This episode features work at WWU to create homes sustainably on a smaller scale. We talk with Dr. Imran Sheikh and Kellen Lynch from Project ZeNETH (Zero Net Energy Tiny House) about environmental science, who is really a “scientist” and the need/audience for tiny homes.
This episode was co-produced and edited by WWU student Andra Nordin
Click Here for Transcript
>> Here we go!
♪ Neutron, proton, mass defect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant
♪ Mass spectrograph, pure electron volt, atomic energy erupting
♪ As I get all open on betatron, gamma rays thermo cracking
♪ Cyclotron and any and every mic
♪ You’re on trans iridium, if you’re always uranium
♪ Molecules, spontaneous combustion, pow
♪ Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight
♪ I’m every element around
(Dr. Regina) Welcome to spark science where we explore stories of human curiosity. My name is Regina Barber DeGraff. I’m an astrophysicist here at Western Washington University and I’m here today without my cohost sadly. He is home with baby. I’m here today to talk about tiny houses and energy efficiency. I’m here with environment science professor Imran Sheikh and student at Western Washington University focused in energy studies Kellen Lynch. Welcome to the show.
(Imran) Thank you.
(Regina) This is a topic my students actually suggested we talk about. They heard that Western Washington University is building a tiny house and they are trying to make it net zero in energy efficiency. I’m in physics. I don’t know too much about any of that stuff or environmental science. Either of you can pitch it to me. What’s the big thing that’s happening?
(Imran) We’re building a net zero tiny house, which means that we are going to be producing as much electricity as we are using. It’s a small house. It’s about 200 square feet. We’re going to have solar photovoltaic on the roof to produce enough. Really, because we will make it so efficient we’re not going to need a ton of solar. That’s how that will work.
(Regina) Okay. As a professor in environmental science, how are you involved in this project?
(Imran). Before I came to Western, I’m a new Western arrival; I just started in September.
(Regina) Oh wow. You’re very new. [Laughing]
(Imran) Very new. But a project that I did in grad school was to build a net zero tiny house at Berkeley.
(Imran) We did for a competition that a utility in Sacramento California was organizing.
(Regina) Did you win?
(Imran) We got second.
(Regina) I hate the first place people. [Laughing.] That’s pretty good still. What was the award for first, second or third in this competition?
(Imran) Fame and fortune mostly.
(Regina) On the cover of science magazine.
(Imran) On the cover of a science magazine obviously.
(Regina) Not at all.
(Imran) A cash prize and pride.
(Regina) I would love both of those things.
(Imran) Both of those would be great. There’s a bunch of grad students that got excited about doing this thing. We hadn’t built a tiny house before. It’s not something that we were planning on doing. That sounds fun! We are all like theoretical and looking at spread sheets all day and building models. None of us were actually building anything real.
(Regina) Had you ever before hand? Were you a hands on kind of scientist before.
(Imran) I like tinkering but in my academic work I had not been doing that.
(Regina) Did you purpose this project to Western saying, let’s do that here because I did it in grad school?
(Imran) When I interviewed at Western, it was something that we talked about. I learned a lot from that experience. I think students would love it. Then Kellen and I were having a beer at Elizabeth Station. Kellen’s like, I want to learn about microgrids but what I really want to do is design and build a tiny house. I was like, I want to do that too! [Laughing.]
(Regina) Was Western behind this? How were they supporting this?
(Imran) They were, as kind of a teaching tool, everybody I’ve talked to has been excited about it. We’re still navigating exactly who’s going to fund it, where it’s going to go when it’s completed, who’s going to live it? Those are still unanswered questions. We are trying to figure out before we start building the think.
(Regina) I’m going to take us in the way back machine. I’m going to walk back and we’re going to come back to the idea of why tiny houses are so popular now. What’s happening with the landscape of housing and the environment? I want to come back and be like, both of you are involved in environmental science. I know you are now adults, you were once children. I want to know how you actually came to that conclusion where I want to be in environmental science or I picked this major. Kellen go first. Tell me your story.
