Turn Your Big House into an Efficient Tiny House with Bulkhead Living

If you’re into sustainable building, you’re aware of “tiny houses”. Tiny houses are, uh, tiny houses, with small environmental footprints. They’re built with a laser focus on space efficiency that you’d normally only find in a Tokyo apartment (or a Tokyo tiny house). Some are less than 100 square feet.

I love them. I’ve no use for space. I’m a tiny person who mostly sits and thinks, eats, and does an occasional pushup. Small spaces have the same cozy charm for me that piles of pillows had when I was 4: they’re safe, warm, secret places where the monsters can’t get me.

Like a pile of pillows, they’re cheap to build and offer miniscule heating and cooling bills. If they caught on they’d save us Buffetts of cash and slash our nation’s jaw-dropping carbon footprint (A Buffett is a currency unit equaling more money than you can fathom times 10)

To give you a sense of how much energy we waste, consider: the average lifetime cost of energy to run a home in the U.S. is about $250,000, which is more than the average cost of a home (about $220,000). By paying an extra $10,000 for an efficient house, one can easily save $150,000. But almost no one does. Why?

Partly, it’s that most people leave their houses before all those savings can be realized. But even if you left after 7 years (the national avg), you’d still save about $25,000.

But the main problem is that the upfront cost of extra efficiency is visible and immediate while the backside cost of wasted energy is hidden in bills and spread over years.

One advantage of tiny houses is that they’re cheap to build and their upfront costs are lower than for normal houses. But tiny houses aren’t likely to catch on, thanks to our stubborn preference for big homes.

Here I offer another option. For the last two years, I’ve followed a practice which affords me the benefits of tiny houses in the house I already live in, and the upfront costs are trivial. I call it Bulkhead Living.

The Method

  1. First, ask yourself: if you had to spend all your time in only one room of your house or apartment, which room would it be? For me it’s my living room. But for you it might be the den or kitchen or office or a bedroom.
  2. Make sure that room can be sealed off from the rest of the house by closing doors (if it can’t, either pick a different room or install doors).
  3. If you have central heat, buy an energy-efficient space heater suited to the dimensions of the room you’ve chosen.
  4. Whenever you want heat, close all the doors to that room, put towels at the base of each door to reduce airflow between rooms, heat that room only, and spend most of your time in that room.
  5. Never again use central heat.
  6. Congrats. You’ve created a tiny house inside your normal house. You’re energy bills will be slashed, you didn’t have to pay for a new house, and you still have space. The project will pay for itself in a few months at most and everything after is free money.
  7. Protip – get one of these:

More Tips and Caveats

      1. If you live in a frigid area, beware frozen pipes. To avoid them, leave your central heat on low, say at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Experiment with different temperatures (every house is different).
      2. Beware moisture in unheated rooms. Unevaporated moisture can bring mold. Bathrooms are especially vulnerable. Heat your bathroom with your space heater after each shower. If you live in a humid area, consider rotating between rooms on different days or buying an energy-efficient dehumidifier (I recommend Frigidaire).
      3. Bulkhead Living can also save on air-conditioning: install a window A/C unit in the room you want to cool (but make sure to remove it in winter because heat will escape through it.)
      4. If living mostly in one room is too restrictive, pick two adjoined rooms. We live in our kitchen + living room, about 300 square feet. The bedroom, bathroom, and office are all unheated. We sleep in the bedroom, but under 3 comforters in winter to stay toasty, which also allows us to turn off our heat entirely when sleeping.
      5. In mild weather, when no heat or A/C is needed, feel free to live in the whole house, of course.
      6. If your house has bad insulation, but you’re too cheap, short-minded, or broke to improve it, Bulkhead Living will allow you to insulate only the space you plan to heat and cool, which is cheaper and will pay for itself quickly.
      7. If you’re curious about buying a tiny house, you can try Bulkhead Living first to get a feel for it.
      8. Here’s Consumer Reports highest-rated space heater, which I recommend as well.

Bulkhead Living is so obvious and effective that there’s no way I’m the first to do it, but I can’t find discussions of it online (atrocious Googling skills here), nor do I have friends or family who practice it. It deserves to be more widely known and more frequently considered. Please spread it around.

-From the Sea

P.S. Yeah, I know, no one knows what a Bulkhead is and I should have chosen another name (Russian Doll Nesting?). But c’mon, I’m the Climate Pirate.

Posted January 31, 2011 in Actually Acting | 7 Comments

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Post a Comment

  1. Judy says:

    Living in a tiny spaces might persuade us to spend more time OUTSIDE our houses, either in the natural world or in communal spaces like libraries. We are, after all, both a part of that natural world and members of a larger human community.

  2. Nick B. says:

    You sound just like some of the owners of tiny houses whose experiences I’ve read about. Your hunch seems to bear out in practice.

    Many conversations about energy efficiency presently start with the assumption that we should focus only on changes that allow us to live *exactly* as we have been living, but more efficiently. I’ve discovered that this constraint is unwisely limiting. The practices from which I have most benefited are the practices which can most easily be seen as ‘inconvenient’ by someone who hasn’t cultivated them. For example: I try to get around town on my bike instead of my car. This seems like a big sweaty inconvenience before you start, but at least in my case, it’s made my life way better: more exercises, fresh air, and a sense of being more “out” in the world have combined to make my life a lighter, more enjoyable thing.

    Experiences like this have lead me to always consider doing the “inconvenient” thing. It often turns out that “inconvenient” is just a word we use to justify ingrained habits that keep us from being as happy and as fulfilled as we could be.

    I suspect that a preference for big houses is one of those habits. Certainly, other countries whose citizenry appear by all measures to be at least as happy as Americans live in much smaller spaces (I’m looking at you, Europe)

  3. Shyam Madas says:

    *thumbs up

  4. Nick B. says:

    [tip o' the hat]

  5. Ramsey says:

    I’ve implemented this idea for the past two winters. I’ve invested in 6 space heaters for half the house, where the other half is sealed off. Central heat is down to 60 degrees and in the coldest month of winter, my electric bill went down from $250 to $125. In that one month’s saving, I broke even with the cost of the six space heaters. Everything after that is pure savings. Plus, I’m glad I’m doing my part for the environment. Thanks for the article. Now all those people who thought I was crazy for doing this will keep their mouths closed.

  6. Nick Bentley says:

    @Ramsey, always delighted when I discover someone else who has developed a similar system. Keep on keeping on my friend.

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