A Tiny House in Berkeley's Back Yard

The team of students who built the tiny house sit in front of their creation.

The THIMBY student team takes a break from constructing its tiny house in July 2016. From Left: Kenny Gotlieb, Ian Bolliger, AJ Glassman, Sabrina Werts, Laney Siegner, and Oriya Cohen.

Photo by AJ Glassman.

When about 190 nations attended the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP21) in Paris last winter, more than half a million activists marched in cities around the world. At the summit itself, three UC Berkeley students presented a project at the Global University Climate Forum, sponsored by the International Alliance of Research Universities. Leading the contingent was Ian Bolliger, a PhD student in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG).

The students’ project, called Tiny House in My Back Yard (THIMBY), is an off-grid micro-house, which they’re designing and building with sponsorship from ERG and campus student-supported groups like the Green Initiative Fund. THIMBY addresses two issues: affordable, sustainable housing and carbon emissions. “Consensus on a global scale can never be sufficiently ambitious,” Bolliger said. “We need to take a bottom-up approach, with our own boots on the ground.”

Bolliger and an interdisciplinary team of both undergraduate and graduate students from more than 12 Berkeley departments are working on the house’s construction at the Richmond Field Station. They plan to have the structure completed by October 2016, to compete in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s 2016 Tiny House Competition.

The 170-square-foot, 100 percent solar-powered home on wheels will feature such cutting-edge energy- and water-efficiency systems as a living wall to filter household gray water and a composting toilet and solid waste “oven” to allow for composting of human waste. A lithium-ion battery will store energy from eight solar panels, and an air-to-water heat pump will provide hot water and space heating through a hydronic radiant floor system.

In collaboration with the Bay Area Environmentally Aware Consulting Network, the team has developed a tool to quantify the house’s embedded carbon emissions, which it estimates to be around 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). A typical 1,750-square-foot house has around 80 tCO2e of embedded emissions, plus additional yearly emissions associated with natural gas and grid electricity use. Finally, THIMBY will be small enough to fit in the back yards of most urban lots.