(Kellen) OK. I grew up in Port Townsend Washington. It’s a small town. It has a lot of giant houses there actually. Victorian mansions that maybe two people live in. Thankfully Port Townsend is full of crafty people. In the 70s a lot of hippies moved there, lived how to do wood working and boat working and the town erupted with creativity. I grew up in a town and home like that. There is also a significant affordable housing crisis there as we see here as well.
I’m privileged in a way that I have a lot of connections there so I don’t have to worry about that. It’s a place I want to return to and when I return I want to live comfortably. I decided I’m 28 now, I know Port Townsend is going to be my home and I just didn’t know how to make that happen and live there sustainably. I’ve wanted to work on things that are going to impact the town for a while. I started getting involved in local community groups that were hosting energy speakers.
We, at our height of this movement, hosted a German mayor from the town Wildpoldsried in Bavaria. It’s this amazing tiny town at the bottom of Germany whos mayor came out. We flew him in from Germany, Wildpoldsried is this extremely advanced tiny town. It’s 2500 people, 70% solar exposure across these homes and they generate enough electricity through solar, wind and biogas that they sell $3,000,000 euros back into the grid, mostly to Austria because they’re that close.
(Regina) And Austria is not doing this stuff as well? That’s an honest question I don’t know.
(Kellen) I don’t think they are. Germany as a country is really advanced in this way but Wildpoldsried is internationally known. People from Fukushima are going there after their disaster to consider how they can do things differently. So they have been hosting different these groups from around the world, Port Townsend being one of them. So I had to host this guy, show him around port Townsend, open my eyes to the opportunities in energy and how I can impact the town I want to live in and make money.
(Regina) Make money for the town.
(Kellen) Yes and for myself. [Laughing.] I have to live there and it ain’t cheap. It’s more expensive than Bellingham.
(Kellen) I want to do it sustainably. I saw the opportunity, I saw that Western had a new program the institute for energy studies had just begun. I applied and got in to the energy policy. Since then I have been doing a number of things. I only got here last year. We’ve been working on this project since September.
(Regina) So Imran, you decided to start this as soon as you got here.
(Imran) Yeah. Another professor in energy studies was Charlie Barnhart. He went to Charlie first to talk about microgrids. Charlie said he was having a beer with Kellen and invited me to join them.
(Kellen) I hadn’t even met Imran yet and he invited his friend. I was like, who the hell is this guy?
(Regina) You’re going to have to add [inaudible.]
(Kellen) [Laughing.] So, Imran showed up and we just got talking about it. That was the first week of classes of this academic year.
(Regina) So your interest in science is really targeted. You want to live in a house and a city that is very aware of environmental issues and is sustainable.
(Kellen) Yes and doing things that advance that practically. I’ve never considered myself into science before. To be able to see this project take off and how it captures people’s imagination shows me that people like me just need a tangible way to get in. All of the sudden you understand why walls are efficient the way they are and what’s the deal with south facing windows and why all of that matters and how basic it is. Also how we’ve steered away from it for the last 100 years because we thought we were smarter than that. Turns out we’re not.
(Regina) I have a question, I want to come back to Imran’s story. What about land? To have these tiny houses you still need land. When we’re talking about larger houses we also are kind of thinking of a very, I want to say, western white middle America idea of houses. You’re saying only two people live in that house but there are people who live with grandparents and children.
(Regina) For me, I’ve always wanted a house because I wanted something I didn’t have you know? I guess that’s a capitalism issue. How do you kind of talk to people? You first have to buy the land. Then what if you have a bigger family? You can’t stay in these tiny houses. How do you answer those questions that are societal issues and not necessarily an environmental issue?
(Kellen) That’s a great question. The actual issue is not the lack of housing, it’s the lack of people sharing houses. We don’t have a lack of houses. That has come to me more and more as I’ve gotten deeper into this project and it’s given me pause. If I could put the same amount of work in and change the culture around how we share houses, I would do that. But I don’t think that is conceivable right now. It’s how I’m living currently and it’s how I’ve lived in the past. It’s just our conditioning that we think 2 or 3 people that are not related to each other belonging in a single family house. It’s absurd. It’s based on a really old way of thinking that doesn’t have semblance in today’s needs. I recognize that tiny houses are a very privileged thing to be producing in this way. I want to make this project really accessible. In its sustainability focus there is an extreme affordability focus. We’re not going to design a really elaborate amazing house that no one could ever rebuild or buy because that’s not sustainable. That’s a big focus of this project.
