MODESTEhouseTEST August 7-17, 2017
by W. Geoff Gjertson, AIA

JANUARY 15, 2018

There is a need for living with a small footprint. Due to the recent major floods in Louisiana many people became homeless; this created the need for small-scale homes which can be mass-produced. The MODESTEhouse student design/build team, created an innovative design and multiple manufacturing processes to get this done. The home consists of two main components, a stressed-skin curved structural “shell” on its southern facade and an aerogel insulated polycarbonate clad structural grid wall that houses storage simultaneously on the north facade. The CNC fabricated plywood grid is a multifunctional system, it angles and pushes out into the space manipulating circulation and complementing all other spaces. It houses windows, electrical conduit, lighting, microwave, and becomes a ladder at the end for access up to the loft. The trailer is 8.5 x 20 feet, with and additional 4 feet extended for the porch. The cladding systems include cypress lap siding (a local durable wood), and corrugated metal roofing, which clads both the wall/roof of the shell. The first MODESTEhouse prototype was delivered to a homeless man over the 2017 Holiday Break. The following recounts my personal interaction with the habitat. – Geoff Gjertson, AIA

The public is abuzz with tiny houses. There are approximately 27 tiny house TV shows and HGTV alone estimates 5 million viewers per week for one of its shows "Tiny House, Big Living." And the Facebook group, "Tiny House People" has over 39,000 members. What is it that makes these homes so fascinating and attractive? Is it the affordable, green or sustainable aspect of living small? Or is it the perceived liberation that getting rid of so many possessions and having mobility might afford?

It is my thesis that the current interest in tiny homes is their appeal to our inner child. We long for the simplicity, intimacy, and freedom of our youth. Some of us believe that we can escape from today’s problems, and find comfort and safety in these diminutive structures which are so reminiscent of our childhood forts and playhouses. But tiny houses also appeal to our inner cheapskate who often believes the myth that one can "do-it-yourself" quickly, cheaply, and satisfyingly.  Maybe Lowes Home Improvement and Home Depot are responsible for casting the tiny house spell?

In most cases this perceived life is “play and pretend” because many of us, including this author, are permanently entrenched in our consumer culture and all its trappings. To pare down to only 7 shirts and 4 pants would be difficult if not impossible for most people. To lack the storage for your old photo albums and trinkets from the past would be psychologically damaging. We have been raised to want, expect, and appreciate the American Dream with four bedrooms and an acre of land.

Yet many people admire and aspire to simple tiny house living. There is less to clean and maintain. There are smaller or even non-existent utility bills and little or no mortgage. But what would it really be like to give up 90% of your possessions and live in relative solitude? I underwent such a transformation and lived for two weeks in a tiny home of my student’s design and making: the MODESTEhouse- a 216 square foot, digitally-fabricated, prototypical, stressed-skin panel home on an 8'x20' trailer. The subsequent day-to-day experiences are the subject of this article.

The planning for my stay began a few days before when I made my first list of what I intended to bring with me.  So at first it was like planning or packing for a trip - basically items which you can fit in your suitcase. But then when I began to think about food it became somewhat of a camping trip. What foods could I prepare easily and would not take up too much space in my under counter refrigerator/freezer?

The day I moved in I quickly realized that my list was incomplete. There were some house-goods that I was missing. Because even though the home came equipped with a shower, compost toilet, kitchen sink, microwave, under counter refrigerator/freezer, microwave, water heater, and heating and air-conditioning, I needed things like a mirror, shower curtain, and additional pillows or cushions for the sofa. I also purchased more food and drinks at the grocery store than I originally planned. I was trying to not only live small but sustainably by using less paper, plastic, and aluminum. But in the end, my deep-seated desire for convenience drove me to purchase canned sparkling water, bottled soda, and paper napkins. Hopefully, I would make progress towards this goal over the two weeks.

I have multiple reasons for living in the home. The first is the one previously mentioned: I want to see what it is like to live in 216 square feet. Second, I would like to see what belongings and what food I truly want and need for two weeks. Third, I am looking forward to the solitude and quiet of living by myself. This solitude will allow me to read, write and research  as well as enjoy catching up on streaming videos. Finally, I am attempting to prove or disprove my theory about tiny homes appealing to our inner child.

