Avoid expensive energy bills with this hot new housing trend

Imagine being able to heat your home with no more energy than used by a hair dryer turned on low, or even going off the grid altogether.

Thanks to smaller, carefully planned home designs, coupled with a superior insulation system, super energy-efficient small homes are growing in popularity.

Once perceived as the housing of commune-living hippies in the 1960s, today's small homes feature exceptional design and comfort. Although the average size of U.S. homes increased 57 percent in the past 40 years, more Americans are becoming interested in smaller homes designed to make the most of each square foot, rather than just building bigger. This trend is seen in the growing popularity of TV shows like "Tiny House Nation," and dozens of websites and blogs devoted to the small house movement.

Although there is no formal definition for these smaller abodes, The Tiny House Community website considers a home to be "small" if it is under 1,000 square feet, and "tiny" if less than 400 square feet. At the extreme, some "tiny houses" are less than 100 square feet — about the size of a camper.

The secret to living smaller is optimizing the available space, and creating areas that are cozy instead of cramped. One key is making use of otherwise wasted space, such as adding storage under beds or under staircases, and doing away with non-critical features like the great rooms that sit unused in many homes. Small home designers are able to create a sense of openness and light in the small footprint by including numerous windows or mirrors, as well as other design touches such as lofts and curved ceilings. In essence, in the smaller spaces there is clear purpose for every element in the home.

"Attention to the small gives character to the whole," says acclaimed architect and simple-living proponent, Sarah Susanka. Susanka is author of the book, "The Not So Big House."

For many small home enthusiasts, the appeal is not only a simpler life in a smaller, un-cluttered home, but also saving money and living green by consuming much less energy. All else being equal, it takes less energy to heat and cool a smaller home than a larger one, but many small homes also use an advanced building technique for high energy efficiency and quick construction — structural insulated panel (SIPs).

"SIP panel walls and roofs combine the insulation and structure in one unit," says Joe Pasma, technical manager for Premier SIPs, North America's largest SIP panel manufacturer. "The end result is much lower air leakage and continuous insulation, which helps reduce heating and cooling energy use up to 60 percent compared to other building methods — whether in a tiny house or a standard-sized one." As visually interesting home designs are important to many small home dwellers, Pasma notes that SIP panels can be used in virtually any architectural style.

An increasing number of builders in the U.S. specialize in tiny house designs, with many of them offering SIP panel homes. These range from do-it-yourself kit homes up to fully personalized homes. Getting started is simple explains Patrick Sughrue, president of Artisan Tiny House in Vancouver, Washington.

"We use a step-by-step process in which we take one of our templates that's close to what you want and customize it to make it yours.

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