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  • 03.10.17

What Living In A Dumpster Taught This Startup Founder About Designing Tiny Homes

They need to be sleek and tech-enabled–and the startup Kasita realized that creating a space that small is a task better left to product designers than architects.

After living in a converted dumpster for the better part of a year in 2015, Jeff Wilson had an epiphany about tiny-house living: In order to create a small space that could convince people to move out of oversized homes, it might make sense to work with a product designer, not just architects.

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Wilson, who was known as Professor Dumpster at the time, was an environmental sciences professor at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin who embarked on the dumpster experiment as a commentary on the sustainability benefits of living small. He left academia to launch Kasita, a startup that now has a design for a sleek, very un-dumpster-like tiny home.

The design was led by a product designer. “When you live in a 33-square-foot dumpster, you don’t get to have unusable space,” Wilson tells Co.Exist. “Product designers think completely differently about how you interact with a space. If I was going to create a home that utilized every square inch, I had to work with people that thought about the space differently. How do people use their homes? How do people want to experience their homes? If you design for that, you can have a completely outsized experience.”

The new Kasita home is much larger than a dumpster–350 square feet–but nearly eight times smaller than an average American house. The size confers some automatic sustainability benefits: It takes less energy to heat and cool, and because it’s small enough to fit in unused urban spaces, someone living in it might not need a car to commute. The size also makes it more affordable than other options in large cities; the house (without land) is $139,000, or $119,000 if someone buys multiple units.

The human-centered design makes the tiny size livable. Because the kitchen is slightly elevated from the main floor, a queen-sized bed can slide out from under the kitchen, fully made, and slide back to disappear with a single push–a vast improvement over awkward wall beds. The bathroom has a full shower, unlike some tiny houses. Floor-to-ceiling windows on 10-foot walls bring in light; smart glass automatically tints for shade. There’s room for a washer and dryer. Yet still, everything is small enough to fit on a truck for transportation.

“Designing a house, especially a mobile, modular, small-scale house, is probably one of the most complex design challenges I’ve ever worked on in my life,” says industrial designer Remy LaBesque, who headed up the new Kasita design. “The moment you shrink a house down into something that can be moved around on the back of a flatbed truck, the amount of work you have to do to make everything work in a small space increases exponentially. It’s kind of like playing 3D Tetris to figure out where we are going to put all the stuff.”

The Kasita design is modern, to distinguish it from what LaBesque calls the “log cabin-y” aesthetic of many tiny houses. It’s also outfitted with smart lighting and a shower that reduces water use by 70% and stocked with smart home tech like Doorbird, a doorbell that lets you accept packages if you’re not home.

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“The goal of Kasita is not just to create a comfortable place to live, but we really wanted to create something that was aspirational,” LaBesque says. “There’s this weird stigma around affordable housing, where when you say affordable housing, the first thing people think of is the projects.”

The first version of the house is meant to be used on its own as an accessory dwelling unit in a backyard or on a small piece of land. But in the future, the Kasita houses can also be stacked in a larger frame to create a building made of micro-apartments. For the next stage of the business, the company wants to focus on creating more density in cities.

“If we can take parking lots in midtown Manhattan and convert them into housing, and we can add hundreds of units there, then we’re helping out,” says Wilson. “If we can take all of these plots of land in downtown Austin that nobody wants to develop…and add housing for artists and teachers and musicians and millennials and folks that have to commute to downtown, then we’re doing a lot directly and indirectly by just adding density in places that are underutilized.”

Initially, Wilson envisioned that if someone living in a Kasita building wanted to move, the entire apartment could slide out, be put on a truck, and be moved to a new city–with the owner’s belongings inside. While that’s technically possible, the startup decided that it would be impractical.

“We figured out that our core user wants the ability to move between cities, but doesn’t want to pay $3 a mile to do that and have this massive piece of hardware that they’re attached to,” Wilson says. Instead, the company hopes to eventually offer a service that will pick up someone’s belongings, ship them to a new Kasita in another city, and unpack for you, so that your new home looks exactly like the last.

The first stand-alone version of the home launched March 10, with reservations available at $1,000, and will begin shipping to customers later this year.

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[Photos: Kasita]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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