From Foam to Thermacork

One step backward, two steps forward. This is what a lot of the learning experiences on THIMBY have felt like this summer as we work to complete our innovative-yet-replicable, sustainable-yet-affordable tiny house, reconciling contradictions and tradeoffs in the green building world. One such tradeoff: how to create the best possible building envelope in materials that are high performance, lightweight, readily available, and environmentally sustainable. The answer: cork. Thermacork insulation is made from the bark of cork trees harvested in Portugal, trees that grow for over 150 years in the unique Southwestern Mediterranean ecosystem that has supported abundant biodiversity and human economic enterprise for thousands of years. The bark is stripped during the months of June and July, once every 9 years per tree, allowing the tree to regenerate in the interim while being harvested over 15 times in its lifetime. It is a 100% natural material, with the resin produced by the tree serving as an adhesive. The finished material is a carbon negative product, waste cork is used in a cork biodiesel power plant that powers the manufacturing, and the overall process is  “one of the most sustainable business practices on Earth” according to the Thermacork website.

Here’s the step backward piece — we found out all this wonderful info about cork, and the fact that we could get the square footage of material we’d need donated to the project from Small Planet Supply, a Washington-based company dedicated to energy-efficient building materials and practices… after we’d already gone ahead and installed 1” rigid foam polyiso on the exterior facade, and painted it black to cover the foil and use as the backdrop for the cedar siding and battens. It was cheap, light, and readily available. The problem was, the paint kept chipping off the foil, leaving shiny imperfections that you’d see through the 1” gaps between cedar siding boards. We feared this would only get worse as we drove the whole thing down the highway to the competition and going forward in time. Wanting THIMBY to last well into the future, it seemed almost sacrilegious to mount all the reclaimed cedar we’d spent days milling to perfection on a shaky, petroleum-based product. Should we apply more layers of expensive liquid weather-proofing membranes? Or move in another direction?

Enter cork! After several phone calls with Small Planet Supply, we got the cork loaded on a truck Friday afternoon, and it arrived at the build site Monday. On Tuesday, powered by a team of friends and volunteers, all the foam insulation was removed and all the cork installed on the North and South facades, a 15 hour marathon workday. It installed easily, looks great and the cedar siding can be installed directly onto the cork, without any other layers of paint or material. Two steps forward.

The standard density cork insulation is R-4 per inch, and we consulted European product performance statements (where this product is much more commonly used) to verify that it wouldn’t degrade with exterior exposure in the 1” siding gaps. It’s tree bark, after all, naturally adapted to handle the sun, rain, and wind. Plus it’s affordable, $72 for a pack of 12 1” panels (we needed 8 packs to cover about 500 sf), only slightly more expensive than the cost of the foam insulation plus material to coat over it to make the exterior insulation ready to fasten to our wood siding. Other features of cork: it doesn’t lose thermal resistance over time, has great sound isolation, and resists compression. A true victory for the sustainable materials procurement of THIMBY!

Warmboard, Inc. Sponsorship

THIMBY (Tiny House in My Backyard) construction is well underway! We began our build process on May 23rd by putting together the support tray for the unit's water tanks which will be installed below the trailer deck. Since then our team has made rapid progress. We've installed PT plywood and insulation for the subfloor, assembled three of our walls, and are excited to announce that Warmboard, Inc. is now one of our project partners!

Warmboard, Inc. has donated 63 sq. ft. of Warmboard-R radiant panels to THIMBY, which will be installed in just a few weeks. We are incredibly excited to integrate these panels into our high-efficiency space and water heating system — which features a Sanden CO2 heat pump and Taco X-pump block powering the radiant floor loop.

 Image Source: Tiny House in My Backyard (THIMBY)

Image Source: Tiny House in My Backyard (THIMBY)

The Warmboard-R product adheres perfectly to THIMBY's sustainable design philosophy, providing radiant heating that lowers household energy usage and accomplishes our minimal space heating needs with maximal efficiency. The system will use an electric heat pump to heat a 42 gallon storage tank of water. This single tank of heated water will then supply hot water for THIMBY's domestic water demands as well as the Warmboard heating system. A flat plate heat exchanger will be used to keep domestic water separated from the Warmboard heating system. 

Warmboard Inc.'s radiant heating system is taking THIMBY's energy efficiency performance to the next level, and we can't thank them enough for their generous donation! We look forward to working with them in the coming weeks to plan and install the panels, and to showing the finished product to you all at the SMUD Tiny House Competition in October 2016. We'll be sharing more detailed information about how Warmboard-R works in THIMBY once the panels are in place — but in the meantime, we encourage you to check out Warmboard, Inc. on their website. To keep receiving updates on the THIMBY construction process or donate to the project, please visit here. We're really excited to bring together so many of the best ideas in tiny, simple living alongside off-grid energy and water systems with this project!


Gallery images courtesy of Warmboard, Inc.

