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Human and Natural Hazard Impacts: Tiny Houses

The Problem

My mom loves to watch shows on HGTV.  Lately I've noticed that there are a lot of shows about "tiny" houses.  My mom oohs and ahs about the designs of these "houses."  She says our family should downsize and "live off the grid," whatever that means!  She thinks we would have less bills to pay,  have a whole lot less to keep clean, and we would be eco friendly. 

My teacher talked to us about energy consumption. Some resources are not renewable, like coal. Since 2000, global coal consumption has grown faster than any other fuel. But coal can't last forever.  In 2014, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,932 kilowatthours (kWh), an average of 911 kWh per month.  10, 932 kilowatt-hours is equal to about 1.3 tons of coal!  One kilowatt‐hour of electricity is enough to: ‐ watch television for 10 hours ‐ vacuum for an hour ‐ wash 12 pounds of laundry ‐ cook breakfast for a family of 4 ‐ listen to the radio for 20 hours ‐ work on computer for 5‐10 hrs.  So 10,932 is a lot!  and that's just for one house!  




In our society today, bigger is better, more is better, we are conditioned to want more and more stuff.  The typical American home is around 2,600 square feet.  

Smaller families are living in bigger houses.  In the America of 1950, single-family dwellings were being were built with an average of 290 square feet of living space per resident; in 2003, a family moving into a typical new house had almost 900 square feet per person in which to ramble around. In the size of our dwellings, North Americans are world champions. The United Nations says houses and apartments typically provide two whole rooms per person in the United States and Canada (not counting spaces like bathrooms, hallways, porches, etc.).  We are depleting our resources at a faster rate than we can replenish them and housing plays a very large role in this equation. During construction of the average sized house, nearly 7 logging trucks of wood products are used.  The pollution associated with an average house is significant (about 28,000 pounds of CO2 emissions each year).  

 To make houses more interesting, builders tend to avoid boxy forms, creating houses with multiple rooflines and gables, dormers, bay windows, and other protuberances.  Such houses have more surface area than does a squared-off house of the same size, thus requiring more fossil-fuel to cool and heat them.  Additional energy is wasted by the longer heating/cooling ducts and hot-water pipes in a big house. And the bigger its square footage, the bigger its environmental footprint.  

prised of less than 700 sq. ft.?

Environmental concerns, financial concerns, and the desire for more time and freedom are driving a new housing movement in the United States and around the world.  “The Tiny House” phenomenon redefines what makes a house a home and empowers people for a better future.  The philosophy of the tiny house movement can be boiled down to three words--affordable, efficient, green. Besides giving you the opportunity to learn to live with less and be content, small homes offer a wide array of other environmental and cost benefits. Because they are small, they use fewer materials and therefore cost less to build, maintain, or replace when needed. They occupy a smaller footprint, which can result in significant property tax savings. And they use a lot less energy, which is good for both your wallet and the planet. In fact, small houses can even effectively incorporate passive house principles for the ultimate in energy savings.  Most small house designs are also coupled with eco-friendly approaches that are much more sustainable than their conventional counterparts.


I wonder

What if we traded our 2-story split level dreams for tiny houses comprised of less than 700 square feet?  How can I reduce my environmental footprint?  What are the environmental benefits of tiny house living?  Can I save money if I live in a tiny house?  How can a tiny house be more green than a traditional home?  Is a house with a compost toilet better for the environemnt than a septic tank or a traditional toilet that goes to a sewer? Would living in less square footage reduce my family's energy consumption? Are there things I can do to reduce my energy consumption in my house without having to move into a tiny house? 

What is your hypothesis?  What are your variables?




Environmental footprint

Tiny House Movement

Green Movement

Eco Friendly House

Energy costs


United States


Tiny House



Human footprint

Environmental impact

Books & DVDs


National Geographic: Human Footprint DVD

The National Geographic Human Footprint DVD will make you realize just what it takes to be you everyday. Have you ever thought about how much food, everyday products, and fuel you've consumed during the course of your life? In National Geographic's new program, HUMAN FOOTPRINT, you'll find out that it's a lot. From our cars to our clothes dryers to our disposable toothbrushes, our impact on planet Earth is astonishing. Whether you're a child who drinks milk or an adult who enjoys a bottle of wine, HUMAN FOOTPRINT takes a phase-by-phase journey through life to illustrate the enormous imprint every American makes during his or her time on Earth. Incorporating surprising facts with playful visuals, this enlightening portrait reveals our level of consumption and the simple changes we can all make to reduce our negative impact on the world. Narrated by Elizabeth Vargas. Featuring eco-friendly packaging - Made of 100% recycled fiber, 55% post consumer waste. Plastic film 100% compostable.Produced by National Geographic.1 disc.Run time - 90 minutes.2008.

The 11th Hour  DVD presents more than 50 of the leading scientists, thinkers and leaders of our time -- from all over the earth -- to discuss the state of the world, of humanity and what we all can do to make a difference in The 11th Hour. Climate change and thecollapse of life-sustaining ecosystems are the challenges of our time.As part of a years-long global movement, Leonardo DiCaprio brings a film, a website and a world-wide effort to bring the peoples of the planet together and change the course of humanity.

Henry David Thoreau & Walden

Database articles

Science in Context

Patel, Nina. "Tiny house, big benefits: Freedom from a mortgage - and stuff." Washington Post 25 June 2015. Science in Context. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.


"A tiny house provides a big lesson on energy savings: plastics are key building materials in very small houses; and in standard houses as well." Plastics Engineering Oct. 2015: 8+. Science in Context. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.


"Tiny houses aim to help homeless." USA Today 22 Aug. 2014: 04A. Science in Context. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.



Wilkinson, A. (2011). LET'S GET SMALL. New Yorker, 87(21), 28-34.

Tiny House Movement Gives Second Life to School Buses; Could Retired Buses Raise Money for Your District?. (2015). Curriculum Review, 55(2), 5.


Database articles

Global Issues in Context

Science in Context

EBSCO databases

Provided by the Kansas State Library, this resource includes: Student Research Center; EBSCOhost Research Databases; Consumer Health Complete; Literary Reference Center;Auto Repair Reference Center;Novelist Plus; and Small Business Reference Center.

Standards addressed

Students who demonstrate understanding can:


Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.[Clarification Statement: Examples of factors include human activities (such as fossil fuel combustion, cement production, and agricultural activity) and natural processes (such as changes in incoming solar radiation or volcanic activity). Examples of evidence can include tables, graphs, and maps of global and regional temperatures, atmospheric levels of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and the rates of human activities. Emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures.]

ESS3.D: Global Climate Change

Observable features of the student performance by the end of the course:


Students examine a given claim and the given supporting evidence as a basis for formulating questions. Students ask questions that would identify and clarify the evidence, including

i. The relevant ways in which natural processes and/or human activities may have affected the patterns of change in global temperatures over the past century

ii. The influence of natural processes and/or human activities on a gradual or sudden change in global temperatures in natural systems (e.g., glaciers and arctic ice, and plant and animal seasonal movements and life cycle activities).

iii. The influence of natural processes and/or human activities on changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the past century.

2 Identifying the scientific nature of the question

a Students questions can be answered by examining evidence for:

i. Patterns in data that connect natural processes and human activities to changes in global temperatures over the past century.

ii. Patterns in data that connect the changes in natural processes and/or human activities related to greenhouse gas production to changes in the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.



Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems.