What does it take to live in a 120-square-foot house? A lot of pride and $10 per month in utilities.
By Elizabeth Rose
Rok Haus owner Art Cormier’s house is a lodge fit for one with maneuverability limited to only 120 square feet, but it’s the epitome of space and energy efficiency.
His 7-foot-by-19-foot home sits atop a trailer he parks beneath a towering oak tree in the lot behind the climbing gym. A blue extension cord runs from the back of the house to an outdoor outlet, accompanied by a hose that brings water to his on-demand water heater and into his shower and sink; once that water travels down the drain, it is diverted to the small grove of fruit trees scattered across the yard.
Cormier, 54, moves through the house with ease, knowing when to rotate his hips and shoulders to avoid the inevitable obstructions that come with such a small space, but says his home doesn’t feel cramped, which he attributes to his sheer lack of stuff. He based his design on a floor plan from the California-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. “I think it seems so roomy because I haven’t cluttered it up yet. It’s not about how much space I can get,” says Cormier. “It’s how much can I get rid of and still be comfortable. It turns out you don’t need a whole lot.” His sleeping loft fits a full-size bed, and directly underneath it are the kitchen and the full bathroom, complete with a composting toilet, which Cormier says is the most efficient part of his home as it produces no sewer or black water. A collapsible poplar ladder next to the single-person futon in the living room provides the only passage to the sleeping loft.
The walls are made from structural insulated panel systems (SIPS) and receive most of the credit for keeping Cormier’s energy costs down. The panels resemble an ice cream sandwich: foam insulation squished between sheets of plywood, which provides more consistent temperature retention and eliminates the need for a traditional frame with studs. Eliminating studs prevents a break in insulation, and the rigidity of the structure prevents the house from swaying and shifting as it changes locations. “It’s an Igloo ice chest,” says John Landry, president of SIPS Louisiana, “so instead of a 4-ton (air conditioning) unit, you might only need a two-and-a-half-ton unit.” The walls are also mold-, mildew- and termite-resistant.
Cormier’s walls were custom cut at SIPS’ manufacturing facility in Arkansas from Cormier’s plans, and when it came to framing, “It was like putting together a puzzle,” he says. The custom cutting saved time — he framed it in less than a day and a half — and eliminated almost all waste associated with traditional construction. Landry established SIPS Louisiana after he served as chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s infrastructure task force following hurricanes Rita and Katrina and became familiar with SIPS panels as a way to build stronger, more energy-conscious homes. The panels themselves have a minimal environmental effect, according to Landry — the oriented strand board on the outside is from Canadian second-growth forests, and the foam insulation has been treated for off-gassing. UL Lafayette’s Beausoleil Home also utilized SIPS panels for the Solar Decathalon competition in 2010.
Along with the walls, Cormier installed low-emissivity windows that have a coating to reduce radiant heat, and all of his LED lights are from the Lafayette-based LALED. His total calculated utility cost is $10 a month, and he only recently installed a window unit — no need when a crosswind cooled his house during the spring. His refrigerator is built into the kitchen counter, disguised by a cutting board, and both the refrigerator and his stove top were designed for a sailboat, another residence where space is precious.
Because it is a tiny, portable house, Cormier’s structure fails to fall into any taxable residential category — it’s too small to be considered a mobile home and, because of that, he chooses not to receive any tax exemptions from the city for being so green. If he were to build the same structure in a residential area, he would not be able to take the same green initiatives that the small house affords him.
The pride Cormier has in his house becomes apparent when he describes the different woods that line the interior and exterior of his house. The outside is covered in reclaimed antique cypress from various abandoned buildings in the Lafayette area, something Cormier says is a benefit because of old cypress’ natural rot-, mildew- and insect-resisting properties. The interior walls are new cypress from a sustainable farm in Maringouin; the 100-year-old pine floors came from an old house; and he whittled antique walnut, oak, poplar and cypress from an estate sale into trim and thresholds.
Before moving into his new house two months ago, Cormier lived in houses ranging from 900 to 2,500 square feet, and decided he was better suited for a more primitive, low-waste lifestyle. “It was just less efficient. It was just a lot of walking around these walls and dead space,” he says of his former residences. “To cool 1,500 square feet just for me seemed pretty wasteful.”