Tiny Houses, Big Ideas

Environmental Studies Professor Karin Warren and Sara Woodward '16 mix up a batch of cob as Sustainability Coordinator Ludo Lemaitre (center) adds more straw on the tiny house site near the organic garden.

Environmental Studies Professor Karin Warren and Sara Woodward ’16 mix up a batch of cob as Sustainability Coordinator Ludo Lemaitre (center) adds more straw on the tiny house site near the organic garden.

Student research explores new architectural movement

The average size of a typical new American house last year was 2,600 feet. Compare that to the 983-square-foot average in the 1950s.

Scale model of a tiny house design.

Scale model of a tiny house design.

Movie rooms, large kitchens, and other amenities have become part of the culture of the American housing market. However, a new movement that takes downsizing to the extreme has been gaining ground in recent years—and catching the interest of Randolph students.

Hagay Haut ’16 and Sara Woodward ’16 are taking a closer look at tiny houses—homes that range from 100-400 square feet—and hoping to share the benefits with the broader community.

“Tiny houses themselves require fewer resources to build, but they also discourage accumulation of material possessions,” Woodward said. “I am tired of seeing huge, cookie-cutter mansions spring up with so much space that people feel the need to fill with unnecessary stuff. I would love to see more communities of small, simple homes that utilize space and materials efficiently.”

The tiny house movement is credited as gaining momentum in 1997, when architect Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House. The book details ideas for using space effectively and efficiently. More recently, this alternative housing practice has become popular thanks to television shows about tiny houses on networks like HGTV. Tiny houses come in many shapes and sizes and can be stationary or mobile. The structures use innovative designs to make the most of available space, and many use solar, wind, or other renewable sources for energy.

After completing a semester project for an Energy and Society class, Haut and Woodward were so interested in tiny houses that they decided to expand their research. They worked with Karin Warren, the Herzog Family Chair of Environmental Studies, and Ludovic Lemaitre ’11, Randolph’s sustainability coordinator, on a Summer Research Project aimed at discovering what it would take to build a tiny house in Lynchburg. A local high school student, Spencer Cohen, also joined the summer team. The Randolph students created a design for a house that was less than 200 square feet. They then investigated different building methods and materials, finally deciding on natural building materials like cob—a hardened mixture of clay and straw—in place of traditional brick and cement.

A big part of their research involved figuring out what steps were needed to build a tiny house in the city. Though the concept and the construction process seemed simple enough, getting their plans approved to meet Lynchburg building codes ideas proved to be a challenge. For instance, the city’s code does not yet have specific guidelines for the straw bale method of construction, which means extra steps would have to be taken for documentation and approval.

“That was the biggest surprise for me,” said Haut. “I thought our work would be a lot more focused on the house itself. And we did get to focus on it quite a bit, but there were a lot of other steps involved that we didn’t expect.”

Students work to make a test structure out of cob.

Students work to make a test structure out of cob.

Lemaitre and other alumni were some of the project’s biggest supporters. Adam Eller ’13, an environmental specialist for the Department of Environmental Quality, helped Haut and Woodward take soil samples and create straw bale and cob.

The students hope their project allows them to educate the broader community about this alternative housing movement. In October, the duo presented their findings at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference in Minneapolis, and at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference for Undergraduate Scholarship, hosted by Randolph. Haut is also completing a special internship as a “tiny house developer” for the College this semester.

They are continuing their research and hoping to generate even more interest in the tiny houses among the student body and community.

“Obviously I am attracted to the potential for simplicity with tiny houses, but I think their biggest advantage is financial,” Woodward said. “A tiny house would cost a fraction of the price of a larger home, both because it requires fewer resources to build and because it provides a better opportunity to use low-cost, local and natural materials.”

The group also hopes their work will help the City of Lynchburg learn more about the possibilities this type of architecture could offer the region.

“While this type of construction material and building size might not fit everyone’s lifestyle, it should be of help to citizens who are interested in tiny houses, and we might be able to help speed the process of building straw bale or other kinds of tiny houses in the city,” Lemaitre said.

Warren described the Summer Research project as one of the most collaborative and hands-on she has supervised. “I think this project exemplifies the things that we try to do really well at Randolph,” Warren said. “It provided unique research and outreach opportunities, and I love the fact that the community is excited about it. Plus, it was fun.”