(Regina) I was thinking of this question of tiny house versus just making bigger structures and more carbon complexes and more condos when you’re consolidating people in one area so you have less transportation of goods. Everybody is in the same area so they’re using that energy together. Do you hear oppositions saying, why don’t you just build bigger places and a more a more dense population in cities?
(Kellen) I haven’t heard that and I think that’s a valid point to make. I’ve heard that in housing issues of city council meetings. They’re not wrong. That’s a good way to think but we’re not going to find one solution for everything. The beauty of this project is that it’s something that students can actually build. Students aren’t going to build an apartment complex.
(Regina) That’s a very good answer.
(Kellen) The same things that you would put into an apartment unit would go into a tiny house but more fully realized.
(Kellen) You’re going to be putting in walls, looking at the R values of the windows, doing the solar, doing the lightning and plumbing and electrical and all of that. That’s why I want to do this project. I want other students to do it so they can actually use the education that they’re getting. I was sitting in these classes looking at spread sheets, hearing lectures and thinking great, but what am I going to do with any of this unless I use it soon.
(Regina) Right. I think to actually add to your point, when you’re talking about these bigger buildings and these condos and these apartments, they kind of lend themselves to slum lords. The person who has the amount of money to put together some giant building is maybe not going to care about sustainability and they may not care about the people that are in it as much as maybe if you made your own and had some agency. I can totally see what you’re saying.
(Kellen) There’s a tipping point of people who are going to care about you in a small area. It gets back to our human evolution of growing out of villages. There are about 150 people in a village. That’s the amount of people you can associate with and care about. You can’t expect a person you have never met that owns an apartment complex that houses 300 people to really care about you. But you can design smaller communities.
(Regina) Right. I want to bring myself to Imran Sheikh. You are a scientist.
(Imran) Am I a scientist?
(Regina) How did that happen? I want to hear your story and then we’ll take a break and get into the questions I was asking before about these houses.
(Imran) I think that the environmental part of my being started from an early age. I was in boy scouts and went camping a lot. I really enjoyed my time in the wilderness. As I kind of, looking at ranger rick magazines when I was little.
(Regina) Who was Ranger Rick?
(Imran) Was that before your time?
(Regina) I wasn’t outdoorsy.
(Imran) It’s like a magazine with pictures of animals. Looking at birds.
(Regina) I had an astronomy magazine as a teenager. I did not have Ranger Rick.
(Imran) No Ranger Rick. Oh man.
(Regina) My parents only took me camping once.
(Imran) Boy Scouts really gave me an opportunity to get outside. Then I liked the math and science classes going through school. As I got to college I was thinking like, maybe do I want to go to med school? I majored in biomolecular engineering. But then there was this environmental science part of me that was my real interested. I did a minor in environmental studies.
(Regina) Oh wow.
(Imran) I went out and worked in the medical device industry for a little while after college.
(Imran) Then I read a book called Natural Capitalism by Amy Lovins and Paul Hawken. That was kind of what changed my career path.
(Regina) Oh wow. And then you applied to grad school after that book basically?
(Imran) I worked with Amy Lovins, one of the authors of the book in Colorado.
(Regina) How did that happen?
(Imran) I went to the Rocky Mountain Institute. They had an internship program and I applied to be an intern at Rocky maintain institute a number of times and got rejected a number of times. And then I had a friend of mine or a friend of my sister had worked there before and knew some people. He talked to the scheduler for my future boss and told him about me and got my resume to him. I was working for this medical device company in San Diego.
(Regina) I’m from San Diego.
