Moving to a smaller home usually means you’ll be able to reduce your carbon footprint.
Moving to a smaller home usually means that you’ll reduce your carbon footprint with lower energy bills and such, but there’s new research to suggest that people who embrace the less-is-more life make other changes beyond their housing commitments to become more climate-friendly citizens.
Maria Saxton, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech in the United States, wanted to know what happens when people move to “tiny houses” and how that affects their decisions on food, transportation, waste and how much stuff their residents own and use.
Her research is intriguing because super-sized housing continues to be a trend in the U.S., where the median size of a home built in 2017 was about 225 square meters, up from about 142 in 1973. People seeking much smaller homes, often in the urban setting, are headed in another direction.
While most Europeans live in smaller homes – about 96 m2, according to the most recent EU data – there’s a range between the big-house countries like Belgium and Denmark, and smaller sizes in Romania or Latvia.
The “tiny house” definition in Saxton’s study means less than 37m2 and the average size of participant homes was even smaller, at less than 22, as they left their 150m2 homes behind. While that’s extreme by many standards and definitely not for everyone, the experiences offer insight into what it can mean if people downsize to even half of the average size and live more like the Croatians than the Cypriots.
So here’s what Saxton found: Renewable energy, for starters, was more widely used. Some 37 percent of the tiny-house dwellers relied on clean-energy systems compared with just 2 percent who did so in their previous homes. About 85 percent of the tiny homes were designed for maximum efficiency.
The 80 people in her study said they were eating less meat and choosing more locally grown foods, including their own, with less plastic packaging. Their travel footprint was reduced, and their practice of recycling was up about 15 percent. More than half of them said that their purchasing habits were minimal or nonexistent, and most of them said they were generating less trash than their neighbors.
In all, Saxton identified about 100 behaviors that changed when the address did and rated 86 percent of them positive for the environment. Some, like driving to eat out more, could be considered negatives.
She then calculated a spatial footprint expressed in global hectares, each about the size of a soccer field, to understand how much of the planet is needed to support them. Their average ecological footprint was 3.87 global hectares, compared with the 7.01 global hectares in their previous homes and the 8.4 that is the U.S. average. By comparison, Global Footprint Network sets the average at 3.6 in Croatia and 3.9 in Spain.
“To take these findings a step farther, I was able to use footprint data to calculate how many resources could potentially be saved if a small portion of Americans downsized,” said Saxton. “I found that about 366 million acres of biologically productive land could be saved if just 10 percent of Americans downsized to a tiny home.”
Tiny homes are still rare, and many people who choose them are already passionate about climate action and intentional about their footprints. It’s really not possible to extrapolate from Saxton’s research how similar positive environmental impacts might be achieved in small-but-not-tiny homes for those with more conventional families and lifestyles. Yet it’s reasonable to think that the shift to a more right-sized life can bring with it some of the same mindfulness, and the earth-friendly benefits that our neighbors in tiny houses already enjoy.