Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Excerpted from Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence, forthcoming], in the [Burning the Midnight Oil blog-within-a-blog, hosted by kos, though to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t know it.

I’ve been looking at Tiny Houses, and man, do they strike me as cool. It makes me want to find granny flat designs and see if I could build one, truth be told.

For example, these above are from The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Their smallest house is the 70 square foot Biensi … but, of course, some people would not consider that a house, since it has no bathroom or shower. To get that, you need to “supersize” to their second smallest floorplan, the XS-House, at 75 square feet.

Tumbleweed only sells the finished houses that can be towed as a trailer … for the very largest of their houses, like the 770 square foot monster the Ernesti (pictured above left, at the size that 770 sq. feet must seem in the age of McMansions), they only sell plans, as it must be built on site.

What a difference from a FEMA Trailer

For many people in the Tiny House movement, this is a move to voluntary simplicity. Living in a house that would be smaller than the larger closet in many a McMansion is an exercise in deciding what is important and what is trivial.

What is important? If your house costs $20,000 or $40,000, and you can pack all of your things away in place and rent a pick-up truck to move cross country … what does that mean about your approach to your career … profession … possibly, vocation? If your heat and cooking bill is under $20 a month … what does that mean to your standard of living when the costs of fossil fuels double?

Where do you “save up your treasures on earth” if it takes longer for your neighbor to pay off a new car than it takes you to pay off your house?

Of course, a 120 square foot house does not consume the resources to build as the “normal American house”. Less space to heat or cool means, of course, less energy … with the craftsmanship that goes into many of the pre-built Tiny Houses, they are efficient to heat or cool already; a few Household Heat Pumps could probably do the job. And in the winter you yourself make a much more substantial contribution to the heating of the space.

For others, necessity is a Real Mother … of invention. Lee Martin of Mississippi, specializing in restoring historic homes before Katrina, moved into a Tumbleweed Tiny House after Katrina destroyed the c.1787 Old Spanish Customs House were they lived … and:

After Hurricane Katrina swept everything we own out to sea, a funny thing happened on the way to homelessness.

We had a vision, a vision of helping thousands of people caught in the ebb and flow of life (and of the sea) who need portable, affordable, well-built, well-designed housing. A vision of things to come – on wheels.

And we liked what we saw. And pronounced it good.

And called it Fresh Start.

The Fresh Start designed pictured here goes for slightly less than Tumbleweed homes, around $30,000 introductory price for what I reckon must be in excess of 100 sq. feet … for some reason, House-To-Go is not as eager to tell people as Tumbleweed how many square feet their Fresh Start model Tiny Home is.

Are You Crackers, that’s a full-sized truck hauling that thing!

Of course, there is one, shall we say, “hitch” to all this.

The way that many tiny house builders seem to avoid discriminatory zoning regulation, designed to force houses to be above a certain size in order to avoid people moving into the neighborhood who cannot afford a big house … well, until you take it off the trailer, its not a house. Its not a house until you take it off the trailer and put it onto a foundation. Then … well, then I guess you would get to live in a trailer park, if you can find room … maybe over the line from the town proper in the township, or over the line from the suburb with the nice schools to the one with the not so nice ones.

But an awful lot of stress is placed on hitching the wagon to the ox team and getting the hell out of Dodge, if that takes your fancy. And that means that your vehicle … well, lets work that out. If that truck and that house is it, then unless there is a much smaller car in the back of the pick-up, you’ve got a full-size truck as your basic set of wheels.

Now, if its a case of moving the house from one place to another after two years, or five years, and that truck is rented, and you drop off the truck at the rental place at the destination, take the train back, and drive your Puggable Hybrid Electric version of the Carver to the new site … well, that’s one thing. But if those are your main wheels hauling it from one place to another in a nomadic existence … that is going to end up being a might tough baby to keep sucking down its gallons of gasoline when gas hits $10/barrel.

But … these are well-made, well-insulated houses, you can’t expect them to be as tow-able as a pop-up tent-trailer, can you?

Well, maybe not … but …

OK, here’s an idea I’ve expressed before. Say that you have a small (from American standards … an American ‘compact’ is a full sized sedan for much of the world) Pluggable Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). And suppose it is a fully serial PHEV, with a high efficiency flex-fuel or diesel constant speed engine driving a generator, and all-electric traction.

OK, now, a lot of the efficiency is that instead of the engine running constantly at partial throttle, the engine only ever runs at peak efficiency, and when it gets far enough ahead in terms of charging the batteries, it shuts down.

OK, now, suppose … just suppose … that there are also electric motors in the trailer. Not enough for the trailer to go on its own … just enough to take a lot of the strain off the towing PHEV. Maybe there’s also additional batteries … but the main thing is, it doesn’t tow like you are hauling a Tiny House.

And of course as a bonus, that means you have dynamic braking in the trailer, both giving the benefit of trailer brakes, and also recovering some of that energy that you invested into getting the thing rolling.

So now make that picture above a compact PHEV, probably with a mountain bike on a roof rack, towing a house behind it.

I can’t snap that picture, but I can imagine it, and it makes for a much better fit.

Oh, yeah, and there is a side benefit here. Whichever company comes out with the fully-serial PHEV compact with the power and control signals coming out the plug it designs … working with several manufacturers of simple trailers as well as trailer frames for RV makers … gets a jump on that market. They are the ones selling the cars that can feed juice to the trailer and allow people to haul trailers with a car they can afford to drive around as their regular car … even as gas continues its inexorable march to and past $10/gallon.

That car company, well they stand to make a lot of money taking market share away from their rivals.

And this is an extremely American market … if it was one of the American car makers that were to bring this innovation to market, that is the one I would expect to have the best chance to survive the transition away from gasoline in the two decades ahead.

Heck, by that time it might not be a very big market they are surviving in, but if you ask any business firm, whatever the size of their market, most of them would rather be King of the Mountain.

Midnight Oil – King of the Mountain (1990)

Over liquid tarmac wastelands of cactus and heat

Down cobblestone alleyways of washing day sheets

Up ghost prairie mountains of sunset and space

Down the road a familiar face

Across the wilderness

Out further than the bush

I will follow you


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    • BruceMcF on March 15, 2008 at 07:38

    I dunno … the Midnight Thought is the only part is new, and it posts fine on Docudharma and EENR … but the whole Midnight Oil is having trouble posting on dKos … and there is no actual error message to give a hint why.

    And I know that it is traditional to make demands on kos as if he had time to read his blog, between media interviews and being a talking head blogger for The Village, on the Big Bad Orange itself … but if I could get my blog up so I would have somewhere safe to talk on the Big Bad Orange, I wouldn’t need to vent.

  1. I love the Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. They remind me a lot of living on a sailboat. Every inch of space has a purpose, some spaces have dual or treble purposes, and they are well built. The size is perfect, but it is geared toward only 1-2 people living. Even the 770 sq ft one isn’t geared toward a family.

    I’d be really interested in a family of 4 model that was built green and had solar panels, etc. The other concern I’d have is for storing bikes and emergency food supplies. Their houses have a lot of potential, but they don’t quite work for my needs. I would really like it too though.

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