital for global development.  Who knows!

But what stops the rest of us who are planning to stay back on earth from transitioning to energy-efficient living?

Climate change is here and climate disasters are everywhere.  The scientists state that humans consume natural resources and produce wastes at such an unprecedented level that we need 1.75 Earths to sustain the current population of 7.8 billion.  According to scientists, the earth’s maximum carrying capacity is 9 billion people.  What would then happen in 2050, when the population grows to an estimated 9.5 billion?

There is a mass movement of the people to the cities, as they seek better living prospects.  A city with a population of 10 million or more is termed as a megacity.  As megacities rise rapidly, it becomes difficult to provide basic amenities, sanitation, water, shelter, nutrition, security and employment to all.  Inadequate housing and unsanitary crowded living spaces lead to many deadly conditions and infectious disease outbreaks.

Following an unprecedented drop of 5.4 percent in 2020, the global carbon dioxide emissions are bouncing back to pre-COVID levels, and concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere continue to rise, according to the Emissions Gap Report 2021, released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  Durable housing plays a crucial role in sustainable energy transition and climate-friendly housing is the need of the hour.

North America

In the colder regions, heating is responsible for most household energy use.  A vast majority of homes, heated and powered by fossil fuels, are responsible for energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.  According to a study, people forgo food and medicine to pay energy bills in low-income neighborhoods.  Still natural gas, oil and even coal are used in many home furnaces.  Most houses in the US and Canada are energy vampires and use twice as much energy as those in Europe.

According to a study, residential energy use in the US accounts for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.   Rich Americans owning large homes have a nearly 25 percent per capita carbon footprint than poor people in a low-income neighborhood.  To tackle climate change, it is necessary to decarbonize the grid and electrify homes.  The median size of a new home in the US today is 2300 square-feet (or 213 square-meter).  Currently, space has become a luxury and more homes are being packed into smaller spaces.  Paris climate change goals can only be achieved by zero-emission energy solutions and behavioral changes in the housing sector.  As people become more affluent, they move to bigger homes and this in turn increases the GHG emissions. Multiple generations living under one roof is more efficient than having the extended families live in large individual homes.

Photo by Vivint Solar on Unsplash

The use of renewables to source electricity is the best way to accelerate the energy transition.  There is a need to build better homes that are energy-efficient, paying attention to home sealing to conserve energy and insulate sufficiently.  Since people are becoming more aware of the solar energy use in fighting climate change, they are warming up to the idea.  Also, the rapidly falling prices of solar panels are an added advantage.  Over 2.8 million U.S. households have already gone solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

United Kingdom

Dr. Brenda Boardman of Environmental Change Institute, Oxford was responsible for the introduction of the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) for homes in the UK, but it was only adopted by 2 percent of the British homeowners.  The UK government has gone ahead and enforced the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) mandatory for the private domestic properties when rented or sold.  She states in an interview in the Life Scientific podcast, hosted by Professor Jim Al-Khalili that it is very easy for most people to use a piece of technology that is energy efficient than making lifestyle adjustments to reduce their carbon footprint and save the environment.  For instance, people will always prefer to buy a larger fridge and freezer than a smaller one using less energy, when they can afford it.  Flying less and eating less meat will reduce greenhouse gas emissions too. The better-off people adopting energy-efficient living and cutting back on non-essential spending will not only help the planet but also the future generations and the disadvantaged of today.  When the rainbow-colored energy-efficiency labels with A-G ratings for fridges, freezers, TVs, dishwashers, and washing machines were introduced, it was a roaring success.  The electricity consumption has decreased and it is no longer possible to buy energy-inefficient home appliances or incandescent light bulbs in the UK. Manufacturers are heavily incentivized to design and produce mandatory minimum standard energy-efficient home appliances.

According to Dr. Boardman, the energy expenditure on lighting has come down from 720 kilowatt hours a year per household to around 400 kilowatts, although very few houses are 100 percent LED.  The renewable electricity gained by using LED lighting at home can be used to power the owner’s electric car.  A huge technological innovation has led to incandescent lights being completely replaced the energy-efficient LED lighting.  Similarly, she states that innovations are urgently needed to make refrigerators like a thermos flask with a vacuum, as it is the best insulator.

India

In India, homes are traditionally designed and built to be in harmony with nature.  Recycling, reusing and being frugal are part and parcel of Indian living from age immemorial.  But rapid urbanization and soaring costs of land and building materials are making housing unaffordable for the low-income.  Palatial homes and apartment buildings are bordered by slums in cities and mud huts with thatched roofs in far-flung villages.

The Indian government is keen to create green buildings and net-zero energy homes that are affordable and accessible to all.  The preference is growing for solar energy harnessing, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, waste and water recycling, and rainwater harvesting.  There is an increasing demand for energy conservation through traditional ancient methods as well as the use of modern green technology.

Affordable housing in the cities is an area of 60 square-meter per dwelling, and in the non-cities, it is 90 square-meter.  It is designed to promote a reduction in energy and water consumption, better sanitation, sufficient ventilation and availability of natural light, all of which are connected to overall well-being.

