THE SMALL HOUSE CATALOG, PT. 2

We're back with Part 2 of our interview about small house living with The small House Catalog founders, Jamie Purnell and Shawn Dehner. (In case you missed Part 1, be sure to check it out here.) Today, they're filling us in on energy-efficient living, sustainable resources, and what it's like to actually live in a tiny (or small) home! 

Q. ASIDE FROM THE SMALLER FOOTPRINT OF YOUR HOMES, DO YOU INCLUDE ENERGY-EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGIES OR PROCESSES (SOLAR PANELS, COMPOSTING TOILETS, RAIN-WATER COLLECTION SYSTEMS) ETC.? ANY TIPS FOR HOMEOWNERS WHO WANT TO LIVE A SMALLER, GREENER LIFE IN THEIR CURRENT HOUSES?

A. This question kind of relates to the previous one, in many ways. Considering appliance needs carefully is important. Some are energy hogs while others are quite surprising in how energy light they are. Some of these appliances are smartly engineered and do the conserving for us through their design. Induction cooktops are a good example of a new technology that uses less energy to do it’s work. The conservation is built in.

Solar panels may or may not be a good option for people depending on a lot of things. We are seriously considering installing them on our current project, but as a grid tie. We do not have space for all the batteries and I have concerns about both the environmental legacy of their production and what happens to them after they are no longer functioning. I love the idea that we could be feeding the grid and actually just using our roof as a way to contribute clean energy to the system. And talk about using space wisely! I do think solar has to be looked at on a case by case basis.

Again, though, conservation is probably the single most overlooked way that all of us can live greener and make a huge impact. It’s not as fashionable to talk about, I think, because we aren’t buying or installing anything, but the effects of widespread conservation are documented. Composting toilets, rain water collection and gray water usage are things that may be more or less available to people depending on codes where they live.

There are really so many different approaches to energy-efficiency. We're much more into conservation than buying the latest technological appliance to help reduce energy usage. But building well from the start, from the ground up, is an important step.

Q. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SUSTAINABLE RESOURCES AND HOW YOU USE THEM IN YOUR HOUSES? HOW CAN OTHERS INCORPORATE THEM IN THEIR HOMES TOO?

A. Having built a few houses at this point, I think one of the single biggest things I’ve learned is that they are HUGE investments of energy, materials, etc. So many little things go into building a house. Every fixture, length of pipe, wire, etc!  There is so much more going on in our houses than meets the idea…behind the drywall or plaster is a whole other world. The biggest area that is most easily achievable for most people is to take good care of the homes we have.

Sustainability is most easily incorporated by opting out to the very best of your ability of the quick cosmetic fix and resale mentality. If you add on to your home, use the best materials you can. Make sure you build in a way that prevents water from damaging things. Take good care every step of the way. Maintain things. If you can use materials that are best suited for your location (in terms of climate, etc), you are making an excellent step. We personally have tried always to use solid wood in our construction. We avoid particle boards, chip boards, etc. Some people might really like these products as they are certainly recycled. People should think about that. Some materials are better than others in terms of application, longevity, etc. There’s usually (always?!) a cost associated with that but if you can make the better purchase, you will often get back by having a better, safer product. Building a lot of our own materials allows us to use locally harvested and milled wood, and even some salvaged goods, more often.

When we build for sustainability, we are most looking into building the very highest quality building we can. For houses that we’ve sold, this has meant that the buyers love the houses and want to take good care of them. They feel like they have something beautiful they want to keep in existence. How many times have we seen neat old bungalows or other great looking houses being taken care of and remodeled so incredibly even 100 years later…people are willing to take good care of them and invest in their retrieval and maintenance because they have good bones and are worth taking care of. All of us can contribute to this by living in something we love and loving it by taking care of it. That love is the essence of sustainability in my opinion because if you don’t care or like something, you are unlikely to take care of it and give it a chance to be sustained over time! The most important steps in green construction are to build things that CAN last generations and to build things people will be willing to make last for generations. We want our houses to have these qualities!

Q. ALSO, WHAT IS IT LIKE TO ACTUALLY LIVE IN A SMALLER HOME?! I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SCARED TO MAKE THE TRANSITION OR ARE SO ATTACHED TO THE IDEA THAT THEY NEED EXCESS SPACE TO BE COMFORTABLE. WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND TO BE THE BENEFITS OF LIVING “RIGHT-SIZED”? WHAT ABOUT THE CHALLENGES?

A. Living in a smaller home is a conscious act. Like our spending expanding the more money we have on hand, we adapt to the different sized spaces we live in as well. You don’t have to be a zen ascetic to live successfully in a small space. I am sometimes alarmed when people talk about wanting to get rid of everything they own and move into a 200 sq. foot building. There’s no particular virtue in smaller size if we aren’t cognizant of our own needs first. However, that being said, for most people, having a 2500 square foot home is something of a burden. The larger space won’t necessarily make your life better. Taxes, heating, maintenance, etc. all cost money and will be higher for larger homes. That’s a stress for a lot of people, though certainly not all. I find that the easiest way to address the idea of right sizing is to consider whether the extra space is actually useful to your situation. This is a case where you really need to honestly appraise your true needs. Are you a big entertainer?  Do you have a lot of guests coming regularly?  Do you have kids, many kids, are they visiting often with their own families?  How much space do you need to live the way you do? 

There are so many solutions out there. I would say that our preconceived notions are the single biggest challenge that all of us will face when it comes to right sizing for ourselves. Here’s where we really need to ruthlessly think only of our own situation and needs, and the long term viability of those things. A small home will never have all of the space that a large home has. If you have a grand piano and three kids and work from home and love to entertain multiple times a month, it might literally be asking too much of a 700 square foot space. However, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of all these needs and can typically live very comfortably in a not too huge space. Compromise is a part of living and living within your space needs is much like living within your financial means.

I like things to be within reach and I don’t really like to have a ton of things weighing me down. Having three bathrooms just seems like a headache to me, simple. I love the romance of under stair closets and built ins, sloped ceilings and nooks. So small spaces work well for me. I like space in my kitchen, but also like it cozy enough that things are within reach for more ergonomic cooking, etc. You can definitely have too much space, even in smaller homes. Modern design, too, is ideal for small spaces, actually. Built ins can be modern or classic and offer the same benefits. 

Thank you so much, Shawn and Jamie! For more information on this inspiring company and their mission, visit The small House Catalog