The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Living In A Box

I’m livin’ in a box
I’m livin’ in a cardboard box…

“Living in a Box,” Living In A Box, 1987

As my early obsession with funky looking eco-cars shows, I’m sometimes drawn towards quirky things that go against the grain of the mainstream. So, of course I was intrigued by this video about the Eco-Cube — a project to “build a compact home” no bigger than 10x10x10 feet “in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment.”

Interesting, especially when you take a couple of things into consideration about housing and the current economic crisis/recession.

Going through digital “to read” pile in Google Reader today, I came across Charles Marohn’s post “The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme”, in which Marohn made an interesting point about the unsustainability of scaling places to the automobile.

We often forget that the American pattern of suburban development is an experiment, one that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us. But our own history — let alone a tour of other parts of the world — reveals a different reality. Across cultures, over thousands of years, people have traditionally built places scaled to the individual. It is only the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile.

How is our experiment working?

At Strong Towns, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization I cofounded in 2009, we are most interested in understanding the intersection between local finance and land use. How does the design of our places impact their financial success or failure?

According to Marohn, not so great. It has all the sustainability of a ponzi scheme, according to him.

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  • Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  • Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  • Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

That brings us back to the Eco-Cube, which Steven Lacey at Climate Progress (where I saw the video) points out that the Cube is partially an attempt to ease us psychologically into shifting away from a lifestyle that may be neither environmentally of fiscally sustainable.

The designer, Dr. Mike Page, sees this project as psychological as much as it is environmental:


Dr Page has been looking at factors which affect behaviour change in relation to the environment. If we are to mitigate the problems of climate change, we are going to need to deal with problems that are as much psychological problems as they are technological problems. The Cube Project is an attempt to show that many of the technologies that we need are already commonly available and at an affordable price. The question is, why aren’t we using them? This is a psychological question.

In our McMansion-obsessed society, it may take a while for people to get comfortable with this type of concept. But if we’re going to build a world for 9 billion people, we’ll need to start thinking differently about how we craft our living spaces. With events like this fall’s Solar Decathlon exposing the public to smart, small, innovative design, we can only hope the groundwork is being laid.

I understand that, because as I was watching the video I had two questions: Does it have broadband? And where does the sattelite TV dish go?

Oh yeah, and how does a composting toilet work? Because it sounds like something that has to be emptied at the end of the composting process. (I assume you gotta do something with the compost.) And once that bathroom gets a door, will it also have an exhaust fan? This goes directly to how “friendly” two people living in that space might have to be. Dr. Page said the cube is designed so that one person or “two very friendly people” can live comfortably. I’m thinking you’d have to be extremely friendly, because it looks like you’d always be sharing personal space to some degree.

Actually, I had a few more questions: Is there a family model? Can it be configured to house a family of, say, four? Where would we put the kids? (Because I can tell you right now, I’m not living in a 10x10x10 cube with a three-year-old and an eight-year-old.) Would the size double? Would it become a kind of “modular home” model? Could we just add on cubes as the family grew?

The word “family” does not appear in the FAQ. But it does offer some assurance that “multiple Cubes could be arranged around some common social space, whether internal (perhaps containing extra facilities, such as laundry, entertainment, etc.) or external (perhaps areas for growing food, and leisure/sport facilities).” So perhaps we’d end up with a kind of familian “compound,” perhaps connected by an overarching structure that connected them and allowed movement between them without having to go outside.

I’m not against changing the way we live, to a more sustainable way of living. But I think I’m like a lot of people who will need to be eased into it, with assurances that the technologies I need and want will still be accessible. Sure, the composting toilet might take some getting used to (and I noted there was no dishwasher), but as long as I don’t have to build my own yurt or take up earthen-home construction, I may come along with minimal bitching.

But remember, I didn’t “no bitching.” I said “minimal”.

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