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NU students design complex four-room tiny house

Scott Grindy 21 material science engineering major checks out window sleeping loft tiny house under constructiNorthwestern University’s Evanstcampus. | Rich

Scott Grindy, 21, a material science and engineering major, checks out window in the sleeping loft of the tiny house under construction on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:27AM

There’s a house on the Northwestern University campus that is smaller than some dorm rooms.

A group of Northwestern engineering students have spent 18 months designing and building a “tiny house,” a complex four-room, 128-square-foot ode to less is more. The beige-sided house on a trailer in an Evanston university parking lot includes a living room, bedroom loft, kitchen and bathroom. It’s entirely off-grid, with solar panels for electricity and filtered rainwater running through the shower and sink.

William Fan, 22, who graduated in June with a degree in mechanical engineering, conceived of the project after attending a tiny house building seminar in 2009 taught by Jay Shafer, who lived for years in an 89-square-foot house he built in Iowa.

“Part of it is sweat equity,” Fan said of why he and his teammates, many who are recent graduates, are continuing the build. “The other part is it’s a really cool project.”

The group began designing the home in a classroom in January 2010.

“Once we started it I couldn’t see leaving it on paper,” said Kaycee Overcash, 21, a 2011 manufacturing and design engineering graduate.

To power lights throughout the house, as well as a hot plate, microwave and toaster oven, the students studied five years worth of daily local weather records to determine how much solar power would be needed throughout the year. They did the same with rain, which will be filtered for the plumbing system.

Alejandro Sklar, 22, who just graduated with an electrical engineering degree, is confident the solar panels and plumbing calculations will hold up in the real world.

“We’ve over-engineered it,” he said.

When finished in September, the window-lined main room will feature an expandable couch to accommodate guests. A loft will have a bed, and a closet will hold utility boxes, a water tank and offer a bit of storage.

The most intriguing spot may be the bathroom. The entire room is a shower, and in the middle is a composting toilet. The toilet doesn’t flush, and the students and recent grads will have to change a tray of human waste every two weeks to keep the bathroom fresh. An exhaust fan is also supposed to help.

A typical tiny house costs $12,000 to $15,000 to build. The Northwestern project is running closer to $50,000 because of its off-grid features. Students raised the funds through grants.

The growing tiny house movement started around 2000, when Shafer, now owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, finished building an 89-square-foot home in Iowa City. He wanted to live small because he wanted to live cheap, he said.

“A small house is more efficient, more green, more affordable,” he said.

He upgraded three years ago to 500 square feet in California after getting married and having a kid.

Tiny houses cost more per square foot to build but leave the owner mortgage free. The higher building cost is a tough sell to Americans, he said, who love the idea of living simply even if they don’t practice it.

“People mostly just like the liberation,” Shafer said. “There’s no more mortgage, no more rent.”

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