Post Paris Reflections

The Paris Agreement sets a baseline for the next climate chapter, which we now must write

 “I see no objections,” rang the voice of COP president Laurent Fabius at the final plenary session of COP21, “the Paris agreement is adopted!” The hours of cheers, tears, and praise that followed this announcement—all deserved—drowned out the few voices of dissent. Nicaragua was one such country less than pleased with the deal, stating it was unhappy with the weak emissions reduction targets and insufficient compensation to developing nations already suffering the effects of climate change.

In many ways, Nicaragua’s objection is destructive and misguided; as one of nine countries refusing to submit an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) to reduce their own emissions, criticizing the final agreement on these lines carries an air of hypocrisy. A more diplomatic approach was taken by the Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum, who succeeded in rallying over 100 countries to his high-ambition coalition that recognizes the fate of nations most vulnerable to climate change if global temperatures rise even 2oC. Still, we need the Nicaraguas of the world to continue speaking up – at the national, subnational, and civil levels – if we are to move the climate needle away from the catastrophic zone.

The events outside the negotiating halls and throughout Paris during the conference were clear indications that this needle is no longer rusted in place from inaction. Increasingly, actors from all sectors of society are coming to understand that climate change represents both the greatest shared threat to humanity and the greatest opportunity for collaboration. An unprecedented number of subnational governments attended their own meetings in Paris during the first week of the COP. The “Under 2 MOU,” organized by CA Governor Jerry Brown in concert with the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, puts signatories on a path to cut emissions by 80% by 2030, or to fewer than 2 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. The MOU now has over 123 signatories from state and regional jurisdictions representing over 700 million people and cumulative emissions greater than the US as a whole.

From the private finance community, Bill Gates announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which plans to funnel over $2 billion towards renewable energy technology R&D. And from “civil society”, the demonstrations of activists throughout Paris and the world brought the sentiments of indigenous communities, island nations, and concerned citizens to center stage.  Even Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon added their shoes to the over 10,000 pairs laid out at the symbolic People’s Climate March, to show that solidarity remained despite a crackdown on large gatherings.

But let’s be clear—as Nicaragua was – we are nowhere close to a plan for preventing the degree of climate change that will wreak havoc on the world’s most vulnerable communities. The “road through Paris”, as numerous NGOs and governments alike have referred to it, necessitates these voices and actions growing louder and larger. An agreement based on global consensus is never going to set the bar for climate action. However, such an agreement can demarcate a firm baseline upon which both governments and private entities alike can build. Paris accomplished just that. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “We didn’t come to Paris to build a ceiling, we came to build a floor.”

We must now raise that floor. One of the most critical articles accepted in the final agreement was that of a “ratchet mechanism”, through which countries will be required to revise their emissions reduction plans every five years. Global realization of the impacts of climate change is growing, and sudden, “disruptive” shifts in both climate impacts and low-carbon technology and policy may occur in the near future. We need this mechanism for increasing our ambitions accordingly.

There certainly were notable absences in the final document as well. The goals of protecting indigenous rights and promoting gender and intergenerational equity were relegated to the non-legal preamble. This is another area where civil society will have to take the lead. Nations are not likely to adopt this language in a binding document any time soon. They know that continued burning of fossil fuels violates these rights, and they don’t want to open up the door to lawsuits from their own citizens or those of other nations. We – the activists, scientists, politicians, voters, CEOs, farmers, fisherman, resource managers, health officials, activists, and everyone in between – must hold our countries and ourselves accountable for creating the kind of world we want for future generations. We must continue to push as hard as possible, with our voices, our actions, and our vote, to move the needle towards a 1.5 degree world.

The Paris Agreement closed a monotonous and futile chapter in the climate change novel and began a new one. How that new chapter will read is up to us, but it’s imperative that we act promptly and decisively. There simply aren’t that many chapters left and, as Friday’s Eiffel Tower illumination reminded us, “No Planet B.”

THIMBY Goes to Paris: Taking Part in COP21 Climate Solutions

 Outside of Paris to the west, at the Center for International Pedagogy Studies (CIEP), over 25 teams of university students (plus one high school student) gathered on Saturday, December 5 to present an array of campus sustainability initiatives designed to help their home institutions act locally while thinking globally about climate change. Meanwhile, to the northeast of Paris, negotiators worked on hammering out a draft international climate agreement that would represent the first time all UNFCCC member institutions might agree to take meaningful action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Association of Research Universities (IARU) hosted the Global University Climate Forum during COP21 to bring together students in order to learn from each other and engage in conversation about climate solutions. Thousands of others from civil society have converged on Paris over the last couple of weeks to take part in these broader conversations and send a concerted message to negotiators that diverse actors, from students to indigenous groups to nonprofits and businesses, are behind a strong agreement. The event at CIEP was an opportunity for climate education and inspiration drawn from all corners of the globe: student groups represented many countries including Mexico, France, Finland, Denmark, Tanzania, China, Singapore, Germany, Australia and the US.

