Terrance Heath

Living In a Box

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 10, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: living in a box, modern art

I’m livin’ in a box
I’m livin’ in a cardboard box…

“Living in a Box,” Living In A Box, 1987

As my early obsession with funky looking eco-cars shows, I’m sometimes drawn towards quirky things that go against the grain of the mainstream. So, of course I was intrigued by this video about the Eco-Cube — a project to “build a compact home” no bigger than 10x10x10 feet “in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment.”

Interesting, especially when you take a couple of things into consideration about housing and the current economic crisis/recession.

Going through digital “to read” pile in Google Reader today, I came across Charles Marohn’s post “The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme”, in which Marohn made an interesting point about the unsustainability of scaling places to the automobile.

We often forget that the American pattern of suburban development is an experiment, one that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us. But our own history — let alone a tour of other parts of the world — reveals a different reality. Across cultures, over thousands of years, people have traditionally built places scaled to the individual. It is only the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile.

How is our experiment working?

At Strong Towns, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization I cofounded in 2009, we are most interested in understanding the intersection between local finance and land use. How does the design of our places impact their financial success or failure?

According to Marohn, not so great. It has all the sustainability of a ponzi scheme, according to him.

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  • Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  • Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  • Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

That brings us back to the Eco-Cube, which Steven Lacey at Climate Progress (where I saw the video) points out that the Cube is partially an attempt to ease us psychologically into shifting away from a lifestyle that may be neither environmentally of fiscally sustainable.

The designer, Dr. Mike Page, sees this project as psychological as much as it is environmental:


Dr Page has been looking at factors which affect behaviour change in relation to the environment. If we are to mitigate the problems of climate change, we are going to need to deal with problems that are as much psychological problems as they are technological problems. The Cube Project is an attempt to show that many of the technologies that we need are already commonly available and at an affordable price. The question is, why aren't we using them? This is a psychological question.

In our McMansion-obsessed society, it may take a while for people to get comfortable with this type of concept. But if we're going to build a world for 9 billion people, we'll need to start thinking differently about how we craft our living spaces. With events like this fall's Solar Decathlon exposing the public to smart, small, innovative design, we can only hope the groundwork is being laid.

I understand that, because as I was watching the video I had two questions: Does it have broadband? And where does the sattelite TV dish go?

Oh yeah, and how does a composting toilet work? Because it sounds like something that has to be emptied at the end of the composting process. (I assume you gotta do something with the compost.) And once that bathroom gets a door, will it also have an exhaust fan? This goes directly to how “friendly” two people living in that space might have to be. Dr. Page said the cube is designed so that one person or “two very friendly people” can live comfortably. I’m thinking you’d have to be extremely friendly, because it looks like you’d always be sharing personal space to some degree.

Actually, I had a few more questions: Is there a family model? Can it be configured to house a family of, say, four? Where would we put the kids? (Because I can tell you right now, I’m not living in a 10x10x10 cube with a three-year-old and an eight-year-old.) Would the size double? Would it become a kind of “modular home” model? Could we just add on cubes as the family grew?

The word “family” does not appear in the FAQ. But it does offer some assurance that “multiple Cubes could be arranged around some common social space, whether internal (perhaps containing extra facilities, such as laundry, entertainment, etc.) or external (perhaps areas for growing food, and leisure/sport facilities).” So perhaps we’d end up with a kind of familian “compound,” perhaps connected by an overarching structure that connected them and allowed movement between them without having to go outside.

I’m not against changing the way we live, to a more sustainable way of living. But I think I’m like a lot of people who will need to be eased into it, with assurances that the technologies I need and want will still be accessible. Sure, the composting toilet might take some getting used to (and I noted there was no dishwasher), but as long as I don’t have to build my own yurt or take up earthen-home construction, I may come along with minimal bitching.

But remember, I didn’t say no bitching.” I said “minimal”.

(Crossposted at Republic of T)

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One of the problems with ideas like this is our cities and towns have ordinances against such small living spaces. when I was in Arizona the smallest home you were allowed to build was 345 sq ft. I think the cube falls well short of that even with it's multi level layout. If it was put on a trailer frame it would make it in a trailer park or RV park but it would be to tall to clear power lines. The place to begin is to get cities and towns to allow smaller dwellings and 1/4 acre size lots or smaller for them.

GayHermit | July 10, 2011 5:53 PM

Welcome all to the Tiny House realm.

For those for whom this may be new, this movemment has been gaining momentum for a number of years now. If you are looking for more information, a great place to start is the Tiny House Blog - tinyhouseblog(dot)com.

In general, a tiny house is a house with around 750 square feet or less. The ideal is to have the absolute minimum space needed. The general thought pattern is that you use public space more for larger space needs than you use your house. (Consider this as similar to how some people live in large cities, having a small studio and using the city for a number of thier larger space needs.)

One way for you to figure out whether a tiny house might be something that you could adapt to, is to consider whether or not you could live in a small sized RV/camper for a considerable amount of time. Think about how you would have to reduce and streamline your current lifestyle and possesion levels. Downsizing, while a highly desirable idea for a number of reasons, is a good idea. But it is not for everyone.