(Imran) I went out to do a day of lectures there so I met them and spent the day with them between lectures chatting with them. He said, you should come work for me. I said, I should come work for you! [Laughing.] I left that career. What got me really excited was this idea that we don’t necessarily need technical solutions to a lot of environmental problems that we have. Policy can help but it’s really finding ways that you can make money and reduce impact simultaneously. Kind of harnessing businesses to be like, we can actually make money and reduce our impact. I think energy efficiency is the most obvious way to do that. That was what this nonprofit’s main focus was. How do we save money? How do we work with business and make that happen?
(Regina) I think there is a negating saying. It’s like, you start with telling the person what’s in it for them. People kind of succinctly look at that and say, that’s awful people should be doing things for morally good but that’s not how the world works. You have to attach a benefit to things. I think you’re right. Coming at it from an energy stand point like Kellen said, to make money like this German town. It’s actually giving money back into the grid. That’s why it’s so attractive.
(Imran) I think we’re both very pragmatic environmentalists.
(Kellen) It seems that way.
(Imran) [Laughing] it sounds that way. We would like to make money eventually or save money and if you’re saving energy you’re saving money. If you’re saving energy you’re lowering your emissions also. People take notice of that. That can be attractive to liberals and conservatives and everybody.
(Regina) We will take a break. When we get back I want to get more into the tiny house culture and what’s happening in the market right now. I have questions from my cohost that couldn’t be here. He’s a home inspector so he has a lot of home inspection questions that you may or my not be able to answer.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Early late at night
♪ I wander off into a land
♪ You can go, but you mustn’t tell a soul
♪ There’s a world inside
♪ Where dreamers meet each other
(Regina) Welcome back to Spark Science where we’re talking about tiny homes and energy effcny and environmental science with Dr. Sheik and a student at Western Washington University Kellen Lynch. We were talking about this idea of tiny homes. Before I have a whole bunch of questions, one from my cohost and one from my student, I want to get into the culture of tiny homes. Let’s get into the history. When did this start? In your minds, where is this going and then we’re going to do a question round. When did the whole tiny house movement start?
(Imran) It wasn’t recently. It was way back. I was looking at a book last night all about tiny homes but it had all of these great photos, depressing photos, of Hoovervilles during the Great Depression. The floor plans and how to build these kind of shacks, I thought this was an interesting take because the homes had to be efficient homes, space wise. They also had a Thoreau’s home in there. They had carriage homes that were being towed by horses. I was worrying about towing this with a truck but they used to do this with horses. This goes way back.
(Regina) That makes complete sense now that you say that. I hadn’t thought of that before.
(Kellen) But when did they get trendy?
(Imran) It seems more recent right? I think people have been doing this the whole time but there’s a bigger reaction now with getting more than we need. All of these McMansions that have come out in the last 20 years. Then reducing from there. Mostly I think out of necessity people over bought. There was also the great recession as well. These things are tied to people’s living habits and are tied to the greater. People wanting to shrink down realizing they don’t need that much. Now it’s definitely taking off. It’s taken off for a while.
(Kellen) I think the boom in real estate prices have changed as well. Some people are like, I can’t possibly afford anything. So I was in Berkeley and prices there have just gone crazy so I think, you know, it’s really hard to afford anything as a student.
(Regina) There’s also the channels TLC and all these shows that are kind of focused on home improvement. There was Flipping Houses in the early 2,000s. Now instead of people flipping houses they are building these tiny homes. You can see in pop culture there is a movement towards smaller homes and more affordable homes rather than buying these crazy amounts of proceed homes and then flipping them and making more money. That’s just not happening any more.
(Kellen) You’re speaking to this culture of people who want to live smaller. Often times these are not the same people who can’t afford homes to begin with. That’s an interesting piece of it. Most tiny homes are not designed for homeless people or people who are really in need of a home no matter what it is. There’s nothing wrong with shrinking down your foot print because I think we should be doing that. But, we should be aware of who is able to do that.
(Regina) That’s what we were talking about earlier. Do you foresee that now people are interested, once you get rich people into something, maybe we can actually make that affordable. We get the people aware of it and maybe get more buy in. Do you think that will happen? Do you think the next movement is to actually make these houses affordable or talk about housing more deeply in this country?
