Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Tiny House image courtesy of

The crux of this post is simple: I desperately want to get my heart on paper regarding the topic of tiny houses. Also known as the “small house movement,” this concept has the capability of making a big impact on our world. Lots of digital ink has been spilled about tiny houses, but I wanted to introduce the readers of the New Leaf Energy blog to this movement in the hopes that it encourages you to get out and explore this new architectural and green living development.

200 ft2 or less

Imagine the entirety of your home life fitting into little more than the space allotted for a master bedroom and on-suite bathroom in a typical “McMansion.” On the surface, this may sound confining for some people – even claustrophobic – but for many, it rings of freedom, both from the trappings of a consumer-driven society and from the shackles of a weighty 30-year mortgage. All of the sudden, living in your walk-in closet begins to feel like an open door to a new world.

Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Wooden tiny house image courtesy of

Let’s begin with the basics. A tiny house is just that – a house. It’s not a mobile home, it’s not a camper, it’s not temporary, and it’s not a last resort. Tiny houses are typically less than 200 ft2 in size and constructed on the back of a flat bed trailer, as they are usually too small to be constructed as permanent dwellings in many jurisdictions. These dwellings are the living embodiment of an Ikea showroom micro-apartment concept display, marrying innovation with efficiency.

Often these amazing homes adapt a main living space for multiple uses including office space, living room, and dining room. Many folks build a 2nd floor loft as a bedroom and some include a small front porch. Don’t think that these tiny habitations are without modern comforts, as a kitchen, shower, and toilet are usually incorporated. The idea isn’t to do without modern luxuries; it’s about enjoying them in a smaller space.

To facilitate the necessities, most folks design their tiny homes complete with standard electricity hookups and can attach to plumbing and sewerage in a manner similar to an RV. For those who choose a greener path, these efficient dwellings can be partially or completely powered by solar panel arrays and can incorporate a composting toilet. Lastly, these homes can be as permanent as any home, complete with a yard and a white picket fence.

Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Tiny House in Portland, OR image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Living Simply with Less

A tiny house represents the choice to live small so that you can live how you please. For example, I am madly in love with every object of any sentimentality, and as such, I’m owned by the very things that belong to me. Living in a tiny house means learning to simplify – or to keep less and experience more. This “simple life” can a difficult pill to swallow. My wife and I have waxed philosophic about this topic, and we know it’s easier said than done, but imagine a life where all of your home concerns can be summed up in a single word: ease.

One of the greatest freedoms with regard to a tiny house is financial ease. For a manufactured tiny house greater than 170 ft2 in size, you can expect to pay upwards of $70,000, but if you are willing to dig in and build it yourself, you can do it for half the price while creating a lifetime of memories. In our case, if we built our own tiny house, and bought some land near us in Fort Worth, we could expect to save about $2,000 per month in mortgage payments alone.

Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Tiny House Interior image courtesy of

Moving beyond your finances, having a tiny house means having less to care for and less to worry over. Your home itself gets smaller, but your world gets exponentially larger as you let go of the trappings that come with a large home cluttered by possessions.

Now, take this concept one step further: your home now has legs. As tiny homes are permanent, you can place yours on a plot of land like any other house with a yard and fence, but where you choose to hang your hat, and for how long, is limited only by your imagination. With a small or even non-existent mortgage, a home on wheels, and a sense of adventure, your family can go wherever your heart wishes to be.

Big Dreams of Tiny Living: Investigating the Small House Movement

Gregory Paul Johnson’s Tiny House image courtesy of

Eco-Friendly Opportunities

Beyond the personal benefits of tiny living, Mother Earth benefits as well. At its most basic level, the smaller your dwelling, the smaller your individual footprint on this earth. Tiny houses require less electricity to operate, use less water, and require fewer resources to build. Tiny houses help you to live in harmony with nature and can bring you even closer to a carbon-neutral life.

Other Small Home Options

As appealing as a tiny house is to both my wife and me, we have a son now, and we would eventually like another. This makes a tiny house a tough sell for a growing family. As amazing as the small house movement is, not everyone can make the transition into a tiny dream on wheels. One step up from a tiny house is a little house. As these structures are permanent, they flirt with the minimum square footage allowed by local zoning, usually between 500-600 ft2. These little houses can offer more space for a young family while still allowing for the benefits of financial ease and a simpler life. Little living comes in more than one size indeed.

