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Tiny houses, close proximity, and simplicity

September 20, 2011

Our houses are too big, we live too far from our neighbors, and we have too much generally useless junk in our lives.

We often think of energy use as a matter of technology. If energy becomes scarce or expensive, our impulse is to either throw existing technology at the problem (explore, drill, build) or to devise some new scheme for enabling us to consume the energy (fracking, deep water drilling, various alternative energy approaches). Sometimes the solution we imagine is more personal (“If I could just get this promotion I can afford to fill the tank of my new Ford Gargantua Mach 8, and pay my electric bill this month!”). But either way, it boils down to determining how we can continue to pursue our current lifestyle.

While the development of cleaner, cheaper, more sustainable energy is a worthwhile pursuit, there’s another, often more accessible approach to solving the energy crisis: use less energy.

There are a number of ways to lower our energy footprint. Some are habitual, like turning out lights, or combining errands. But the real savings would be in really examining the way we live. In general, in the U.S., our houses are too big, we accumulate too much stuff, and we are too far away from our neighbors, our workplaces, the places we shop, and the places we go for entertainment.

This is going to be a multi-part series, since it’s really three topics: house size, density and mix of land uses, and life simplification.  I’m going to  write one post in this series per week.

My  chain of reasoning is: If your house is smaller, there’s less space to heat, cool, and light.  If you live closer to your neighbors, workplace and shopping you consume less energy traveling from point to point. Having less stuff creates an energy savings on a number of fronts, from the energy used in the manufacture, to the energy used in running certain devices. Looping back to the first statement, fewer objects means the ability to live in a smaller space.

Of course there are downsides to small houses, close proximity, and simple living, which I’ll cover in future posts in the series.

But in the meantime, as a teaser, here are a few interesting websites:

Tiny house blog at is on the extreme of the small house frontier. While many of the houses featured would not be practical for most people, the photos and articles give a good sampling of what can be done with extremely small spaces.

Small House Style at is another good source of ideas.

For houses on the less extreme end, but still smaller than the McMansions which for a time dominated the new home market in the U.S., the Not So Big House site at, which features the series of books written by Sarah Susanka, is a good starting point.

As for the issue of compact living, in close proximity to neighbors and the various activities of life, the New Urbanist movement has been the most aggressive proponent of senser, more traditionally designed neighborhoods and living arrangements over the past couple of decades. There are hundreds of websites and blogs devoted to various aspects of this movement, but a good starting point is the website of the organization that began the current wave of interest, the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The simple living movement has become very popular over the past few years, and there are a number of approaches to life simplification and decluttering.

My favorite website in this category  is Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits at It’s a rich source of wisdom and inspiration on how to make your life less complicated and less cluttered. My favorite article on the site (and probably the one most relevant to this topic) is A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home.

One of the more extreme approaches to simplification, at least in terms of reducing the sheer number of objects we own is the 100 Thing Challenge. The point of the challenge is exactly what it sounds like: to reduce  to 100 objects. When I heard about the challenge I started listing the items I considered essential, and passed the 100 mark very quickly. Despite this, if everyone could pare down to 100 objects (or even try to reach that goal), the energy savings would be enormous.

My next post in this series is going to explore house size in more detail.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 12:53 pm

    A very inspiring article, I can thoroughly recommend living in a smaller dwelling. Why work every hour god sends just to maintain a huge mortgage ? We love our terraced house and the time we get to spend in it.

  2. September 20, 2011 7:32 pm

    Thanks for the list of recommended sites on this topic, Larry. I enjoyed reading this very much. I came to exactly the conclusions you stated in this post, partly by accident, because the home we liked best (near my new job) was much smaller. We have been finally successfully de-cluttering at last, because we had to. The stuff wouldn’t fit.

    Too much (stuff, house, use of energy) is quite an insidious shackle.

    • September 22, 2011 9:03 am

      Yeah, Mikey. I held on to the house I owned and lived in when my wife and I got married for a few years after our marriage, primarily because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the the clutter I’d accumulated in the house for decades. Neither of our houses were large (900 and 1100 square feet), but I had enough junk in mine (the 900 foot one) to fill a McMansion. Finally I had to go absolutely brutal, with a program of recycle->give away->throw away. I finally emptied and sold the house a month ago.

      Now I’m in a more fine-grained process of deciding what I really need (just how many skillets does one kitchen need? And what about the three extra bicycles? Couldn’t I let go of one or two of them?)

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