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Designing

Could You Live in 144 Square Feet?

A Yale graduate student's low-impact, low-budget home on wheels.

(Photos by Harold Shapiro)
By Jaci Conry
May 17, 2009

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Just how much space does one person really need? According to Elizabeth Turnbull, about 144 square feet. Last spring, after being accepted to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Turnbull did some math. She figured that over the course of her two-year master's program in Urban Ecology and Environmental Design, her rent and utilities would add up to around $14,000. A little more calculating led the energetic 26-year-old to conclude she could design, build, and live in her own tiny green house -- it's portable and currently parked on the property of "a benevolent New Haven citizen," she says -- for roughly the same cost.

The design of her home was based on her 6-foot-tall frame. "It was really fun to tailor the house based on my own ergonomics and my needs," she says. The 8.5-foot-by-18.5-foot house includes a sleeping loft, kitchenette, and combined living area and study. (That same benevolent citizen lets her use a bathroom in the main house, though Turnbull might one day add a composting toilet.)

Turnbull has a background in environmental studies and in building -- she worked for O'Neil Fine Builders in Beverly before returning to school -- so this project made sense. "I wanted to see how green I could be, how lightly I could tread on the earth," she says.

After consulting with others who'd built houses similar to hers -- there's a whole movement of tiny-house aficionados -- Turnbull began construction last summer. Once word got out about the project, help flooded in. Her high school alma mater, the Governor's Academy in Byfield, allowed her to use its grounds as the building site. Local vendors and building professionals donated materials, and friends, family, and dozens of strangers helped out at building parties Turnbull organized by hanging up flyers. Others offered help after reading about her project in stories that appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport.

"My goal was to use only environmentally considerate materials," says Turnbull, "products that were recycled, reclaimed, and natural." The house is heated with efficient and clean-burning propane, and three solar panels right outside provide electricity. Turnbull plans to add a rainwater catchment system this summer, and does her cooking on an efficient yacht stove. The house has soy-based insulation, donated by the Green Cocoon in Salisbury, that emits no chlorofluorocarbons or carcinogens. Low-VOC-emitting paint was used throughout the house, and the floors, a gift from Wood Flooring Design in Salisbury, are made from sustainably harvested wood. The ceiling was donated by Second Wind Sails in Gloucester, a company that repairs, resells, or finds creative reuses for old sails (shower curtains and bags are more typical than ceilings). The windows and door were castoffs from other building projects. "The world is full of things that people want to get rid of or already have," says Turnbull. "Before you buy materials, look around."

After graduation, Turnbull wants to help inspire others to explore low-budget, low-impact structures. "People can feel paralyzed by all of their stuff -- myself included, before this project," she says. "It's fun and gratifying to design around not what you think you should have, but what you need."

Jaci Conry is a freelance writer. Send comments to designing@globe.com.