Puzzle Inspired Story

Houses, Large and Small

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, America’s homes have increased 27% in size since the 1990s. The departments’ data show that stock homes built in the US in the 1970s and ‘80s had an average size less than 1,800 square feet, while those built in the 2000s averaged 2,465 square feet. In addition, in the 1970s only 17% of households had ceilings taller than the standard 8ft – a percentage which grew to 52% in the 2000s. Since heating and cooling are the two primary items in a household’s energy budget, this significant increase in size resulted in a similar increase in energy consumption. Yet, the story does not end here. Larger homes tend to have more appliances – say, two refrigerators, two computers, and several TVs. In fact, 50 million of American homes have three or more TVs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The growing awareness of the environmental damage these unfettered indulgences lead to has put pressure on factoring energy efficiency into residential and commercial building design. Considerable savings are at stake as buildings account for 39% of the nation’s energy budget and a similar percentage of greenhouse emissions.

A tiny house movement in the US has acquired some national visibility; it solves the energy problem with a dramatic, almost improbable, reduction in a house’s size. The houses built by some of the adherents are smaller than 200sqft and are placed on trailer platforms (thus avoiding building code restrictions). The movement is driven only in part by concern about the environment; a powerful incentive is a drastic reduction in rent, especially if free parking is available. The trend is further fueled by many people losing their houses in the wake of the financial crisis. Yet it is very revealing and inspiring that lovely cottage-like houses have been designed and built containing the basic necessities within a 8.5ft x 18.5ft x 13.5ft volume – the maximal size allowed to haul on the US roads, depending on the state.

Could there be a solution halfway between these two extremes? The mounting evidence for human-caused climate change forces a re-evaluation of what we need and how we live. The American astronomer Mike Brown who discovered the 10th planet Quaoar (later re-classified controversially as a trans-Neptunian object) lived on a boat for several years while studying at Berkeley, California. Clearly, if one can work around the steadiness of a house’s foundation — a seemingly fundamental requirement — one can do, perhaps, around other "unshakable" principles.



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