(Kellen) I’m not trying to get more rich people into it. I’m trying to get more creative and crafty people into it. We’re talking today, as we’re looking at the space we hope to build in, all of the mental resources in this region, all of the smart talented and driven people, if we can get them involved and then have open source plans that we can then release to the greater world showing this is how you build a really efficient house that’s affordable and sustainable.
(Imran) And beautiful.
(Kellen) And beautiful because we have all of the resources we need right here. I don’t think it’s a matter of getting materially wealthy people into it. It’s also marketing.
(Regina) What I was suggesting earlier just to clarify, once rich people get involved in something, the people start to listen. For instance, if you have tiny homes you have to have it on some land but there’s government regulations on how many houses can be on one piece of land or how you can break up land. The only way to change that is to change laws and to change building codes and all that kind of stuff. Rich people can do that but other people can’t right?
(Kellen) They tend not to.
(Regina) You need people in power to be on your side is what I’m trying to say. I’m wondering, do you think that might happen? I guess that brings me to these questions that my cohost Jordan had brought up. There are a lot of building code questions because he’s a home inspector. Before I go to those questions, Imran, do you want to add anything to the culture of tiny homes that’s happening right now?
(Imran) One thing that we had this tiny house competition in 2016. I never could have guessed how many people ended up coming to that. There were 10s of thousands of people that came to see these dozen tiny homes that where built by California universities. People were waiting in line for two hours just to take a tour of one of them. The public response to this was really incredible. Two years before that I hadn’t even thought of tiny homes. They were not on my radar at all. I think there is this movement that is happening and it’s bigger than I definitely had expected.
(Regina) I’m going to go right into it. We’re going to ask these questions that Jordan had typed up. The first one is about building codes. I’m just reading this quote from Jordan Baker. Improve actor and home inspector. Building codes have already began to adapt to small homes such as the removal of a home having to have one room that equals 170 square feet, ceiling heights being lowered to 6’4″ beams and 6’8″ ceilings. For him, he’s 6’6.” He hates the change. Winkey face is what he put here. [Laughing.] Do you see other codes, I know you are doing this at a university and maybe you are not aware of these things, but have you seen other changes in codes that we have talked about, these governmental things that are changing with this new wave?
(Imran) Personally I haven’t gotten into the specific interior building codes but more of the broader zoning codes. As I’ve been following the local discussion around that it has been interesting to see how tiny homes factor into that. They will be a great tool for infill especially homes as we’re designing in filling in lots that already maybe have a house, a main house, but have a lot of extra space. The traditional lot in Bellingham is 5,000 square feet. That was the minimum parcel of land you could get. It’s huge! It’s enormous. Often these homes have a lot of extra space that is maybe is just grass. I see that code potentially changing. It’s still yet to be decided. This would fall as a detached accessory dwelling unit. The way we’re building it is currently not allowed in most neighborhoods.
(Regina) Is there a big movement in Bellingham about the detached — there are bellinghamsters that are saying these detached homes are killing our neighborhoods?
(Imran) They say it changes the character. As if the character didn’t change when they moved in. Yeah. It’s interesting.
(Regina) They’ve always been here! Right? For thousands of years.
(Imran) Was it the Bellingham neighborhood association that has always been here?
(Regina) Sarcasm is what we’re doing here.
(Imran) We’re not saying tiny homes are for everyone.
(Regina) They’re not for everyone. That’s what I was suggesting earlier that there are these codes of what you can put on a lot and what you can’t. There’s more resistance than I would have thought.
(Imran) People are hesitant to change things. There’s a clear need and we need to accept that and do that in a reasonable way. I think that’s the beauty of this project. It’s not a reaction, it’s a development on what people are asking for and we’re doing it through university that is going to stay here and should be developing solutions for its students and the general populous.
(Regina) I like that line. You’re basically saying that the university can give back to the community and not be a little silo on a hill. We can actually be part of the community. You used the word infill. Again I’m not a home inspector and Jordan is. He was asking, could your zenith home that has some capital letter and some not capital letters, what does that stand for? You said it could play a role in infill. That’s what you’re saying. It’s just extra room in these lots. What does zenith stand for?
