Dartmouth Tiny House No Small Wonder

November 26, 2019

By Julie Bonette

It turns out that tiny houses are no small matter, something that a team of Dartmouth faculty and students from across courses and disciplines learned while designing a tiny house for the Dartmouth Organic Farm. The innovative building that was designed pushes the envelope on sustainability and is intended to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

The idea of designing and building a tiny house came to Dartmouth engineering professor Vicki May in an effort to enhance students’ experiential learning. “We’ve never done a big interdisciplinary project, and tiny houses are all the rage, so I thought it would be an engaging project,” said May. “I like to have students actually build things, because it’s easy to draw something on paper and think it’s great, but building something makes them problem-solve.”

May assembled a team that included: Rosi Kerr, director of sustainability; PhD candidate Morgan Peach; Benoit Cushman-Roisin, professor of engineering; Karolina Kawiaka, senior lecturer of studio art, environmental studies, and engineering; Jack Wilson, senior lecturer of studio art and engineering; Charlie Sullivan, professor of engineering; and Elizabeth Wilson, professor and director of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. The group met regularly, at one point weekly, to plan the design of the house.

The team received an Experiential Learning Seed Grant from the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) in early 2018 for the house. DCAL offered these grants in an effort to expand and enhance experiential learning at Dartmouth as part of the five-year Experiential Learning Initiative.

Shortly after receiving the grant, Wilson’s Integrated Design: Engineering, Architecture, and Building Technology class completed site work and worked with the Organic Farm to select a possible site for the house. That fall, Kawiaka’s Architecture class worked on multiple designs. During the 2019 winter term, Sullivan’s Energy Utilization class reviewed the house’s energy needs and made recommendations on windows, insulation, orientation, and more. In the spring, May’s Structural Analysis class turned in a full set of structural calculations to the Organic Farm, giving them everything they need to one day build the house.

Kawiaka notes that the planned location on Dartmouth's campus, “where the building can actually be a teaching tool and an energy monitoring tool, is a really exciting opportunity for the students, and they have a lot of pride in that. It’ll be something that lives on and that will continue to evolve over time.”

Construction of the building has been postponed due to budgeting and permitting issues, but this year students will design and build a second tiny house that is more affordable, on wheels, and will be located at the Second College Grant. Both tiny houses are meant to serve as a pilot for future projects, and have spurred a vision of a Tiny House Challenge, in which the community would be encouraged to submit drawings and designs. The involved faculty, who all became Irving Institute affiliates through the process, have even tossed around the idea of forming an official group interested in tackling issues related to energy, health, and the environment.

“The National Science Foundation and other organizations talk about experiential learning initiatives, but not many campuses build something real,” said May. “How do you push people to do that?”

Every tiny bit helps.