If India has targeted to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2070 and the most urbanized state of Tamil Nadu in India is targeting to achieve it by 2050.   Compared to most other states in India, the people in the state of Tamil Nadu have relatively higher incomes and higher per capita consumption.  The waste generation is also enormous.  Renewable energy sources account for 30 percent of the power generated.  The state also has a forest cover of 38 percent.  CNG vehicles and e-buses are promoted heavily, as transport in the state and also at a global scale, is the biggest guzzler of fossil fuel.  Auroville is an experimental township situated on the border of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.  It is thriving for more than 50 years where people from all over the world work in harmony for the collective good, adhering to energy-efficient and self-sufficient living.

Africa

In Africa, nearly 40,000 people move to the cities.  Housing all of them is a problem.  Nearly 160 affordable homes are needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone.  The solution is to 3D-print homes, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).  In the scorching summers with heatwaves, homes if not built well can become unlivable.  Air-conditioners are energy-guzzlers.

Tiny Home Revolution

Photo by Sarah Trummer on Pexels.com

The demand for affordable homes is surging and no one can build one so fast.  Homes can have a huge impact on energy use.    Places with intense heat need efficient cooling systems and places with biting cold need an ideal thermostat.  Tiny homes are becoming a viable alternative to a classic family home or apartment, as the fury of floods and fires burn down and inundate homes and roads.  A 270 square-foot (or 25 square-meter) home with a bathroom, good ventilation and access to sunlight is suitable for hot regions, while in the cold regions, tiny homes should be made with foam insulation and laminated paneling.

Tiny homes made of steel and concrete can withstand hurricanes, floods, snowstorms and other natural disasters, according to tiny home builders.  Small houses can be quickly replaced. They can be easily folded and shipped anywhere on a pickup truck, rail and even overseas.  Tiny homes can also be stacked to create larger buildings.  Such factory-built and 3D-printed homes are becoming trendy, cool and popular.  Once the process of building is automated and standardized, a home can be produced in 90 minutes compared to a single-family home that can take around seven months to build according to experts.

There is a triple threat of homelessness, unaffordable housing and climate change.  Energy-efficient homes that are beautiful and affordable for all can be made possible by tiny homes.  A study by the University of Cambridge has found that accommodating the homeless in modular mini-homes (25 square-meter) made from factory-built components enable health, happiness, wellbeing and restore their finances.  A mini-mod home with a tiny kitchen, bathroom and a front porch, costing 36,000 pounds, can be assembled like a Lego.  

The 15-minute city

Professor Carlos Moreno of Sorbonne University in Paris, put forth the concept of “la ville du quart d’heure” or the 15-minute city.  It means that daily urban necessities should be within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike, be it work, home, shops, entertainment, education and healthcare.  This idea is based on research into how city dwellers’ use of time could be reorganized to improve both living conditions and the environment.  With technology enabling the work-from-home option, it has become a relief to do away with the wasteful commute to the office.  The inefficient modern living centered around motor vehicles should give way to pedestrian and cycle-friendly cities.  The Australian city of Melbourne has a 20-minute principle, which enables people to meet their needs within a 20-minute walk or cycle.

Universal access to energy

Energy access is key to poverty alleviation and improving gender equity in society.  Poor people have no access to energy like electricity.  Rich countries consume more energy per capita than poorer countries.  It is a big challenge to reduce poverty and increase economic prosperity.  Some countries enjoy energy affluence, while some struggle to achieve universal access. The energy delivered through the grid is less expensive than using batteries to power appliances.  Poor people cannot upgrade vehicles and appliances as often as rich people do.  The poorer communities everywhere suffer due to a lack of energy than their richer counterparts.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, the poor could not stay at home and work on their computers remotely and had to go out to earn a livelihood.  They had more power outages and poor access to life-saving services.

Photo by Pawel Nolbert on Unsplash

A mass exodus of people to the cities is due to the common notion that only by shifting locations, there is success and advancement in life.  The ones who stay back in one place are thought to be stuck, leading unfulfilling lives.  Climate change and COVID-19 have now shaken these long-held beliefs.  Densely populated cities suffer when faced with ever-increasing natural disasters.  When homes in such overcrowded cities are not thermoregulated efficiently, they create heat pockets and collectively change the climate of the city, which in turn impacts the health, energy security and behavior of the community.

Unless the wealthy nations, especially the United States, which is the largest planet-warming emitter in historical terms, do not reduce its fossil fuel use, it will be difficult to persuade other countries to cut back to avoid crossing the dangerous temperature threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

There is an urgent need to create a more decarbonized living with renewables, and this clean energy should be accessible to all.

Building an energy-efficient home and a city not only requires architects and engineers but also social scientists and anthropologists to better design them holistically.

To attain a sustainable future, the burgeoning population growth has to be addressed alongside the conspicuous consumption with cheerful abandon at an individual level to the collective.  To meet carbon climate goals, housing needs an urgent rethink, as it is a big part of a low-carbon future.

Further Reading

Achieving zero delivering future-friendly buildings

5 ways to make buildings climate change resilient

A good life for all within planetary boundaries

How many people can our world support?

This Norwegian start-up wants to build houses out of 100% recycled plastic

Greenest Building

The housing theory of everything

The 25 guiding principles of building biology

Examining the carbon agenda via the 40% House scenario

Times Evoke – A Better Energy

The IEA wants to make their data available to the public – now it is on governments of the world’s rich countries to make this happen

Everyone deserves a safe, resilient, sustainable home

Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever: “What is the vision that inspires people to want to live here, to work here, to raise their families and children and grandchildren here? What is it that inspires that? It’s not a smart city. It’s a city that’s smart.”

Last updated on 5 July 2022

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