The thought that life can be flexible, easy, and affordable is truly amazing. In some ways this sense of freedom is the epitome of the American spirit, but conversely it takes a willingness to adjust your vision the American dream. What constitutes the perfect home is an entirely personal thing, but I would encourage you to expand your thinking into something a bit smaller, a bit more personal, and a whole lot more liberating than what we as Americans are accustomed to. Here’s to tiny living!

Landscaping Your Home to Improve Privacy, Noise Control, and Property Value in 3 Steps

Landscaping Your Home to Improve Privacy, Noise Control, and Property Value in 3 StepsMost people prefer homes that give the curbside impression of being open and welcoming. Yet at the same time, a house must be a private refuge for its occupants from the rest of the world, a place that limits or excludes prying eyes and outside noises. Fortunately, both these can achieved easily by landscaping your home and property while simultaneously enhancing your home’s value. Let’s look at 3 ways investing in the landscaping around your home can enhance your privacy, improve noise control, and increase the property value.

1) Private Investment: Enjoy Backyard Solitude

As Robert Frost observed in his poem, “Mending Wall”, “Good fences make good neighbors.” You might like your neighbors dearly, but you don’t want to share everything with them. With the current trend to build larger houses on smaller sized lots, many homeowners feel their outdoors is more like a fishbowl than a private yard in which to relax or play.

Landscaping Your Home to Improve Privacy, Noise Control, and Property Value in 3 Steps

Privacy Fence image courtesy of Field Outdoor Spaces.

Obviously, building a privacy fence is the easiest and most effective way to make your yard more secluded. Fences themselves don’t need to look boring and bulky. Include design that break up lines (such as lattice) or have sculptural elements to make them interesting and inviting. You can also achieve the same effect by planting trees, shrubs, or a hedge along your property line to screen the view into and the view out-from your yard. To improve the privacy of a particular space, such as a deck, porch, or patio, use trees and flowering shrubs (which add cooling shade). You can also build privacy planters or a simple trellis to act as attractive view blocks.

Privacy landscaping also plays an important practical role in home security. Don’t plant bushes, trees or other obstacles that block your line of sight of the sidewalk or driveway. The same also holds in reverse: screening a window behind a shrub from the street also creates a place where a burglar can stand unseen from the street. While you don’t want to be watched inside your home, you do want the outside, especially entryways, visible from the street.

Ornamental landscape lighting eliminates shadowy corners and low shrubs near foundations denies would-be intruders a place to hide. Also remember to prune trees near your home so that there are no branches lower than seven feet to prevent intruders from climbing into an upper story window. Thorny shrubs and hedges serve as a painful deterrent!

Here’s a personal example: a few summers ago, a pair of drunk college boys stumbled through a low hedge into my front yard to urinate but got tangled up in a patch of thorny raspberries. They stopped screaming after the cops arrived and took them downtown.

2) Sound Investment: Reduce Unwelcome Noise

Rumbling truck exhaust, motor noise, squealing brakes — for many homeowners, street noise is their biggest complaint about their property. While some recommend planting evergreen trees and hedges to reduce road noise, the real data suggests that vegetation alone has a poor effect on reducing noise. Though leaves and branches do absorb some sound, most passes right through vegetation instead of being deflected.

Thus, if you do use vegetation alone, you’ll need lots of it. According to the Federal Highway Administration, “Vegetation, if it is high enough, wide enough, and dense enough that it cannot be seen over or through, can decrease highway traffic noise. 30 meters [approximately 100 feet] of dense vegetation can reduce noise by five decibels.” Even the USDA National Agroforestry Center (NAC) recommends planting a 20- to 50-foot wide buffer along roads where the speed limit is less than 40 mph. Not many house lots are laid out or sized for this.

Trickling Fountain image courtesy of Amy Gallo and This Old House.

Trickling Fountain image courtesy of Amy Gallo and This Old House.

Yet as impractical as it seems, planting trees and shrubs may distract a homeowner from noticing road noise as much, especially when birds and other wildlife take up residence in the vegetation. Diverting your attention from something irritating with something pleasant is a very effective technique. For example, white noise can mask traffic noise. A simple yet stylish white noise generator is a trickling fountain. Since the splashing noise is mainly in the same frequency range as traffic noise, it covers over traffic noise quite nicely.

