Tiny Homes, Sustainable Living, and a House Named OTIS

Tiny homes are all the rage but there is much more to the story including an understanding of sustainable living in an emerging green economy and ecological design and building techniques. At Green Mountain College, Eco News Network Guest Author, Steven E. Letendre, PhD, leads a new generation of sustainability pioneers as part of GMC’s Renewable Energy and Ecological Design (REED) program. 

At Green Mountain College (GMC), the nation’s number-one college for sustainability based education, a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers and designers are looking at the built environment in a whole new way. Unsustainable energy use and resource consumption are prompting these pioneers to reexamine how we design and build our homes and workplaces. GMC’s Renewable Energy and Ecological Design (REED) program was created in response to these issues.

We teach our students the skills they need to pursue opportunities in the emerging green economy, renewable energy, and ecological design fields.  The REED program is a key part of GMC’s holistic, sustainability-based education, built on a core sustainability-focused general education curriculum that enables students to develop the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in our rapidly changing world.

The REED program teaches ecological design strategies using both mind and hands, imparting a comprehensive understanding of energy use, and the pathways to a clean energy future. The program’s interdisciplinary curriculum provides a high degree of flexibility, allowing students to develop a concentration in their specific areas of interest.  Students interested in owning a business can take courses in management and entrepreneurship to compliment the core REED curriculum. Alternatively, REED students interested in sustainable agriculture can learn the basics of organic farming with a vision to design urban gardens and systems to promote local food production.Green Mountain College REED Program

Graduates of the REED program are equipped to use ecological design strategies, analyze renewable energy opportunities, and have the skills to realize appropriate and meaningful solutions to today’s challenges. Potential career paths include product design, residential design/build, small-scale renewable energy, utility-scale renewable energy, energy policy, as well as further study in related areas.

Skills-focused classes in GMC’s fabrication facility, design exploration in the dedicated studio, engaging internships, numerous field experiences, and participation in real-world hands-on community projects are critical components of this major.  An outstanding example of this hands-on approach is OTIS, or Optimal Traveling Independent Space. Designed and built by students, this 70-square-foot home is powered by solar energy, collects and uses its own rainwater, composts human waste, and is an ingenious example of sustainable design.

The OTIS project allowed the students to gain carpentry, design, and collaboration skills, and to better understand the materials that can be used in building to reduce resource consumption and use renewable energy – and the constraints that need to be considered.  Students in our program want to be part of the solution to the environmental challenges we face today and in the future; they seek to gain skills and knowledge that will allow them to become leaders in innovations for sustainable living.Tiny Homes - OTIS

Do we expect the majority of people, especially in the United States, to live in tiny homes like OTIS? While that would be great for the environment, it isn’t a realistic proposition. What OTIS shows us, however, is the potential to do better when designing new homes or renovating those we have, in order to reduce the environmental footprint of our living spaces.  It creates conversation around new technology and systems, and illustrates how anyone can adopt the lessons learned from OTIS in their own homes. Installing solar panels, undergoing an energy audit by your local energy supplier, or even just choosing to block off space in your home during the winter so that you don’t have to heat it can make an impact.

The OTIS project is a natural off-shoot of the growing “tiny homes” movement; in an era of urgent concerns around climate change, many people feel helpless to have an impact.  Choosing a tiny house lifestyle is empowering for individuals, presenting them with an avenue for addressing one of society’s biggest challenges. The tiny homes movement has shown cross-generational appeal from a cost perspective, from Millennials who don’t have the same level of financial opportunities as their parents, to Baby Boomers planning lives around retirement incomes.  Both generations have learned to question why a house “has” to be 2,000+ square feet and the tiny homes movement has emerged as part of this examination. They’re realizing that homes have grown larger over time – back in the 1960s, many American families lived in 900 square foot homes – and that we as a society must reverse that trajectory, especially from a sustainability perspective.Tiny Homes - OTIS

OTIS is proof that, as a society, we can design and build unique structures that meet our needs for space and can function like a traditional larger home. We can use fewer resources, spend less of our incomes, and overall improve our ability to live sustainably – for us, and for future generations.

-Steven E. Letendre, PhD

Steven E. Letendre, PhD, is a Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College, the nation’s number-one college for sustainability based education. He currently serves as the director for the Renewable Energy & Ecological Design (REED) program. 

Photos and video courtesy of Green Mountain College.

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