College teams think big and build tiny in house competition

Ready to downsize? Nine college teams proved the possibilities of living in a space less than 400 square feet in a sustainable way at a recent tiny house competition.

A student team from Santa Clara University won a tiny house competition with a revolving, solar-powered, 283-square-foot house and was awarded $10,000 on Oct. 15.

An exhibition day at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento featured nine tiny houses from competing universities that demonstrated the possibilities of living sustainably in a space less than 400 square feet.

More than 2,000 people attended the exhibition day. “The crowd here is outrageous,” said Brent Sloan, organizer of the competition, which he said was the first of its kind. Neither the team members nor the organizers had anticipated that many people would come to the tiny village and were willing to wait in lines for hours.

“The line is five times longer than we expected,” said JJ Galvin, project manager of the Santa Clara University’s team.

The lines and crowds reflect the growing interest in the tiny house movement in the Bay Area amid a persistent affordable housing crisis. Supply has not kept up with demand, pushing rent prices up about 50 percent over the last five years, according to Zillow, the online real estate marketplace.

Rikki Chen, a Facebook engineer, drove two hours to the exhibition. She arrived at around 9 a.m., left at 4 p.m., and only got to tour five out of the nine tiny houses because of the crowds. Chen has been wanting to buy a tiny house for three years. While she is concerned about where to put it, and how the electricity and water system work, she said, “I feel having fewer items in the living space can result in better quality of life.”

Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, a nonprofit community-owned electric utility, put on the tiny house competition to promote energy-efficient, green building. All of the houses were powered at least in part by green energy, a priority in California that plans to hit 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

“We really want to push on the sustainability aspect,” UC Berkeley’s team member Oriya Cohen said. “We think about how to optimize and maximize the energy we can get from solar to completely run our house.”

The winning team’s house has solar panels on its roof that redirect with the sun. Wastewater from the shower and sink inside the house is used to water outdoor flowers. The house, at an estimated $80,000, excluding the labor fee, was the most expensive among the competitors. The least expensive house was priced at $20,000, without labor costs.

The interior of Santa Clara University’s 328-square-foot tiny house model. (Siqi Lin/Peninsula Press) #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

EXPLORE A TINY HOUSE IN THE 360-DEGREE IMAGE ABOVE: Pictured is the interior of Santa Clara University’s 328-square-foot house. The house features a bedroom with a murphy bed to save space, a full-sized kitchen that incorporates a sitting area and fold-out table. The home also contains a wet bathroom with a dry-flush toilet. The house is powered entirely by seven solar panels connected to saltwater batteries. It uses Structural Insulated Panels for their ease of manufacturing and high insulation factor. In order to improve solar efficiency by 30 percent, the house is connected to a solar tracking ring allowing the entire house to revolve as the sun moves across the sky. (Siqi Lin/Peninsula Press)

Judges over a three-day period evaluated the house’s livability, including how hot a shower could get, performed cooking simulations, toilet functionality, solar panel productivity and battery sustainability. Each team spent two years on the project. For many of the students, it was the first time they ever built a house. “We work very closely with the professors,” Galvin said. “Our engineers went to their office two or three times a week to work on the calculations to make sure everything is safe.”

The tiny house movement is about densifying single-family developments, according to Derek Ouyang, a lecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program in the Department of Communication.) “Every conversation about affordable housing cannot just be about large development in big places like San Francisco, we need to identify this type of low-hanging fruit like tiny homes in suburban neighborhoods,” Ouyang said.

If Palo Alto can pass ordinances that allow tiny homes in people’s backyards and reduce some of the permitting costs, Ouyang said he expects 20 to 30 percent of single-family homeowners to build tiny homes. “That would mean a sudden, huge housing supply,” Ouyang said.

The tiny house movement is already starting to catch on in cities on the Peninsula. A newly signed law on Sept. 27 allowed San Jose to become the first city in the Bay Area to build tiny homes for the homeless, the San Jose Mercury News reported on Oct. 7. San Jose’s next step is figuring out where to put the tiny homes.

Not every team’s tiny house could currently pass California’s building codes. “Our house uses a compost toilet, and it’s against California’s building codes,” said Cohen, the UC Berkeley team member. “I think the codes are not up to date.”

“It’s not for everybody, not for Mr. and Mrs. Smith with three kids,” said Sloan, the organizer. “But if it’s just you and your significant other, I think it’s a good solution because you can build it the way you want at a much lower cost.”

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