(Imran) It stands for zero net energy tiny home. The reason why that matters is in designing homes, homes used to be more oriented towards the sun. It would be designed as a passive solar design. You’re orienting things south because that’s where the sun is coming from and shining on you. You having a lot of window exposure there. If you have solar it’s pointing south generally. The zenith is the angle of the sun.
(Regina) It’s clever I get it.
(Imran) It’s clever and it’s an acronym.
(Regina) We scientists love acronyms. It’s like our favorite thing in the world. Another question from Jordan. Do you see these being spec built homes in the future? What does that mean?
(Imran) It means there’s one design and we stamp them out. We clone them.
(Regina) That’s what you’re saying right? You want this to be an open source design where somebody can take it and they can figure out what the materials are and just do it.
(Imran) Right. They can’t cut it out themselves, this is just open to anyone. That’s a big piece for me. This is replaceable. As science needs to be, you need to be able to repeat this to make it better. We’re not going to design the perfect tiny house with this iteration.
(Kellen) And there may not be one perfect tiny house for everybody. Right? We’re going to try it once, learn from it, do it again.
(Regina) I like your idea of kind of making small communities. There are, in Bellingham and I’m sure other parts of the country, that have these kind of communal lots where there’s a shared club house with smaller homes around it. I’m going to the other page of questions that I have from my wonderful student Andra. She typed these up. What are the goals? Is that also to kind of help with the community building? Is it kind of filling in that same model but with these tiny homes?
(Imran) I would like to be designing community homes. The realty of this project is it’s the first one we have done. It’s going to have as many features of a full house as would traditionally be in a house. It will have a full kitchen. What you’re describing with these shared lots, not everyone needs a full kitchen. It’s not required. Sometimes they don’t and they have a central community house. Often times you don’t want to hang out in your tiny house with five people. It provides your own room, your own space, and then you can go and interact with the rest of the community. For this house, for our first iteration, I would explore that down the line.
(Regina) So that’s something you have been thinking about.
(Imran) Definitely. I don’t want to live all by myself somewhere. I currently live with five people and I love that.
(Regina) We’re all different.
(Kellen) For some of the building systems we don’t necessarily need to have your own for each of those.
(Regina) Your own kitchen.
(Kellen) That costs money. You don’t have to have your own solar inverter or hot water heater. Those are some resources we may be able to share.
(Regina) Some people just don’t like to cook. They might not want that. Here’s another question. I’m going to take another one from my student Andra. Where will this tiny house be built on? We know it’s a Western project and you were talking about it but what are some of the candidates for where this tiny house will be built?
(Kellen) What we hope is going to happen is to build it at the technology development center, which is down by the port. It’s a space that both western and Bellingham Technical College share. We also want to have some members of the team both Western students and BTC students together.
(Regina) That’s awesome. More community building.
(Kellen) Exactly. We have this perfect space with the wood shop and a high bay garage door. We’re hoping that’s going to be a suitable spot to build it. Once it’s done where it’s going to go, that’s a question we don’t know the answer to.
(Imran) We need it to be accessible to students. As long as people can get to it and use it. Maybe not live in it directly but use the space and study it.
(Regina) It’s like a tiny dorm for two people. [Laughing.] We’re going to take a break with that. When we come back I’ll ask a couple more questions. Then I want to get back into this idea of pop culture and how has environmental science been portrayed in pop culture.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Dance in the trees
♪ Paint mysteries
♪ The magnificent droid plays there
♪ Your magic mind
♪ Makes love to mine
♪ I think I’m in love, angel
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ I gotta get back to Wondaland
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ Me thinks she left her underpants
(Regina) Let’s keep on asking these questions. I want to ask you, Kellen, because you’re kind of talking about this idea of, just kind of waste and this overuse. My cohost Jordan looked this up and said that most structures are over engineered by 15%. Do the tiny homes use the same engineering guidelines? How these are engineered, um, are you taking that into account?