Apart from concrete highway noise barriers or masonry walls, earthen berms are also very effective in deflecting road noise. Planted with evergreens and shrubs, they can add to your home’s privacy while reducing unwelcome noise. They can also be topped with a modest masonry wall to enhance sound deflection. Just how feasible such a project is depends on your property’s topography (and your budget).

3) Growing Investment: Develop that Yard

Landscaping Your Home to Improve Privacy, Noise Control, and Property Value in 3 Steps

Landscaped Front Yard image courtesy of Firepile.

The really big payoff to landscaping your home comes at sale time. Compared to homes with plain lawns, landscaped homes tend to sell faster. They have that all-important curb appeal that says to a buyer, “You want to live in this attractive, well-cared-for home.” A 1999 seven-state survey of attendees at a consumer home and garden show revealed that “a home valued at $150,000 with no landscape (lawn only) could be worth $8,250 to $19,050 more with a sophisticated landscape with color and large plants.” So, significant investment in well designed landscaping really does effect the perceived value and results in a higher selling price. The American Society of Landscape Architects encourages homeowners to invest 10 percent of the home’s value in landscaping.

Now, if you own a $150,000 home, you’ll want to do some careful planning before shelling out $15,000. Key ideas to keep in mind are:

  • Is the landscaping attractive to a prospective buyer?
  • Is it difficult to maintain?
  • Will it improve energy cost savings?
  • Are there any elements that could become potential hazards? (Trees too close to the house, will overgrown bushes cause moisture/rot problems, how does this affect security?)

As you plan, talk with experts at local nurseries. Also, consult with landscaping professionals about noise control and security options. And be sure to talk with your county extension office because they also guide you to other resources that may save you time and expense in your area.

What ideas do you have for landscaping your home to improve privacy, noise control, and property value? Anything extra economical or eco-friendly? Share with us in the comments!

DIY Projects to Save You Money – Pet Edition

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Onyx the cat in bed

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always lived with pets: dogs, cats, fish, small mammals, and most recently, hermit crabs, a box turtle, and a triops! Pets are near and dear to my heart, but I’m not the first one to tell you that they can be expensive! In this month’s installment of “DIY Projects to Save You Money,” we’re discussing ways to reduce pet costs by using materials already lying around the house or creating inexpensive alternatives.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

TREATS - Making your own pet treats is much easier than you may think! If you can bake cookies, you can bake your own dog biscuits. While there are some foods you need to avoid offering your pets, most ingredients already live in your pantry. Here is a super-easy, 3-ingredient recipe for banana dog treats from Diary of a Mad Crafter:

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Yummy Banana Dog Treats!


  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 banana, mashed
  • 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil


  1. Mix flour & banana together, then add enough coconut oil to keep it all together.
  2. Roll out & cut into shapes.
  3. Bake at 350 F for 15-20 mins.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

For your cats, try these organic cat treats made with chicken, spinach, and catnip.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Sasha and Dione, resting on the beds I made.

BEDS – After going through a few pricey beds, I was determined to find one that could go in the washing machine, so I decided to make my own! I made the no-sew fleece beds in the photo above (plus 2 cat beds) for under $20. All you need is a couple of yards of fleece and stuffing. I bought the fleece with a coupon and used thrift store pillows and comforters for the stuffing. Cut, tie, stuff, and done!

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Upcycled Dog Bed = Sleeping in Style

Upcycle your old stuff into pet beds! Use a vintage suitcase to make a dog bed or an old sweater into a super-soft snoozing pad. Attach an old wine crate to the wall to make your cat super happy. If you have some wooden pallets, you can make a dog bed. If you need to buy wood, Shanty 2 Chic did if for only $12!

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

ACCESSORIES - Collars & leashes can be a pet owner’s way of expressing their unique personality with their pets. Pet accessories come in all different types and colors – some are super fancy, others very utilitarian. Why not make your own collars? There is no end to the possibilities, and you pet can wear a collar for every occasion!

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

If you have a sewing machine, use webbing paired with fabric or ribbons for the classic version of an adjustable pet collar using this tutorial. You have the flexibility to buy the amount needed for your pet. Buying supplies in bulk can save you money in the long term, whether you make collars for your friends’ pets or create a variety for your own!

