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Sustainable Living in Very Small Homes

The Tiny House movement aims to shrink environmental footprints of the places where we live.

Jan Kenney has always been drawn to little spaces: the lesser of two bedrooms in a shared two-bedroom place, the economy of carrying everything she needed on cross-country bike trips. So when she heard about a house so small she could tow it to a new location with an SUV, she was ready to jump. Soon she expects to be the proud owner of the Mobile Hermitage, a stately domicile with a peaked roof, a front porch, a sleeping loft and most of the other comforts of home — all in 140 square feet.

"I'm very much into sustainability, the idea of being able to have the smallest footprint possible on the planet," Kenney said by telephone from her home in West Grove, Pa. "I used to have to rent a large space and have an extra room just for the stuff that I'd collected. And I got obsessed with, why do I have this stuff, why am I carrying this around, what is the purpose of this, why am I heating and cooling an extra room for these things I don't use?"

There was also a financial incentive. The Mobile Hermitage was offered at $20,000, a price its seller says is less than its appraised value. For Kenney, a lifelong renter, that low price meant she could take money from her 401(k) retirement account — she's over 59, so she paid no penalty to do so — and own this home outright. It lacks some basics, such as a shower and running water, and is meant to be part of a community of small houses with shared facilities, or parked in a friend's backyard with some services provided by the main house.

Like many tiny houses, the Mobile Hermitage is on wheels, but it's no travel trailer. Built with construction-grade materials and well-insulated, it can withstand the elements year-round. The advantage to making it movable goes beyond transport: some building codes stipulate a minimum size for a single-family dwelling; with wheels, these homes get around that requirement.

Kenney figures the best way to use less energy is to live in a smaller space, and she's not alone. While truly tiny houses are the exception rather than the rule, U.S. single-family homes have started shrinking for the first time in decades, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Average house size peaked in 2007 at 2,521 square feet; by 2009, it was 2,438 square feet. One reason is a desire to cut energy costs.

Baby boomers and 20-somethings are two demographic groups drawn to tiny houses, says Kent Griswold, who publishes The site says it's an affordable way to get a first home or a place to live during college, and can be a means to stay independent even when retirement savings have been eroded.

How will Kenney get the Mobile Hermitage from Iowa City, where owner Gregory Paul Johnson lives, to Pennsylvania without enlarging her carbon footprint? She'll tow it with her SUV, which runs on waste cooking grease.