Taking a look at the tiny-house movement.
Would you trade your home for a 33-square-foot dumpster? Jeff Wilson, environmental science professor and dean at Huston-Tillotson University, proved that one man’s trash could be another man’s home by living in a dumpster for a year. Austin Woman introduces you to the Dumpster project team and Austin Tiny Homes, two local ventures that are changing the way Austinites think about sustainable living.
“[Our team has] a dumpster sixth sense,” confesses Wilson, a member of the Dumpster Project. “Now I notice sizes, colors and companies,” says Karen Magid, sustainability coordinator at Huston- Tillotson University and project manager for the Dumpster Project.
“We are way more aware of dumpsters now.” After living in a dumpster for a year, Wilson, aka, Professor Dumpster, hopes the project spurs conversation about sustainability and consumption.
“It’s a magic conversation box in a lot of ways,” says Wilson, who now calls the dumpster his vacation home. “We’re able to engage our students, faculty, staff and really the world.”
“It gets people thinking about stuff that is wonky and boring,” adds Amanda Masino, assistant professor of biology at Huston-Tillotson University and a member of the Dumpster Project. But this is not your garden-variety dumpster. No trash or pungent smells are present, and it has been retrofitted with heating, air conditioning, a duvet and other amenities.
“We’re not actually advocating that anybody else move into a dumpster home,” Wilson says. “Dumpsters don’t seal that well. Thirty-three square feet is probably pretty tight for most people, even if you’re single with not a lot of stuff. What we’re doing is a radical experiment testing the absolute limits of small space. But there are certainly a lot of things between a dumpster and where a lot of folks actually are that they could examine based on this experiment.”
While the sardine-can feel of a 33-square-foot living space might not be attractive, Austinites are increasingly purchasing tiny homes, houses that typically range from 100 to 400 square feet.
“I get retirees looking to downsize, really young people looking for their first house, soccer moms looking for a little rental property.” Bezdek says 80 percent of his customers have been women. Although prices and sizes vary, a typical tiny home runs about $16,000 and is 16 to 18 feet long and 12 feet wide.
“When we started, we got four to five emails or calls per week,” says Bezdek, who started building tiny homes in 2012. “Ninety percent were people who didn’t know what a tiny home was, hadn’t seen one and just wanted to know what they were about.”
Bezdek’s business has since tripled, and he says his customers want to save money or make money by using the tiny home as a rental property. While Bezdek says tiny homes can reduce energy consumption, he and the folks at the Dumpster Project are quick to caution that going small does not always mean you are going green.
“Tiny is not necessarily green,” Magid says. “It can be. Less stuff is usually on your way there. But there is a distinction between tiny, sustainable and affordable. You can still consume a lot [in a small home].”
“It can be an important piece, but it has to be done in the right way,” Masino adds. “Part of that is not just paying attention to the volume of things, but these other footprints. What is your energy footprint? What do you do for travel? What’s your water use?” Bezdek recommends simulating life in a tiny home before purchasing one.
“Mark off the square footage in your living room and try to keep yourself inside of there and see how that works,” Bezdek says. “If you haven’t killed each other inside of a week, you just might make it.” Although different in nature, ventures like the Dumpster Project and Austin Tiny Homes are offering Austinites new ways to think about how they live.
“If you’re willing to re-examine how much space you need, then some of those other factors can shift around it,” Wilson says. “If I want to have a three-bedroom, two-bath, 4,000-square-foot house, I’m probably going to have to live down in Buda. If I want to move my family of three and have walkability to parks and stores and be able to take the train to work, maybe I would like to examine something smaller, like 1,100 square feet.”
While a tiny home may not be for you, re-evaluating energy and water consumption could go a long way to making Austin a greener place.
“We’ve transitioned the dumpster into a living space for teachers and artists doing sustainability work,” Jeff Wilson says.
The Dumpster Project is accepting nominations for teachers-in-residence.
Want to See the Dumpster in action? The Dumpster Project will be at the Austin Earth Day Festival on April 18.
Tiny home photos by Bo Bezdek. Dumpster interior photo by Natalie Wetjen.