Privacy was the first issue I had to deal with. Even though the university classes don't start for two weeks there are still plenty of people walking past the MODESTEhouse. Therefore I put up temporary paper blinds in the windows and used half of my shower curtain as a door into the bathroom (until we can install the sliding door.) Luckily no one came and knocked on the first day.

Another theory about the appeal of tiny houses is their smallness in relation to our ever-expanding world around us and in our computers. We are given too many choices and options everyday whether it's news sources (or fake news sources), breakfast choices, internet shopping sites, social media venues, clothes, etc. Tiny houses necessarily limit and I would say focus our attention on fewer, closer and more meaningful thoughts, things and necessities. This is not to say that you cannot have more than just the pure necessities in your tiny house but you do have limits. There are no limits in the ever expanding virtual world and we can always rent storage containers for our physical stuff. I would actually go so far as to say that not only does the smallness of tiny houses create a simpler life but also a more relaxed and contemplative life.

Admittedly, my intermittent stay in the MODESTEhouse over two weeks with a majority of my belongings still in my regular home, and my family waiting for me at dinner, is not a true and authentic tiny house living experience. However, one could argue that for a single, active, working person they probably would not spend more than 12 hours per day in their tiny home between work, activities, and visiting friends any way. But I have not had to make the really hard decisions and sacrifices of downsizing which many tiny house people have had to make.

The house is really livable. The sofa/bed is really a very comfortable seating area where I spend a majority of my time. The kitchen is very functional with the only inconveniences so far being no dishwasher. The refrigerator/freezer holds at least a week of groceries for a single person. The shower is really plenty big and the compost toilet amazingly is not gross! The AC is great- very quiet and uniformly cooling. The lighting is awesome and power consumption and generation is very efficient.

That being said, I would definitely make some modifications and additions. Of course the countertop peninsula/desk will be very useful when added. We should consider putting it at desk height (30") instead of countertop height (36"). I can imagine sitting and eating there more if we have a comfortable chair. If I was living here I would personalize it much more with belongings and art especially on the shelves. Like all tiny houses wall space is at a premium and small objects and frames will work best in one of the 70 shelf units. Possibly an area rug might also personalize and make the space more comfortable. I guess because of the extreme heat and lots of rain I have not had the opportunity to use the porch much but I believe some type of screening will be necessary. And of course operable blinds will be necessary. I keep paper on 3 of the six windows for now for privacy. The first day and night I was a bit paranoid about people possibly looking in. And when it became dark the shadows on the polycarbonate were a bit scary. But I eventually enjoyed my evening light shows and I did not worry about anyone looking in.

After 11 days and 114 hours in the MODESTEhouse, I can say with certainty that it is very livable. I cooked, showered, slept, and habituated very comfortably and I am sure I could live there much longer. Obviously I missed my family and I would probably eventually miss some of my belongings but there was serenity and simplicity in the MODESTEhouse. I have written about the best buildings and building processes as being “unhurried.” That is how I felt in the tiny house.


W. Geoff Gjertson, AIA is an architect and Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  He is the co-director of the Building Institute, a “hands-on” design/build program which serves the community by having students in collaboration with contractors build market-rate, sustainably-designed homes and installations. Six houses so far have followed in the footsteps of the BeauSoleil Louisiana Solar Home, an award-winning 2009 Solar Decathlon house.  His private practice work such as the Golden Residence and previous work with Holly and Smith Architects such as the Columbia Theatre, Rolling Residence and the SLU Classroom Building have won several state and regional awards.  His work has been published in professional and academic Journals such as Architectural Record, the Journal of Architectural Education, the Journal of Interior Design, and Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture proceedings.

W. Geoff Gjertson, Architect, AIA
Professor of Architecture
Co-Director of the Building Institute
Lafayette Coca-Cola/BORSF Endowed Professorship in Architecture
University of Louisiana at Lafayette