As an example, I could currently live in a tiny house. However, due to my creative interests I could not thrive there as I need space to support my various interests. I would need to double the size of the house just to accomodate my current amount of books.

@Terrance Heath. A tiny house can have any modern amenitiy that any other house has. The goal (ideal) is to decide whether it is truly needed or not.
The raising a family in a tiny house is an issue that the movement hasn't definitively resolved, as of yet. The current idea is that your family would do more living outside of the house than we currently do. There is a similar home that is based on a 12 foot cube standard. (See the website mentioned above for more info.) You could make a cube dwelling out of an even larger cube base. Just depends on how involved/creative you want to get.

@Lisa McDonald. Yes, the minimum size restrictions are definitely a large current issue for the movement. The fact that the real estate and banking industries are generally against tiny houses, due to lack of profit, is a big issue. Thanks for mentioning this as it is something people need to be aware of when investigating the idea of having thier own tiny house.
Something to keep in mind though is that a lot of the below 150 square foot houses ususally count as sheds and don't have the restrictions that some small houses have to deal with. Depends on local zoning.
(To Others, Please always make sure to check with your zoning laws/rules before getting too involved in constructing such a house. It will save you some headaches in the long run.)

Jaime Dunaway Jaime Dunaway | July 10, 2011 7:44 PM

I couldn't live in a cube, too much stuff that I just can't get rid of. Plus, what if you have overnight company, family from far away? Oh here's a nice drawer for you to sleep in...

And living on the coast, I like larger lot sizes, lessens density and helps to protect the sound, bay and marsh that surrounds most of the town I live in.

Om Kalthoum | July 10, 2011 8:45 PM

That Eco-Cube? No can do. Where would I put the cat litter box? Seriously, well, who would take it seriously?

On the other hand, many of you may have already seen Gary Chang's Hong Kong apartment of only 30 square meters with 24 rooms achieved through sliding partitions. Now there I could live comfortably, I think.

I was thinking of that house too, Om. I definitely prefer it to this one.

This type of living space has already been invented -- it's called a "condo" tractor, the type that hooks up to a 53-foot trailer and together becomes the type of "big rig" we call the 18-wheeler. Out of the some-odd 6 million truckers in North America, a large percentage of them subsist in this type of space for extended periods of time, usually alone but sometimes with a driving partner. Of course, the design goals of the extended-cab diesel tractor are entirely different from the Eco-Cube, but I mention truckers because the "psychological jump" to live in an Eco-Cube may not be as universal as one would think at first.

Now, having stated that millions of truckers have gotten used to living in a rolling eco-cube, I have a confession to make: I was once on the road in a big rig tractor for three weeks in a row, and at the end I virtually had a nervous breakdown. My poor driving partner! This type of claustrophobic living does indeed take some easing into.

Finally, I question the entire ecological goal: Knowing that the ability of our planet to sustain human life has an upper limit somewhere, do we really want to plan for a human population that someday plateaus off at XX billion? We will have to limit population growth someday anyway, and where is it written that we have to strain the planet to its breaking point before we do that? Why not try to limit our species to, say, 7 billion or so?

I am intrigued by this design, but all I could picture while watching the video were the shanty towns of Southern and Central America. Cheaply produced housing to keep a political promise to "improve the quality of life..." of those who live in these poorer districts.
That being said, the animation of the cube on the project site gave me the idea of using the cube design for medium term (month or longer), efficient hotel rooms; similar in execution to the capsule hotels in Japan. With the set size of 10X10X10, you could significantly increase the capacity of hotels built near air and sea ports. Business travelers who don't care about frills could lease (or rent) one of these units in which ever city they might travel to the most in a given year; companies that make use of this could receive discounts, making it more economical than traditional hotels.
As far as using the design as it's intended; I'll pass. I will, however use elements of the design when I build my home; the triple glazing, LED lighting, the cooking surface, and the air source heat pump.

I don't know that I'd be willing to consider a 10x10x10 cube a "living" space. A sleeping space, maybe. The idea of arranging the cubes around a common area echoes the traditional layout of villages -- individual houses, often one room, around a common square. In more salubrious climes, that common square is where most daily activity happened.

As for myself, actually living in a room that size would drive me barking mad in short order. I have slightly less than 400 square feet, and I have to get out of here periodically or go nuts.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | July 11, 2011 8:57 PM

10X10X10 = A nice shed for the lawn tractor and workbench.

My apologies for being a spoiled middle class American. I need space for creative projects, gardens, pets, entertainment system, computer desk, a large enough bed to fully stretch out in, etc. I would much rather see draconian laws to curb population growth than to force people into ridiculously small dwellings or other severe forms of rationing.

Om Kalthoum | July 11, 2011 10:39 PM

I never got that the gentleman giving the tour of that Eco-Cube informed us exactly who they considered to be their target demographic. Certainly not the elderly, the disabled or others with conditions making those "stairs" impossible to navigate; not families; not anyone with an infant or toddler who would fall down those "stairs;" not anyone with friends they might wish to have visit; no one with a pet; no one with much in the way of any possessions aside from a flat screen TV. Good for students or prisoners, I suppose, until they'd finished serving their sentences.