(Kellen) Absolutely yeah. Our team right now our design team, are industrial design students. They are approaching this with that mindset but also with the realty that we need to be producing things that are not just wasted in 20 years or even 50 years. I’m living in a house that’s 110 years old. I would love if our first tiny house listed that long. We are taking that into consideration in every step looking at the walls, looking at the framing, looking at the windows, everything like that. It’s really important to me. I don’t want this project to put out the traditional amount of waste that a house or home construction does. That’s a huge thing we are looking at. To address that we’re looking at LEAD building standards but also local methodologies.
The living futures institute, which is located in Seattle are responsible for the bullet center, which is this internationally touted sustainable apartment and commercial use complex on Capital Hill in Seattle. It has a whole solar ray across the entire roof across the building. There are composting toilets in this building. They have really gone the extra mile. Studying their methodologies and really trying to see like, what does it actually take to be net zero, not just in the technology we use but in the building of the house.
(Regina) That brings me to a question my student Andra put together. Imran, she asked a question, who will be building the structure? Will the materials be sustainably sourced? Not just like you said that it’s producing a lot of energy and its net zero because of energy but what about what goes into the building. Do you know anything about the materials?
(Imran) So we haven’t necessarily made all of those decisions yet but we definitely want to use as many reclaimed materials as possible. I think that will be a big part of the design and actually acquiring those materials is going to be part of the story. I think related to your last question about over engineering, this is actually a challenge that we had in the tiny house that we built at Berkeley. What are we actually designing for? Also, is it OK for this building to maybe not be perfectly comfortable for every hour of the year, right? Is there a scenario that we don’t necessarily need to have all of the systems designed to keep the space inside, you know, 60 degrees. I think that is kind of part of this tiny house movement as well. Maybe we can be a little more flexible about what comfort means.
(Regina) Maybe you can buy a blanket. [Laughing.]
(Imran) [Laughing] Maybe you can buy a blanket. I think we came, when doing the designs, that building was a little bit different than this one because it was actually off the grid. It had battery energy storage and hot water energy storage and solar.
(Regina) That’s how you won second place.
(Imran) Is there that December day that’s cloudy that happens sometimes that’s also cold and there’s a stretch of cloudy days, is it OK that three days a year it might get a little cold inside? I think that’s another, which most buildings now, like, has to be perfectly comfortable when it’s 110 degrees outside or minus 40.
(Regina) Anyway, you’re right. That’s a culture change. Kellen was talking about that too. It’s the idea of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. What you can convince people to kind of have buy in without, you know.
(Imran) It would be a hard sell for some people to say some days their house will be cold. You can do that because your house is saving $2,000. It totally changes the way you live. Like, what you have around you. Everything you have around you is chosen very specifically. We have bigger houses and you fill it with more stuff. That’s just not going to happen in the 200 square foot house. You’re going to be careful about that and that will trickle down to the rest of your life.
(Regina) Kellen you were talking about how you didn’t really think of yourself as a scientist until you started doing this work and applied to Western. I don’t know if you even still think about yourself.
(Kellen) I haven’t.
(Regina) Do you not think of yourself as a scientist? Imran I think you’re a scientist but you also made the comment that you don’t think of yourself as a scientist.
(Imran) I don’t necessarily think of myself as a scientist.
(Regina) What do you think a scientist is then?
(Imran) That’s a great question.
(Regina) Silence [laughing] I think our societies idea of what a scientist is and what’s making you resist comes from pop culture, comes from our society, what you hear as a scientist. So what is that?
(Imran) It’s Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. He’s in a white lab coat.
(Regina) He’s the mathematician, guys. It’s the chaose theory. We’re led down these roads that are . . .
(Imran) I am a nerd. I can definitely agree with that. [Laughing.]
(Regina) But these stereotypes exist and I feel like in society, Jeff Goldblum was also in the fly and he was a scientist there. That was a messed up movie. We have this idea of what scientist are and what they look like, what they act like, what they talk like. You’re all talking about building which is energy, problem solving, it is science. So, what is making you hesitate?
(Imran) I think it’s more engineering for me. It’s more applied science.
(Regina) I think engineering is still science.
(Regina) OK yeah.
