Just as a couple’s first baby arrives, who would be crazy enough to take off on a year-long tour around the United States? Corbett and Grace Lunsford, that’s who, along with their custom-made tiny house designed to promote sustainable living, and perhaps also help create a better world for their baby (and any future grandchildren).
The 210 square-foot house (including a loft) “is a perfect vehicle, a microcosm,” exclaims the ebullient Corbett, perched in the kitchen seat conveniently located above the bed. One of the couple’s two cats snoozes below, a picture of domestic bliss. The house is parked in the lot of the Takoma Park, Maryland food coop, the fifth stop on their twenty city Proof Is Possible tour.
E quipped with solar panels, airtight construction, and an array of instruments to constantly measure air quality and energy use, the house may be an arbiter of the future. It “emits only 1.3 tons of CO2 per year,” explains Corbett, and the electric and water systems are completely off grid.
Somehow, the young family can get by on only 50 gallons of water a week, helped along by a composting toilet. By contrast, the average American family uses 400 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency!
The Lunsfords live lightly, flitting across the country on their unusual odyssey. With their film and home performance companies, the two are “small enough to have no risk” to employees or backers, so that “we can be experimenters,” says Corbett.
The couple are not strangers to radical lifestyle change. Corbett spent seven years playing piano for theaters and dance schools. “Dancers are the poorest of artists,” he says. “I was begging for money from them, they were begging for money from me.”
So his wife “could continue being an actor,” Corbett quit his piano career in 2008. He decided to “let the universe tell me what it wanted.” Flailing about for a new career, Corbett took advice from Grace’s brother-in-law, who suggested he work in energy efficiency. “Hardly anyone in Chicago was doing it then,” says Corbett.
All it took to get started was a week-long certification program, an absurdly short time for a sophisticated practice. Soon Corbett was in business, deploying such technology as a blower-door test and infrared photography to find and seal up any flaws. Simultaneously, he was educating himself on-the-fly about the intricacies of energy efficiency and home performance.
Over eight years in the business, Corbett came to realize that the two main features of an energy efficient house, air flow and heat flow, are not enough to consider. There are also moisture control and, most important, air quality, but because they do not directly relate to energy efficiency these are often neglected. Indeed, sealing up a house without accounting for these can create mold and mildew.
A variety of experts have come to the same conclusion. “Over time standards have changed,” explains Brian Toll, President of ecobeco, a home performance company in Maryland. “The best way is to tighten a building as much as you possibly can, then add a mechanical ventilation system to add a deliberate amount of air,” and exhaust old air, “on a regular basis.” Doing so means “people get enough fresh air, and dilutes pollution inside the house.”
Corbett compares home diagnosis to a medical diagnosis, in which every part of the system is related to every other part and a comprehensive perspective is provided. (Not all doctors realize this.) Most important is that a house’s performance be measurable; for Corbett, this is the “heart of why some contractors are better—some can test their work and prove that it works.”
For homeowners, this means that you “get control over your house, make it do what you want.” Owners can thus balance such factors as energy efficiency and humidity control, for instance by opening windows if they throw a party.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of work on home heating and cooling neglects such practices. Toll states that “95% of HVAC contractors, insulation contractors and regular contractors” are “not trained properly in diagnosing what’s going on in people’s houses.” Many will simply sell you more, whether it be a larger furnace or air conditioner, when often the solution is efficiency. Tighten houses and improving duct systems which will save you money in the long run while helping the planet.
Similarly, the average consumer is ineffective at diagnosing his or her own house. For instance, “most people when they feel cold think, oh it’s my windows,” says Toll. Instead, the problem is often with the attic or basement.
Fortunately, there is a way to ensure that your contractor is doing a complete diagnosis using the most up-to-date standards. Simply make sure that he or she is credentialed through the Building Performance Institute or is participating in the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program. Otherwise, says Toll, “all bets are off.”
In addition, many states have incentive programs for energy efficiency, so homeowners should look into these before making any changes.
Popularizing such improvements is the real objective of the Proof Is Possible tour. “Everyone is interested in tiny houses now. It’s a great hook to get people in the door, to talk about consuming less,” exclaims Corbett. Once curious people step inside, the Lunsfords can engage them on home performance.
The Lunsfords recognize that most people won’t embrace the fully sustainable lifestyle they are embodying, and almost none will choose to live in such a tiny home. “We’re not encouraging everybody to do it by any means,” says Grace.
Most change will be incremental. “I live in a tiny house, recycle, walk everywhere—but my clients don’t,” says Corbett. “I can do some good for the planet, get a better handle on bigger homes.” Those who feel incomplete without an indoor pool or wine cellar can still have them, but at least these luxury items will be more sustainable.
Whether or not it causes people to downsize, the tour is certainly getting visitors to make their homes more sustainable. The most recent stop, sponsored by ecobeco, included two days in Rockville, Maryland and five days in Takoma Park, Maryland. Nearly a thousand people visited the house, explains Toll, resulting in about a hundred signing up for an energy audit or consultation. Ten percent may seem small, but it is huge compared to the numbers that respond to a typical advertising campaign.
“People don’t know how much they need to know this,” exclaims Grace. The knowledge is out there, but is not being implemented widely. If enough people participate, “we can change how we build houses and how we retrofit,” says Toll. Complete home diagnosis and design can improve the health of families, and of the planet. Many of us can, indeed, become proud owners of “the house of the future.”