For twenty eight years I’ve been searching for something. A mission, a purpose, a place to call home. I’ve been searching in myself, in others, in culture, books, careers, and geographic locations. I seek a lifestyle in which my actions are complimented by that of others for the common good of all. This is community. Relationships. Sharing. Caring. Consoling. Building. Growing. Development. Strength. Harmony. Organized living. I’m looking to matter as a member of society, to see my efforts build safety, security, and prosperity. I want to know my neighbors, not just in passing small talk or weekend benders, but to feel connected such that I am as welcome in their home, as they are in mine. I want to better the world, but first I must better myself and the lives of the people around me, and the rest will follow. To set an example of what is possible. To demonstrate what can be done when you cast away doubt and ridicule; doing the right thing and doing it all the damn time!
I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds good: Human beings live best in groups of 20 to 30 people. I mean, anthropologically, people lived in small groups and not nations of 300 million. You can’t possibly know millions of people, nor agree on values or lifestyle. I was chatting with a very wise internet friend about this, Eddy. He has a blog on WordPress too you should check out: http://eddyfy.net/. There’s a lot of bullshit “back in the good ol’ days” stuff that is used largely by social conservatives attempting to control your lifestyle, and bend it to their vision, as fascists tend to to with fairytale narratives. But, one thing I can say is true about the old days, is that people knew their neighbors, and could rely on some of them when the shit hit the fan, or even just for the cliche “cup of sugar”. That’s the very least of what I seek: community.
This is about what that community might look like, both in the idealized fashion created by my brain meat, and also the more realistic short term steps that can be taken to feel it all out and test the waters of communal living. First, a dream.
Noodle Soup Village
What I imagine is a small plot of land on which 10 or 15 tiny homes are parked in an urban community. Why urban? Because I live in Portland, and I like it here. There’s already a lot of cool stuff going on here, with amazing cultural expression, awesome food, a love of nature, and friendly people. This could just as easily take place in a rural area, but this is my dream, so let’s get down to brass tacks.
Several small, mainly mobile houses are set on a small plot of land, within easy biking distance from the cultural center of the city. They are, of course, oriented in such a way as to take the best advantage of the sun for the purposes of solar heating/cooling, and energy collection.
No established roadway surfaces are installed, for there is no need for automobiles directly within the community, although some limited parking is available at the perimeter, and enough room is planned in and around the community to make house relocation and reorientation possible. Simple walkways will suffice for access in the village. The typical low cut lawn grass would be used sparingly around the village, in favor of an edible lawn of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, as well as low maintenance deciduous plants.
Beyond the sprawling edible lawns, should be more intentional garden plots to serve as the primary food source of the village. Of course, these community gardens can be subdivided with individual plots for each home, with some cooperation about weed control, companion planting, and tillage. But, the opportunity also exists to share the garden as a whole, and assign individuals to serve as plant specialist’s for the season, so no person has to manage a whole garden of their own, but rather a plant species or a few companion plants. In either case, surpluses are shared, so little goes to waste.
Some type of greenhouse is erected to serve the needs of plant starts, or even growing certain hardier plants year round.
Composting is an obvious and necessary extension of gardening. With a variety of people, comes a variety of diets, and a variety of food waste. This makes the needed material supplies of a healthy compost pile consistently available. The thermophillic composting process returns a regular supply of valuable biodynamic hummus to the garden. Management of the compost pile can again, be handled communally, with responsibilities rotated weekly.
With food production comes food storage. The ideal conditions for many fruits and vegetables is at or below ground temperature thus, a root cellar type arrangement is in order. The entire community could share a common underground root cellar structure, insulated and ventilated so as to provide the ideal conditions to prolong the usefulness of the produce in question. Additionally, a common refrigerated room, and freezer space would be provided for items requiring those temperatures. I see no reason why those homes with the capability of having individual refrigerator/freezer units would not make use of them however, the communal food storage space would be useful for even those people to handle temporary surpluses. Communal food storage can be set up such that the energy needs and maintenance costs would be far lower than if everyone had large refrigerator/freezers to store said foods.
Since this community exists withing the urban boundary, transportation is not difficult. A many faceted approach is the best. Walking is extended by the city’s elaborate, but always improvable, public transportation system. Many of our community members would be bicyclists, if not all. This too is extendable by public transportation. A simple bike storage structure would be built with racks to shield them ffrom the elements. A simple, yet sturdy servicing post would allow individuals to maintain their bikes themselves, or more knowledgable people can assist them. A combination locked tool kit is provided, containing all the necessary tools and lubricants, as well as a tire pump. Not everyone here in Portland owns a personal automobile, and I’m sure this community would be no exception. Some members may choose to sell their cars, in favor of sharing vehicles, others may favor the ubiquitous car share programs like Zipcar and Car2Go.