(Imran) I do a lot of energy analysis. I look at energy data and I try to figure out what’s happening with it. Then, take that and try to advise policy. What should smart policy be given now we know how buildings are using energy? That’s kind of, that’s what I get excited about. It’s fun to mentally like, how do we reduce admissions and how do we make that not cost too much. There’s this weird blend of economics and building science and data and climate change. It’s in that nexus where I am.
(Regina) Sounds like science to me. [Laughing.]
(Kellen) I have definitely been looking at the engineering side of it. Every day when I work on this project, I’m doing it from a psychological angle which feel like the access point of science for me of figuring out, how do people make the decisions they do? How do I get people to react to this project in the way I would like them to and get my team members to continually do the work?
(Regina) Encourage team work.
(Kellen) All of these things, all of the emails I send every day, all of that, the reach out, the thank yous. That is all science to me. It’s all building on these experiments that I’ve started. Then getting better at it and getting refined but it’s still never perfect. I really enjoy that. That’s why I’m doing the managing aspect of it. I put the design team together and then they do that work and I get to sit back and watch it play out. It hasn’t made me feel like a scientist and I haven’t considered it until tonight.
(Imran) I guess we have a hypothesis that we’re going to test right?
(Kellen) Yeah, that’s really true.
(Regina) I want to give you credit Kellen, you keep talking about giving agency to the people who are going to be building these small homes. Imran you’re talking about engineering and you’re saying this is really engineering. Kind of what you’re doing, if your using this as outreach, your kind of giving people that kind of connection to science, that connection to engineering. You’re taking away some of that intimidation. That’s the goal of this show. I see that. I don’t know if you see that now.
(Imran) I see that. For me it was, the words I’ve been using are actionable learning environments. Being able to actually do something with what you have been given is so important. I know I’m not the only one sitting in these classes wondering what am I doing? I’m scribbling in the margins of a notepad. Just doodling. Why? This is not how I learn. I know that and I’m pretty sure that when I look around and no one else is taking notes, there’s a reason for that.
(Regina) My classes are crazy engaging. [Laughing.] I agree, having this kind of hands on stuff is empowering people to find some kind of connection to that science. Finding like you said, find agency, to help the earth and the environment.
(Imran) It’s is different level of understanding that you need to have when you’re building something rather than thinking about building something.
(Regina) It cements better in your head.
(Imran) It cements better in your head. There’s just so many decisions that you need to make when you’re designing something like this that you will not think of if you are taking a class about the class that Kellen talked about, like designing a zero energy home. What you learn there versus actually building one there is more magnitude and details that you have to think about when you’re actually doing it in real life.
(Regina) That’s awesome. I’m going to come see this house.
(Imran) You better.
(Regina) I’m going to see it get built, I’m going to send my students over there. You’re going to tell me all of the things you did.
(Imran) All the things we did wrong. [Laughing.]
(Regina) I want to thank you both for being on the show. This has been super insightful. I learn something every single time I do these, but especially about this. Thank you for being here.
(Imran) Thank you.
(Kellen) Thank you.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ Me thinks she left her underpants
♪ The grass grows inside
♪ The music floats you gently on your toes
♪ Touch the nose, he’ll change your clothes to tuxedos
♪ Don’t freak and hide
♪ I’ll be your secret santa, do you mind?
♪ Don’t resist
♪ The fairygods will have a fit
♪ We should dance
♪ Dance in the trees
♪ Paint mysteries
♪ The magnificent droid plays there
(Regina) Thanks for joining us. If you missed any of this show, go to our website, sparksciencenow.com. Spark Science is produced in collaboration with KMRE spark radio and Western Washington University. If there is a science idea you’re curious about, send us a message on Facebook or Twitter @sparksciencenow.
Today’s episode was recorded at the KMRE studio operated by the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham. Our producer is Regina Barber DeGraff the engineer for today’s show is Natalie Moore. Our music is Chemical Calisthenics by Blackalicious and Wondaland by Janelle Monae.
[♪Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ♪]
♪ Lead, gold, tin, iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think
♪ Iodine nitrate activate
♪ Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound
♪ Balance was unbalanced then you add a little talent in
♪ Careful, careful with those ingredients
♪ They could explode and blow up if you drop them
♪ And they hit the ground
[End of podcast.]