Why Proof Will Be the New Normal // Part 2: A Tiny House with Big Ideas

April 03, 2017
Summer 2017
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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This is part 2 of a series of articles on Corbett Lunsford and Grace McPhillips Lunsford’s PROOF is POSSIBLE tiny house tour.

Corbett, who likes to remind people that he’d never built a house before, began constructing the TinyLab in November 2015 in his parents’ backyard in Valrico, Florida. While the PROOF is POSSIBLE tour is far from the first attempt to raise consumer awareness of home performance—utility-sponsored energy rebate programs come to mind—the concept clearly struck a chord, and support poured in from dozens of individual and corporate sponsors.

Bill Spohn, CEO of TruTech Tools, was impressed by the scope and bravery of the Lunsfords’ mission. TruTech provided them with a high-resolution Opgal smartphone thermal imager and promoted the tour through the company’s events and social media presence. Spohn praised the duo’s commitment and urged others in the sector to observe how they morphed technical concepts into language that resonates beyond the building performance community.

#TinyLab_Dining Loft
The half-ton Mitsubishi Electric 33 SEER ductless heat pump kept the home comfortable through every climate zone in the continental U.S.

“They are emotionally attached to this movement,” Spohn e says. “They decided to really live the life, and walk the talk . . . They have never-say-die type of spirits.”

Columbia Forest Products, which manufactures the formaldehyde-free PureBond hardwood plywood used in the TinyLab’s interior, sponsored a tour stop at the Greensboro Builders Association near its North Carolina headquarters.

In a blog post on Columbia’s website, Todd Vogelsinger, director of marketing, says that the Lunsfords helped illuminate practical solutions for homeowners interested in greener, healthier living. “People are eager to understand more about their homes, in terms of air quality, material choices, and energy savings, but often they don’t know who to call, or how to ask about these things,”

Even a guru like Corbett relied on lots of help to execute the TinyLab correctly. The ventilation systems alone went through four iterations; no turnkey solution existed for such a unique home. After consulting several manufacturers, independent scientists, and air quality experts, he arrived at the current design: a range hood paired with a pressure-activated makeup air damper; a sidewall-mounted exhaust fan that pulls 28 CFM from over the shower; and an energy recovery ventilator ducted discreetly through a walnut-finished soffit to deliver fresh air direct to the sleeping area. A Foobot air monitor tracks changes in the indoor environment.

The 210-square foot TinyLab might be the most efficient and livable house of its kind on the planet, but its goal is to inspire demand for proven performance in every home, no matter its footprint.

With the Foobot and other sensors, “we are monitoring the volatile organic compounds in the house continuously, every minute of every day, as well as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulates, and radon,” Corbett told Green Living magazine.

Another challenge arose when it came time to insulate the TinyLab’s 1,000 square feet of enclosure area. Corbett’s first choice was recycled denim, an eco-friendly material with excellent thermal performance and acoustic ratings, but he found that its tendency to sag overcame its friction fit between framing members. Especially in the ceiling, the material proved impractical for high-quality installation. But rather than cram it in and degrade its performance the way a less-concerned builder might have done, he changed his plan and selected mineral wool, a stiffer material with comparable properties, showing that an open mind goes further in high-performance construction than unyielding dogma.

The same dedication to technique shows in the home’s beautifully crafted interior details, like the hammered-copper farmhouse sink and the storage drawers nested under the stairs. My fiancée, who joined me for the visit in D.C., was surprised by how pleasant and airy it was. She remarked that the bathroom, which also houses a litter box, smelled better than ours at home. Grace, carrying a napping Nanette, told us how she had completely shut out the noise of a nearby rock concert the other night by closing the windows. Corbett says this shows that homeowners don’t need to be fed a stream of facts and data about pressure and heat flows. They just want tangible proof of quality.

So just tell them, “‘Hey, I can prove that this house is scientifically better than that house over there. This house is going to make your wife love you, and that house is going to make your wife hate you,’” says Corbett. And he adds: “You want to talk about an awesome life, get your wife to be in love with you by buying her a house that makes her happy—you know what I mean?”

Griffin Hagle is an energy and environment communicator living in Barrow, Alaska.

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