A central community shower or showers, allow those without plumbing to still have bathing facilities. Even those with the capability to have their own tiny plumbing might opt to use that space for something else and utilize the central showers. Like food storage, the shared use of hot water reduces the energy cost of the community, and simplifies the infrastructure required to set everyone up with that capacity of plumbing. Most residents would likely still prefer to have running water, at least for one sink of their home, for washing dishes. The need for a hot water supply would depend on individual preference, and could easily be met with a small solar thermal collector, since showers are supplied elsewhere. The more individual showers that are added to the system, the greater the energy cost, but the cost per shower declines. Solar thermal collectors heat a sizable tank of potable water that is very well insulated and in close proximity to all the spigots. The warm drain water from the showers pass through a serviceable heat exchanger which picks up the waste heat in order to pre-heat the inflowing cold water into the system. At times when solar insolation is limited, and the solar collectors cannot keep up with demand, a mechanical heat pump come on which would, through a refrigeration process, extract enough heat from the wastewater in order to heat the supply water and keep up with demand. This would add electrical demand, and so should be avoided if possible. One of the best ways to reduce resource consumption and increase capacity, is to encourage the practice of a NAVY Shower.
A washing machine is definitely something to be shared. In close proximity to the showers, would be one or two high efficiency washers. Cold water use primarily, but hot water is supplied when needed. A conventional tumble dryer has no place here. At the most, a high speed centrifugal might be available. On any dry day, clothes should be hung outside to dry in the open air, as it is only sensible to do so. When rainy, which is often in the pacific northwest, a community drying room is setup, containing hanging racks, mesh and wire laying racks, oscillating fans, and dehumidifiers. This method of drying clothes takes far less energy than conventional tumble dryers, and is less abusive to clothes, making them last longer. This is not an uncommon practice in parts of Europe.
Many tiny house people are aware of the high costs of treating human sewage, and the lost nutrient density of human fertilizer when it is discarded down the sewer to be treated, along with harmful pathogens that are not properly metabolized in an anaerobic environment. See Proud Pooper, Fresh Water Stewardship, and A Bucket of Poop. Individuals may decide to manage their own composting toilets that may include a simple combined process bucket, a manufactured dry composting system, or a simple bucket and urine diverting system. In addition, a community toilet facility is provided for those who do not want a toilet within their home. Much like the advantage of a combined kitchen waste composting system, the combination of diets and proper maintenance of a communal humanure toilet, would create a more biodynamic product, which after a few years of composting, could be used directly on the ground to fertilize bushes and trees. Long term composting should make the material safe enough o fertilize vegetable gardens as well, returning necessary nutrients to the soil, completing the cycle. Diluted urine should be used in a short time to return nitrogen into the soil. Of course, a humanure toilet reduces fresh water consumption and also reduces the amount of liquid wastewater that has to be treated or discharged to the city sewers.
There will always be wastewater though, and if this is limited to grey water from showers, sinks, and washing machines, the rather benign nature of it, allows us to attempt treating it ourselves. Grey water has a high amount of dissolved solids, and when released directly into a body of water can be harmful to aquatic life. Assuming there are few if any toxins in the discharged water, the soap scum and soils feed bacteria, causing them to bloom and lowering the dissolved oxygen available, and creating all sorts of havoc in the ecosystem. Treatment could be done before discharge, even if it were to the city sewer, and may include active aerators to supply oxygen to beneficial bacteria metabolizing the effluent, and a multistage botanical cell, that through several cascades of plant boxes, would produce a cleaner effluent useful for irrigation, or perhaps even for fresh water supply. The reality of re-using this water for showers, sinks, and the washing machine, might prove to be too complex or costly, but it is possible.
Fresh water is supplied by city infrastructure, but with conservation efforts and reuse for irrigation, our demand is rather low. Rainwater catchment into storage cisterns seems unlikely considering that tiny houses have tiny roofs. A community building might contribute, but I’m not sure it would be enough. Nonetheless, I feel that a water storage tank is a wise and worthy project that would add some water security to the community in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake that could cut off utilities for some time. Two tanks would be better than one, so that their use can be rotated and the water in each tank never stagnates for long. This way, there is always at least one full tank, just in case.
Heating and Cooling
Heating and cooling of tiny houses take tiny amounts of resources. Nonetheless, improvements are always sought, and the fact that many of these homes are on wheels, offers the possibility of orienting them in such a was as to take the greatest advantage of the seasonal conditions. Perhaps, the longest side with the most windows faces towards the southern sun in the winter, and the shortest side with the fewest windows south in the summer, or some such arrangement. Deciduous trees grow leaves in the summer months, shading a home, and lose those leaves in the winter admitting more sunlight through. In a very cold climate, a centralized hydronic heating system might distribute hot water through underground insulated pipework to each home, but that would be costly and complex. Small, well insulated homes should probably have their own high efficiency heating and cooling heat pumps, solar thermal heating, or even liquid propane heaters. There are many alternatives available for these purposes.
Community electrical systems can be individual off grid production, centralized production with distribution, or some combination of the two with grid tie for short comings or surpluses. I intend my home to be completely electrically self sufficient, but others may prefer grid tie, or shared centralized production. If the community were entirely off grid, a central solar and wind generation system might supply power to the communal structure for water systems, refrigeration, clothes drying, etcetera. A low to medium voltage direct current distribution array supplies power to each home, and could also receive power from tiny house solar and wind production. Centralized energy storage batteries would be easier to manage and maintain, then individual battery banks. Unlikely, yet possible, is a kinetic energy storage medium like a motor / generator coupled flywheel that serves the same purpose as chemical batteries. In any case, conservation is key.
