AUS civil engineering students think small: but the Tiny House has big potential

Studio apartments start at around 40 sq m (say 450­ sq ft) on Dubizzle: you don’t really associate the UAE with standalone living accommodation that totals just 18 sq m. But it is the sort of house the majority of the world needs – and it is certainly the kind of thing that students ought to be exploring. And over the past 12 months a team of undergraduate students, faculty and alumni from the American University of Sharjah have been designing and building a “tiny house” on campus, an exercise in sustainability and environmentally friendly construction that will serve as a testbed for future innovation and entrepreneurship.

The project is a first for AUS, but it follows a much wider global Tiny House campaign; the movement began in the United States in the 1990s in an attempt to combat the rising cost of housing and the adverse environmental impacts caused by oversized housing. The Tiny House movement demonstrates that sustainable, practical and comfortable homes can be achieved in a minimal footprint.

The 18 m2 AUS Tiny House certainly uses substantially fewer resources than typical builds in developed countries, and not just because of its modest dimensions: included are features that minimise water and energy use and reduce the overall carbon footprint, including lightweight panel walls with low cement content and high insulation and fire resistance values. There’s a sensor control on the faucets and grey water is reused. Obvious omissions like solar power and movable shades, geothermal cooling, and a composting toilet will be rectified in the future.

As Robert Houghtalen, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering at AUS, put it: “Civil engineering students often produce designs and reports for their senior projects; they rarely build what they design”.

Houghtalen’s own speciality is water resources management, and his background includes a long stint working on humanitarian projects in Africa working. So he sees obvious educational value in the Tiny House project – “when our students constructed the Tiny House, they saw how easily design mistakes can be made as contractors try to assemble a structure from building plans” – but there’s also the longer-term social and personal impact: “the students felt a sense of accomplishment by promoting small-space, low-cost, sustainable living as a solution to the world’s housing challenges”.

It won’t solve all the world’s housing challenges, of course, but microhomes do represent an obvious quick fix (along with off-site manufacturing, and easy reuse of brownfield sites, and built-in energy saving, and off-grid power sources, and a hundred other possibilities). In developing countries, Tiny Houses offer a path out of homelessness and poverty; in developed countries, they provide opportunities for low-cost home ownership to those who would not otherwise have any prospects of living in a space they can call their own, including young graduates with no savings and aging retirees with no income.

Now let’s add the architectural and interior design elements that make such homes desirable – and even preferable.

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