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

No sewing machine? No problem! Paracord is an excellent medium for pet collars, as it is lightweight but very strong & durable. Follow this step-by-step photo tutorial for a paracord collar for your pets.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Hooray for a new toy!

TOYS - Fleece dog toys are cheap & easy to make. You can use leftover fleece from an old blanket or buy it on sale with a coupon from a fabric store. You don’t need very much fabric – even 1 yard is enough to make multiple toys. If you don’t have access to fleece, cut strips of old t-shirts to make these same toys.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Play with me!

The quickest and easiest fleece toy is the simple braided rope using 3 strands of fleece. You could also take a simple braid and turn it in to a pull toy with a loop.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Square Knot Braided Toy

My favorite fleece toy is the square braid rope. It is heavy-duty and will withstand the roughest, toughest of the chewers out there. This rope uses 4 strands of fleece to make a square or box braided rope. Here is a video to help demonstrate as it is a bit trickier than the common 3-braid rope.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

There’s also the fleece pom-pom. You’ll have to watch this one a bit closer as the pieces can come off easily, and you don’t want your dog to eat them – fleece is not good for digestion! If you have a sewing machine, this version of the pom pom looks a bit more secure.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Selmea the cat, playing with her toys

For your cats, there are some simple toys you can make from toilet paper rolls. My cat, Selmea, loves chasing her toys around all over the place and carries them about the house.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

To make the felted wool ball toys for your cats, follow my directions here, except you can make them smaller and you can choose to add a bell or not.

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

The only kind of mouse you want in your house

Little mice toys can be sewn, knit, or crocheted. Include a bell or catnip for even more entertainment!

DIY Projects to Save You Money - Pet Edition

Taking good care of our pets will not only ensure a longer, healthier life for them, but can also improve your own health! Petting our animal friends can lower your blood pressure. These furry friends can also help you reduce your children’s risk of developing allergies and calm you down in anxious situations. They can even help reduce pain and lower cholesterol! After all they do for us, let’s be sure to take good care of them and spoil them with all of our DIY projects!

Picking Paint Colors: Your Color Choices can Save the Planet (and Money)

Nature has become a master of color. Used in so many ways, each color choice serves a purpose, and the result is a model not only of function, but also of beauty. The use of color in our lives is no less powerful. We often look at color for its aesthetic contribution to our lives, the utility of our choice of hue evident in our daily lives. We use color to motivate, to educate, to inspire, and to communicate, but what if I told you that a simple color choice could help to save the planet?

Colors serve many functions in nature, and in an age when we source so much of our electricity through non-renewable sources, we can utilize color choices to help reduce our power consumption.Your Color Choices can Save the Planet (and Money): 3 Areas of Consideration in Your Home

1) Let’s start with your roof. If you take a look around your neighborhood, I’m willing to bet that most of the shingle roofs are dark. I live in Texas, and this fact never fails to astonish me, as we regularly have summer days in the triple digits. Going back to a classic grade school science lesson, light colors reflect radiant energy, while dark colors absorb it. Yes, the average home has insulation to help contain the conditioned air down below, but the attic of your home during the summer can become an oven and where does your duct work reside? You guessed it, in that oven.

Even with ample ventilation, a dark roof in the high heat of summer is a system working against itself. In order to help you reduce the stress on your home HVAC system and lower your electric bills, consider installing light colored shingles as a means to keep your attic cooler by reflecting some of that hot summer sunlight. If you’re not in the market for a new roof, consider a white tarp strung over the broadest parts of your roof.

Your Color Choices can Save the Planet (and Money): 3 Areas of Consideration in Your Home2) Watch out for the outside walls. Reflecting light isn’t only for your roof, your walls take quite a beating as well. Just down the road from our house is a beautiful little bungalow that, in addition to having a dark roof, is also painted a charcoal grey. I have to admit that the choice of color is amazing, but it’s not the smartest for our climate. While most homes have at least a minimum amount of insulation in their exterior walls, it’s no secret that no matter how well you attempt to seal your home there are many ways for heat to seep in during the summer months.

By choosing light exterior paint colors, you increase the albedo of your home and therefore reduce the amount of heat your home absorbs during those peak daytime hours. When combined with light colored roofing options, you can turn down your air conditioner while spending less of your hard-earned money on the electricity bill.

