(TNS) -- Sometimes trying to live more sustainably — and build more sustainable — takes a lot of creative thinking.
When students at Weber State University embarked on a tiny house engineering project, they began hitting several figurative walls before the building’s actual walls went up. But after a few tweaks, the 498-foot structure has taught them a lot about green construction. And university staff has plenty of plans for future plans for the net-zero “tiny studio.”
“We had problems in design, we had problems in the budget stage, we had problems in the permit stage, we had problems in the construction stage, and the weather didn’t play with us well at the first of the semester,” said Jeremy Farner, an assistant professor in Design Engineering Technology and adviser on the project. “We had opposition at every step of the way, but for a learning experience, I don’t think we’d change anything.”
The biggest change came when students had to change the project from a “tiny house” to a “tiny studio.” Unlike a lot of tiny houses that are built on wheels to be mobile, this project is fixed, in the backyard of Julie Rich, an associate professor in geography. The students hoped to hook into her existing septic wastewater system, but Ogden City nixed that idea, requiring them instead to hook into the sewer system in the street.
“We had to start calling it a ’studio’ because we weren’t able to put any plumbing in it, because of code requirements,” said Jason Sylvester, a senior in manufacturing engineering and one of seven students working on the project. “It doesn’t have traditional bathroom or kitchen, because we weren’t able to put any septic or sewer in.”
Rich is funding the entire project, and gave the students a budget of $20,000. Hooking up to the city sewer would’ve eaten up all those funds. She said she considered “pulling the plug” on the entire project when students learned of the code conflicts, and building a tiny house model instead.
“But putting together matchsticks or balsa wood to create that on a small scale, you don’t learn the building techniques or gain the knowledge you need to go out in industry,” Rich said. “With this, they’re learning things that will serve them well when they go out into the business world.”
The students started designing their project last fall. That’s when the first hurdles sprung up, said integrated studies student Forest Connell.
“Sometimes it almost felt like too many hands in the fire,” she said. “It’s such a small space and having so many ideas for such a small thing made it difficult.”
That tricky collaboration process is an important part of the learning experience, Farner said.
“it simulated a real-world experience where you’ve got multiple disciplines coming at it from completely different angles,” he said.
The students also face several challenges when it came to integrating all the sustainable components in their vision. The health department wasn’t keen on them using a composting toilet or grey water in the garden. State limits on collecting rainwater made installing a collection system almost not worth the trouble. Federal regulations made building their own high-efficiency wood-burning stove too complicated. And the high-grade insulation they wanted was too expensive.
Getting some of their green design ideas denied by local government officials was the most frustrating part, but Connell said she understands the city and county’s hesitation.
“It’s hard to get those systems to be tried and true, and no one wants to put their name on the line for (approving) it,” she said.
The students had plenty of positives during the project, too. They got cement and rebar donated by local companies and a reduced price on lumber, which gave them more wiggle room to buy solar panels and insulation. They found their triple-paned windows through online classifieds.
The students’ design also successfully took advantage of passive solar. The south side is surrounded by tall scrub oaks. The trees block sunlight in the summer, and allow the sun to warm the studio in the winter when they lose their leaves. Long eaves on the roof also shade windows in the summer, but let in solar heat in the winter when the sun’s lower in the sky.
And the studio’s construction phase has moved fast. The students started digging the foundation on March 3. They were adding the roof by April 1.
They plan to have construction finished by April 22 in time for an open house on April 29.
Next fall, Farner will work with his green building class to finish the interior. After that, he plans to use the building to show students what a sustainable building looks like in action.
“It was really important ... to have a place where we could bring our students to see the real world,” he said. “Seeing a picture in a book only goes so far.”
When Farner started teaching green building in 2010, he’d take students on field trips as far as Daybreak in western Salt Lake County to show sustainably designed homes.
“I just dreamed about having my own living laboratory ever since,” he said. “But I never had a funding mechanism for it or a location, a physical location, because real estate at Weber State is prime.”
Rich plans to use the studio to show her geography students how buildings can use a smaller footprint on the Earth’s surface.
“It demonstrates that we don’t need bigger, we can be just as happy with smaller spaces,” she said.
She said she’d like see cities change, too, to make sustainable living more practical for residents instead of relying on codes established decades ago.
“I know those codes are in place to protect citizens, but there are new things out there on the market, and new ways to think about building homes,” she said. “As cities review some of these approaches, I think they need to be open-minded about what’s good not only for the community but also the environment.”
©2016 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.