With communal living, comes cooperative consumption. A lending library allows members to share tools, books, and other resources, so that these items get plenty of use and everyone’s home isn’t cluttered with the same tools that everyone else has. Such a lending library could be centralized for some things like garden tools and power tools, but also a logbook could be created listing the resources available within the community; who has what and where. An informal “borrowing” system could be used, But I would suggest a the more structured method of log keeping with lending periods. It would be generally understood that items should be returned in clean, working order, but a monetary deposit system may provide more incentive to return things in a timely manner.
Skill Set Library
Along with sharing personal possessions, community members can share their skills and knowledge through educational workshops, assistance with specialized tasks, and the bartering or exchange of services. The gardening, composting, preserving food, cooking, building new homes, and the creation of new community spaces and facilities, are all opportunities to share knowledge and skills within the community, as well as with surrounding communities.
A Communal Space
There is much more to this dream, but I will leave it with this: Finally, there should be a central communal space where all villagers are welcome and comfortable. Ideally, this would be large enough to seat everyone in the community for a pot luck dinner or village meetings for planning, education, and conflict resolution.
The Reality Of It All
This all sounds lovely (to me), but in truth, in the real world, an urban village such as this would be difficult to get off the ground. LEGALLY. The water systems, energy systems, communal living; all of these things have been tried in various forms with varying success. That is not what I’m concerned about. Zoning law within city boundaries favor the construction of big houses with specific set backs, full grid hookups, a specific maximum occupancy density, and most importantly: NO OCCUPIED RECREATIONAL VEHICLES.
From the limited research I’ve done on zoning laws, tiny houses on wheels are often considered RVs, and that category of structure are only to be occupied temporarily; not full time. In the State of Oregon, it appears that temporary occupancy of an RV on private land is acceptable if the land owner allows it, and certain sanitation requirements are met. This law is further restricted by local or municipal laws. Portland laws are quite specific on the placement of an RV on private land, requiring an improved or paved surface for a motorhome or any trailer over 16 feet in length. There are also specific guidelines for the location on the property and the visibility of the RV from the street and by neighbors. Even though Oregon law appears to be less specific or restrictive, by those standards, an RV can be considered a residence if it is placed on a mobile home park or RV park and has the require sanitation hookups. I think in Portland though, even in an RV park, they are considered temporary residences, and maybe that’s why most places charge month to month and do not offer year long leases or the opportunity to purchase an RV space, like one might purchase a condo. WHatever the case may be, I think the only place one might live in a tiny house on wheels legally in Portland, OR, is within an RV park. That’s if they’ll accept you.
I suppose someone with enough money, architects, engineers, and lawyers, could create a tiny house “rv park” within city limits. That assumes that the surrounding community support were there (which I think is reasonable), and the governing body is forward thinking enough to approve such a measure, rather than approving another “green / eco-friendly” concrete fortress condominium / commercial space. Changing zoning laws to make such communities is reasonable, but it would have to include a new definition for RVs and/or tiny houses, that classify them for full time residence when sanitary requirements are met.
As a genuine RV park, the infrastructure to install such as electrical service, fresh water and sewage, are very expensive and must be done to code. The construction of manufactured structure parks also require paved roadways, and I believe paved or concrete pads for each unit. Something else to overcome. One of the cheaper ways to build such a community, if the law would allow it, is to have a single community building with water and sanitation that all the tiny house people could use. If the property were equipped an RV dump station, any mobile unit with storage tanks could be moved periodically for emptying. This is, of course, not ideal.
There are ways to live in a tiny house on wheels within Portland, but a large community of them together seems unlikely unless something changes. An alternative is to rent some space in someone’s backyard and claim residence in the big house. Not exactly legal, but if you aren’t bothering or hurting anyone, so what? Electricity can be off grid or supplied from a heavy extension cord connected to the big house. Fresh water is easily supplied from the house, and grey water disposal must be handled responsibly by finding a way to discharge it into the home’s sewer system somehow.
I believe one of the easiest ways to start a tiny house community is to buy a piece of property within the city that has a house on it and a large backyard. Park two to four tiny houses in the back and claim residence in the large home. The housers can either pay rent to the individual that purchases the house or they could collectively purchase the house together. The house itself, and maybe some shrubbery or fences, would prevent neighbors from complaining about, whatever neighbors complain about. The mother house could remain largely empty with the exception of laundry facilities, bathing, community kitchen, community lounge and dining, guest rooms, a chest freezer, workshop, craft room, attached green house, and whatever else. Unlike a vacant lot, where utilities and communal spaces need built (to modern codes), an existing house offers connections to the grid like water, sewer, electricity, gas, cable, and phone. It’s far less work, and maybe just the way to go.
This is the longest post I think I’ve ever written, and I’m sure I could keep going for another 3400 words, but it’s time to call it quits for today. I’d like to talk more about a practical approach to the Noodle Soup Village, but not today. Ta Ta!