Beginning with an opening plenary from climatologist Hervé Le Treut on the science imperative for action, and following with a talk from UMass Boston Professor David Cash on policy challenges and opportunities, a common theme developed. We must pursue solutions from many angles, from the technical to the social to the political, in order to keep the planet healthy for future generations and to stay below a 2C warming threshold. During the three poster sessions, students presented and gave feedback to each other on campus solutions such as a mandatory climate change curriculum, ecotourism development, green rooftops in Paris, personalized climate change museum experiences, and divestment + reinvestment strategies. In our session, the THIMBY poster was crowded with people interested in affordable, sustainable living solutions and tiny houses in particular. It was an exciting hour of energetic conversation, with great discussions around various elements of the greywater treatment system, carbon accounting for the house, building materials, passive solar design, and further scalable applications of tiny houses. Beyond the use cases we are considering of urban infill housing for the Richmond community and student housing at the Berkeley Global Campus, others brought up applications such as refugee or disaster relief housing.

Professor Daniel Kammen commented at the end of the day, along with Professor Maria Ivanova and Zena Harrison, on the need to support other groups within the student network through continued conversation and collaboration. It was an important reminder of channeling inspiration and ideas into action, something that will be facilitated by the creation of an online platform to blog and stay in contact with the other IARU student groups over the next year. President Jobert of the Paris-Sorbonne University concluded on a note of optimism and friendship taking over after the horror of the recent terrorist attacks, reminding the audience how an international agreement can send a powerful message in favor of peace and cooperation. We left the CIEP as evening fell, and travelled by bus to a barge along the Seine for dinner and drinks, passing iconic Paris landmarks illuminated with both festive Christmas lights and, in the case of the Eiffel Tower, a reinforcement of the climate message beaming out across the city. It was a great end to a day of positive signs from the next generation of climate leaders, educators, negotiators, and scientists that both action and collaboration are happening. While we remain optimistic for the arrival of a meaningful global agreement by the end of the week, it was inspiring to see that whatever may happen in the next few days, the rising generation of climate scientists, activists, businesspeople, and politicians will continue to fight for the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

THIMBY attends the AASHE 2015 Conference & Expo

A few weeks ago, THIMBY team members Laney Siegner and Ian Bolliger travelled to Minneapolis, MN for the 10th annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference & Expo (October 25-28). The THIMBY delegation was part of a larger group of Berkeley students and staff organized by the Student Environmental Resource Center (SERC) to attend the conference.

AASHE 2015 kicked off with an opening keynote address from Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College and champion of sustainability science, in a large auditorium in the Minneapolis Convention Center filled with over 2,000 campus officials, students, and other sustainability activists. Throughout the four days, the conference continuously provided a great atmosphere to engage in conversation and resource sharing with diverse university stakeholders.

THIMBY presented a case study on Monday afternoon titled “Zero Net Energy Tiny Houses: A Campus Sustainable Housing Solution.” It was standing room only in a packed space of over 80 people, with some seated on the floor and others lining the walls at the back of the room. The presentation included a brief history of the THIMBY team, but focused on benefits and challenges relevant to other universities interested in promoting a student-run tiny house design/build team on their campus. The intent was to frame our project as a transferrable platform for hands-on, interdisciplinary, community-oriented sustainability education. We highlighted examples from our current work on plumbing system schematics and structural design drawings to showcase some preliminary outcomes of our systems integration efforts.

Attendees asked many great questions at the end of the presentation, suggesting strong interest in carrying the tiny house team idea back to their respective campuses. While all in attendance had heard of the tiny house movement (who hasn’t, unless you’ve been living under a rock?) few had lived in a tiny house or built their own, confirming our hypothesis that while enthusiasm for tiny houses is high, actual application and scaling of tiny houses remains limited. However, there were at least 2 other presentations on tiny houses at the conference: one from a student who’d built and currently lives in a tiny house near the Green Mountain College campus in VT, and another a poster presentation from a group at Randolph college building tiny houses on campus using straw bale and cob construction. We have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a growing number of presentations at future AASHE conferences on completed zero net energy tiny house projects on college campuses… and, of course, THIMBY plans to be one of them!

Following the presentation, we were free to enjoy the rest of the conference and the great city of Minneapolis at a beautiful time of year—leaf season and fall in the Midwest! We returned with contacts from across the country interested in or already pursuing campus tiny house projects, as well as renewed enthusiasm for the high level of interest in tiny house design that we saw in virtually all conference-goers. The completion of the house is just one step in the journey, however. We hope to build off of our experience at AASHE to expand upon the educational arm of THIMBY. We’re excited to kick off our student run “DeCal” course on sustainable design this spring and are looking forward to a host of workshops and community discussions that are in the works. Stay tuned!