Hands-On Teaching with Tiny Houses in Austin
While working on my upcoming article about California's owner-builder movement and its connection to today's tiny homes, I reconnected with Peter Pfeiffer, founding principal at Barley Pfeiffer Architecture in Austin, Texas. Pfeiffer recently used a tiny house as the basis of an educational project for students in a construction class at Austin Community College. The goal of the project was to teach best practices in high performance building science, including energy-efficient residential construction, and building a small structure was an ideal way to teach a range of techniques in a short time. Upon completion, the house was sold at a fundraising auction for the college. The new owner will use it as a guest house on his ranch in the Austin area.
Pfeiffer cautions against assuming that the house’s small size made it quick and easy to design and build. In fact, “it was quite the opposite. This was a tougher design project than a bungalow.” He supplied his students with a 45-page specifications manual and comprehensive, extremely detailed construction documents. As the house became a reality, the students learned principles of design, engineering, best practices in building science, and energy conservation. Its clean, simple aesthetics belie the amounts of time and energy that went into creating it.
Pfeiffer specializes in high-performance home design and used this project to demonstrate two fundamental principles: sensitivity to local climate conditions and passive solar design to minimize heating and cooling loads, while enhancing occupant comfort and health. The house’s most important energy-saving feature is that it is orientation-specific, designed to minimize heat gain through radiation. Its new owner will receive detailed instructions on how to position it properly. Other critical energy-efficiency features of the house include: super-tight construction with closed-cell spray foam to provide both insulation and rigidity, as well as humidity and infiltration control; radiation control using a shading trellis and awnings; and a proprietary “shading umbrella” ventilated radiant barrier metal roofing system that combines the best of both worlds—a ventilated roof and a sealed attic that minimizes heat transfer to the attic and living spaces below. The house was designed for the local Austin climate but could be comfortably used in other warm regions.
Pfeiffer sees tiny houses like his demonstration project as ideal guest houses or work spaces, but is skeptical of their viability as permanent residences (the manufactured housing industry, he observes, is already producing those quite well). Even a pre-built tiny house cannot just be moved to a patch of land and immediately inhabited. This guest house, for example, will need a water supply, connection to a septic or sewer system, and electricity. As with owner-builders of the 1970s, today’s tiny-house enthusiasts need to think carefully about sewage/sanitation/plumbing in order to comply with health department requirements.
Mariel Wolfson is a freelance writer focusing on energy and environment. She recently completed a Ph.D. at Harvard University with a dissertation on the history of energy-efficient and healthy housing in the United States.
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