Your Color Choices can Save the Planet (and Money): 3 Areas of Consideration in Your Home3) Revisit the interior of your home. I’m a light fiend: I love a well-lit room and, as such, I love to ogle the lighting section at Ikea. But the colors that envelop your room are just as important to the atmosphere as the light fittings, and of equal impact when it comes to energy efficiency. From your choice in paint, to the color of your carpet, artwork, and furniture, the lighter you go, the fewer bulbs you’ll need in order to brighten your room. Opting for light colors will not only benefit your wallet, but also your mood. Studies have shown that cheerful colors are linked to better moods and more energy.

Choosing colors can be as much about aesthetics as it is about the environment.  Picking the right pallet will serve you and the planet well by helping to reduce your energy consumption, thereby making whatever color you choose a green one!

Landscaping Your Yard for Energy Savings: 3 Important Tips

Landscaping Your Yard for Energy Savings: 3 Important TipsWeather in Texas can run to the extremes, oppressively hot in the summer and startlingly cold in the winter. And if you’re not careful, how you’re landscaping your yard can impact your home energy usage.

While many homeowners prefer large lawns, these great expanses of grass get very hot in the summer and trap heat around the home. They also drink up lots of water. In the winter, these open lawns can’t stop the winds from pushing cold air all over the home. This can leave these homeowners with high energy bills from cooling and heating.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way you could control the climate around your home to blunt the harsh effects of weather? With these 3 helpful suggestions, you can start landscaping your yard to maximize your energy savings opportunities.

1) Think of Your Yard as a Microclimate

Landscaping the property around your home changes what could be a harsh microclimate into a more moderate one. Planting trees is one of the best (and easiest) ways to reduce hot and cold temperatures around your home. In the summer, trees along your home’s southern and southwestern sides provide afternoon shade from the hot sun. Computer simulations run by the US Forest Service showed that placing just two 25 foot tall trees on the western and eastern aspects of a home reduces the heat load and saves 23% off the yearly utility bill.

During the winter, shade trees lose their leaves, allowing the sun’s rays to warm your home. By planting evergreen trees and shrubs along the north side to form a wind-break, you can shield your home from cold winter winds. A windbreak will reduce wind speed for a distance of as much as 30 times the windbreak’s height.  A mature windbreak in some instances can save up to 40% in energy over a 20-year period.

Shrubs, bushes, flower beds, and other landscaping features in your yard also provide energy saving effects. First off, by shading your yard, the air surrounding your home remains cooler. Planting bushes near your home can also help retain cooled night air longer. During the winter months, they help hold warmer air close to your home. Careful plantings that shade home’s air conditioner increase its efficiency by as much as 10%. If there’s a spot in your yard prone to accumulating water after a rain storm, planting shrubs to absorb that water will reduce humidity and eliminate a breeding site for mosquitoes. Plus, if you plant berry bushes, such as raspberries or blackberries, you can reap a delicious mid-summer snack.

2) Plant to Benefit the Community

Planting trees and vegetation also benefits your Texas community. For example, during the summer, cities tend to be 5°F hotter than surrounding rural areas due to the huge amounts of heat-absorbing concrete and pavement. Not only do shade trees reduce energy consumption for everyone, they also reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, reduce harmful exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, and they reduce storm water runoff that can cause flooding and erosion.

3) Plan Your Plants

Of course, the trick to successfully landscaping that saves energy is good planning. Some plantings require maintenance to prevent them from overgrowing and trapping moisture near your home. Trees should be placed so their branches don’t grow into the side of your home or along the roof and provide a path for varmints like raccoons. Start planning by consulting local nurseries, landscaping professionals, and your country extension agents.

Of course, Texas native species tend to thrive best. For example, choose trees that do well despite extremes of temperature and moisture (drought resistance), fight insects and disease capably, and resist wind damage. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service offers great resources, including an invaluable publication on Texas Shade Trees. Browsing the Aggie Horticulture site is also a great place for information on native fruits, nuts, vegetables, and ornamentals that will not only make your home look great but help you save energy.

Landscaping your yard should involve more than just making things look good. You can do some good for your home energy bills with a little extra effort and attention to detail.