When Elizabeth Turnbull SOM ’11 FES ’11 was accepted to the University’s MBA-MEM degree program in March 2008, she didn’t bother applying for housing, hunting for apartments or going anywhere near Ikea. Instead, Turnbull bought graph paper and started sketching her dream home.
Over the next three months, nearly 50 volunteers attended five “work-and-party” weekends to help Turnbull build her home from scratch — all 144 square feet of it, about the size of an average common room. The house, with a price tag of $14,000, costs roughly the same as renting a New Haven apartment for two and a half years, Turnbull said.
According to Turnbull, she wasn’t trying to get around the graduate housing squeeze — she wanted to reduce her environmental impact.
“The idea was to build a house as small as I could live in without sacrificing comfort,” Turnbull said.
Before attending Yale, Turnbull worked as an environmental consultant on residential building projects and as a sustainability coordinator at O’Neil Fine Builders in North Boston. To prepare herself for construction, she took a two-week building and design course at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vt.
“It was basically an exercise in trying to build my values into a structure that worked,” Turnbull said. “I was interested in exploring the relationship between quality of life and residential scale, but I never expected it would get as much attention.”
Her story was picked up by the Associated Press and spread internationally.
“All of a sudden, I was getting newspaper clippings in Mandarin from friends in China,” Turnbull added.
Turnbull’s self-proclaimed, 8–by-18 foot “tiny house” packs a kitchenette, study and a loft bed, along with books, clothing and food — all on wheels.
But the home’s interior is far from a cramped and cluttered dorm room. Turnbull said she wants the house to show a “decoupling of consumption from quality of life.”
“There is a point at which the things you own become an encumbrance,” Turnbull said. “I don’t have as much stuff as I used to.”
For now, Turnbull actually does have to rent some space: a bathroom in a friend’s home next-door. Her next step is to build a rainwater capture and filtration system to make her home more self-sufficient.
But one student who heard about Turnbull’s project was skeptical that building a new home from scratch would be more environmentally sustainable than renting an existing apartment.
“It seems odd for an environmentalist to waste materials building a new house instead of living in a building that is already built,” Soonwook Hong ’13 said.
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and School of Engineering & Applied Science lecturer Matthew Eckelman GRD ’08 disagreed.
“You might not acknowledge the environmental impacts of constructing that apartment 50 or 100 years ago, but they certainly occurred,” Eckelman said.
Interest in building tiny homes has risen rapidly in the recession, said Kent Griswald, who blogs about the tiny house movement. He said his readership has nearly doubled in the last two years to 5,000 unique visitors daily.
What Turnbull called the “tiny house movement” is actually a kind of resurgence of the “small house movement” of the 1970s, School of Architecture professor Turner Brooks ’65 ARC ’70 said. Brooks said just as the Small House movement was a reaction to the rise of “McMansions” and the energy crisis of the Carter era, the tiny house movement can bee seen as a reaction to the financial crisis and environmental concerns.
But he added that the movement’s appeal comes on a more intuitive level.
“There’s something in the best of the small houses,” Brooks said. “The humble house makes a large gesture, and there’s something very poignant about that.”
As for the future, Turnbull said she is unsure about the fate of her home if she gets her dream job in Manhattan. For now, she says that she has fit in 12 people into her home for parties with her fellow students.
“There was still elbow room,” Turnbull said. “[But] the tires will probably blow before we reach maximum capacity.”