Life in miniature – How sustainable is life in a tiny house? – Knowledge


Reduced living in tiny houses is in demand. A comparison shows what we should and shouldn’t learn from tiny houses when building tomorrow.

Almost 100 square meters: That’s how big a Swiss apartment is on average. In addition, there is often a basement, screed, garden or balcony. According to the Federal Statistical Office, each person lives in an impressive 46 square meters. In 1980 there were still 36.

In addition, urban sprawl is steadily increasing. And single households, which at 36 percent are now the most common form of living in Switzerland, also need space. But not only that: A quarter of all greenhouse gases emitted in this country are caused by living.

Small houses are trending worldwide

For more and more people, this is life on too big a foot. They want to live on a smaller scale. Evidence of this is the “small housing” movement, better known as the tiny house movement, which has been booming for a number of years.

This is also confirmed by Miriam Kost, manager of the “Kleinwohnformen” association, which was founded in 2018: “Corona has actually given us an enormous influx again.” Your club now has 1800 members.

“For most, however, forms of small living remain an unfulfilled dream for the time being,” says Kost. The reason for this is the lack of a legal basis. Currently, the building law treats the tiny houses the same as single-family houses. That’s why there are no official numbers.

Many are on industrial sites or private meadows – i.e. in the gray area – and are tolerated rather than approved.

The Union “small housing forms» is therefore committed to ensuring that this form of housing is recognized as a separate form or at least that the scope in the existing building regulations is used. Rules are necessary for food: “We need them so that the waste water is also disposed of correctly and the houses are sufficiently insulated.” Otherwise, the way of life often touted as sustainable by the movement is anything but ecological.

Where do tiny houses perform better?

But to what extent is life on a smaller scale more sustainable? How much should we learn from this for a future-oriented life? A comparison between a small and a normal house shows that it depends.

Let’s take the material, for example. The small living format wins here. Tiny houses are usually made of wood – most other buildings are made of concrete. While wooden buildings can even be CO2 positive, the production of cement, from which concrete is made, is responsible for eight percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide.

In addition, you need less building material and less energy for heating for a smaller area. This is relevant in that two-thirds of Switzerland’s heating is still done with oil or gas. However, small houses only have an advantage here if they are sufficiently insulated – and this is not always the case due to lack of space.

When it comes to water consumption, the little ones can set an example for the big ones. With 40 square meters there is rarely room for a bathtub. But things get exciting when it comes to the toilet: Since many Tiny Houses are not connected to the sewage system, they have a dry toilet and thus save 41 liters of fresh water. That’s how much an average household uses to flush the toilet.

Small role models for the big crowd

Devi Bühlers shows what the “perfect” house could look like in terms of sustainability CIRCLE-A house. The environmental engineer researches at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences ZHAW and has built a 40 square meter house from recycled and sustainable materials according to the principle of the circular economy.

The roof garden, for example, is irrigated with recycled waste water from the kitchen and bathroom. The nutrients from the composted toilet fertilize the vegetables.

So do you have to compost your own faeces for the climate? “Absolutely not,” my Bühler. One possibility is an automated compost where worms and technology do the job. She and her team work on solutions like these to simplify sustainable living.

The KREIS house is a laboratory. What works, Devi Bühler wants to transfer to larger residential units, such as apartment buildings. Reduced living should be suitable for the masses and comfortable. “I don’t want everyone to move into small houses,” says the researcher. That would only fuel urban sprawl.

A woman holding papers looking up indoors.


40 square meters made from recycled and sustainable materials: environmental engineer Devi Bühlers in her KREIS house.

ZHAW / Christoph Kaminski

Kost shares this opinion: “Contrary to the opinion of many, we are committed to densification.” In the future, small houses should not be built in abandoned nature, but on existing areas such as industrial zones, in gardens of single-family homes or as temporary use. When will that be? Still unclear.

Although wood is already being used for construction and solar cells are used to produce electricity, such consistently climate-friendly construction methods are not yet the norm. Life in miniature shows where there is even more potential for sustainable living in the future.

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