On this blog, I like to showcase individuals who are making a difference in the world. Sigma is a student in the Arizona State University urban planning and sustainability programs.  I have always admired her professionalism, poise, and creativity, so I knew I had to invite her over to the blog. She  is currently working on building a sustainable mobile home with solar panels and composting toilets. It’s amazing! I will let you be the judge, below is her story. 

Housing is a universal need, but how we develop housing is different from country to country and region to region.

In the American context, the whole nation felt the shocks of a recession brought on by the subprime mortgage crisis. Underlying that tangled web of finances, however, was a steady trend towards bigger, shinier, newer.

Since the 1970s, the average house size has increased 700 square feet despite household sizes decreasing- just like adding a four-car garage to your house. Average house price in the U.S. has gone from $162,070 (adjusted for inflation) to $305,900 in 2006.

So we’re making houses bigger and pricier, but not necessarily out of better materials. We’re harming the environment, harming our own indoor air quality, and putting ourselves in serious financial jeopardy by just trying to do the adult thing- get a job, get married, get a place of your own.

The Tinyhouse Movement has its roots in some 80s and 90s architectural articles and books, starting with Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House, espousing a “build better, not bigger” ethic. And since the early 2000s people have been coming up with extremely inventive ways to have their own space, under 1000 square feet- even under 400 square feet (a 2 car garage!). Each of these houses has its own character and features. Some have stoves and wraparound porches. Some are mobile and present an entirely new take on the RV. Some are completely off-the-grid.

I’ve always loved the idea of tinyhouses. They represented independence and individuality. And as a sustainability student interested in urban issues, they are the balancing act of resource efficiency and a happy, healthful lifestyle. Tinyhouses, at 400 square feet, may not be for every American family; people with four to five kids must be sweating at the thought! But for the young adult and young couples just starting out, tinyhouses represent an investment in something that is theirs. It’s security, and peace of mind, and it’s not thousands of dollars in rent lost forever.

Meet Maushaus.

Maushaus is built on a 7.5’ x 16’ trailer. I’m working with an interdisciplinary group of graduate students at Arizona State University to build an efficient living space that is completely solar powered, in under 120 square feet.

Equipped with an 8’ x 7’ loft and eventually an Ikea sofabed in the living room, Maushaus will sleep up to four people. There’s a full 32 x 32” shower, there will be a compostable toilet, and counter space sufficient for a toaster oven, a 19 x 19” stainless steel sink, two electrical stovetop burners and a dorm-sized minifridge.

The windows are dual paned Low-E windows that let in sunlight without the heat. The walls, floors, and roof- instead of traditional wood framed construction –are made out of SIP (structurally insulated panels), which has a crazy high insulation rating. Like, 47! It’s nuts.

We’re hoping to install a Quirky+AROS air conditioner to keep Maushaus cool in the summer. Six 250 watt solar panels from Sun Valley Solar on the roof and five 12v deep cycle batteries mounted underneath will keep the whole house ticking throughout sunny days. If there’s a cloudy spell, it is possible to hook Maushaus up to the grid as a backup, but she’s being designed to be off-the-grid, 24/7.

Maushaus has to carry her own water, this is true. Two portable water tanks will sit on shelves underneath, 45 gallons each; one to provide clean water for showers and the sink, and the other to hold grey water. They’ll have to be filled and emptied every other day, but it’s a great way to be very aware of your water use!

We took on this project because as residents in an urban context- people who have housing, some of us who own, some of us who rent, all of us who think sustainability is important –we wanted a chance to show people what it’s like when you walk the walk. We wanted people to really envision what it would be like to live life with less, and still be happy. Or even happier than they were before!

We’re hoping that after an open house on ASU Tempe Campus May 1st, Maushaus’ construction will be completed over the summer and in the fall she’ll begin her life as a sustainability showcase and educational tool in the Phoenix valley area. We see students climbing inside and being amazed and what fits in a house only slightly larger than a parking space. We want them to tell their parents that when they grow up, they’ll make their own Maushauses (or “micehice” as one of our team member’s son calls them).

And why do we urban planning, sustainability, engineering and environmental science students even bother with this? We do it for the challenge. What can we learn about constructing the barest minimum? What do we learn about how people function in small spaces? How do we incorporate solar into everyday functions? And as students, with our constant writing of papers, what is it like when we get our hands dirty with drywall and sawdust, and put our thoughts and research into action? We don’t just want to study the city. We want to shape it!

I hope you will keep up with our build progress. Many thanks to Lisa-Marie, who has been an amazing supporter of our work (and a buoy of sanity when I think I’m going nuts!)

– Sigma Dolins, ASU MUEP 2014

Photo Credit: Maushaus

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