Downsizing Our Footprint

Comprehending the impact of space amidst a “tiny movement”
FEB 2019
Justin
L.
Architecture

You may have seen the recent film Downsizing, reveling in the antics of Matt Damon as he navigates life as a shrunken 5-inch man.  Despite the humor of the film’s premise, I believe it reflects a growing movement of people cutting excess from their lives and relocating to tiny spaces. For many MIT students, this downsizing might come from necessity as we move into compact apartments in dense neighborhoods. For others, this relocation is part of the growing fascination with truly tiny houses – dwellings comprised of 400 square feet or less. The “tiny movement” has even extended to the realm of recreation; a Harvard-based startup now offers 160 square foot cabins as an outdoor retreat.

Tiny house disciples cite benefits such as a reduced cost of living and cathartic cleansing of unnecessary possessions. As a student in MIT’s Building Technology program studying energy-efficient building design, I feel most drawn to a third argument of the tiny movement — that a smaller housing footprint reduces one’s ecological impact. If I intend to “walk the talk” and apply lessons from my research to my own life, I must take responsibility in understanding the connection between square footage and energy consumption, right? In an effort to reduce our ecological footprint, have we no choice but to abandon our possessions and get underway constructing tiny homes? Not so fast.

As an MIT student I’ve learned a great deal — not only through coursework, but also through interaction with other members of the community. And if there’s one thing these experiences have provided, it’s wider perspective on how our everyday behavior truly defines our “footprint”.

MIT’s introductory course on the topic of sustainable energy emphasizes the metric of ecological footprint to relate lifestyle choices to environmental degradation. The Global Footprint Network online tool reports that the habits I’ve exhibited for most of my life — that is, habits carried out in non-Tiny spaces — constitute an ecological footprint of 8.1 global hectares (the theoretical area required to provide what I consume). The average American footprint is only slightly higher, at 8.8 hectares. Considering that our planet offers a mere 1.7 biologically productive hectares per person, the tool suggests that if everyone on Earth shared my habits, we would require “4.7 Earths” to accommodate humankind. This is a troubling statistic in which the floorspace of my Somerville apartment plays a part. I invite you to calculate your own footprint and reflect on the results.  

But herein lie some uncomfortable truths many of us face with the concept of downsizing. As students with a diverse array of hobbies, we might engage in activities that require open spaces or storing of large objects. Maybe some of us would simply feel the claustrophobia of a tiny house to be too great a hurdle. Perhaps we live with roommates and desire more privacy than such a space could offer.

Personally, I feel the conflict between space-consuming activities and an ability to downsize. I have been a drummer for many years, an activity that demands around 30 square feet of floor space. I am also an amateur fermenter, and my attempts to create homemade beer require coolers, kettles, burners, and bottles. Whenever possible I love to explore the outdoors, and therefore a few large backpacking items need a home in my apartment in between trips. I’m sure many of us non-tiny housers own some possessions, that would be difficult to store in a downsized home.

At MIT, I continue to learn from students who apply their passion not just to their research, but to their lives off campus. Consider, for example, the notion of sustainability and the hobby of fermentation—topics that might seem unrelated at first. I encountered a cohort of fermenting enthusiasts in the Building Technology lab; they expanded my horizons from beer-making to a wider array of fermented foods, including tempeh, yogurt, and tepache. Apart from being generally healthy, these homemade foods (derived from organic ingredients purchased in bulk) reduce my dependence on packaged, unsustainably processed products. In another instance, a fellow student introduced me to the countless hiking trails and ski slopes within a short drive of MIT. I thus rectified my belief that I must fly Westward to find an ideal outdoor setting. In that regard, reducing plane travel certainly allows one to live more sustainably. Later on, a professor pointed out to me the irony of serving red meat to attendees of a lecture on reducing carbon emissions, given the tremendous amount of carbon associated with the cattle industry. This interaction inspired me to try foregoing meat for a majority of meals.

Other conversations with MIT students have inspired me to take advantage of Cambridge’s public compost drop-off locations (a good object for us Somerville residents who don’t benefit from free curbside pickup). Last year, a course in low-carbon HVAC systems led me to opt into Massachusetts’ renewable energy portfolio.

How does acting upon these lessons impact my global hectare count? According to the footprint tool, an 80% reduction in apartment floor area (to a compact 150 square feet) would only reduce my ecological footprint from 8.1 to 8.0—a mere 1.2%. However, by doubling my proportion of unprocessed, locally grown food, reducing plane travel by a third, and sticking to a vegetarian diet 5 days a week, the number drops to 2.7 global hectares. This constitutes a reduction of nearly 40%, all with no change in floorspace.

Changes in estimated ecological footprint from dramatic apartment downsizing vs. other lifestyle changes

The average American — myself included — has a disproportionate carbon footprint in the global arena; it’s clear that there are lifestyle changes we all should make to limit our impact. For some, a tiny house provides the initial steps in meeting that goal, providing a fulfilling exercise in eliminating excess. But others may follow habits that prove incompatible with the trend of downsizing. In the MIT community I’ve encountered people from all disciplines who have the skills and motivation to analyze issues broadly. I’ve learned that we can adapt our hobbies to minimize their environmental impact. Better yet, we can make footprint reduction a hobby in itself.