A trip to South Africa, new book, ‘Tiny House’ movement sparks an idea

What has Seth Godin's new book "Tribes," a visit to South Africa and the Tiny House movement got to do with energy conservation in the home? The short answer is everything.

I recently visited South Africa on business and took the opportunity to add on some needed R&R. We stayed at a variety of lodgings including game lodges, hotels and B&Bs, and we also visited the homes of some business acquaintances. They all had one thing in common: none of the doors and windows fit (it was not even close in most cases), and there was no sign of any sort of seal. Also, all the windows were single-glazed and the walls single-brick with no insulation.

We visited during their winter, and near Johannesburg the temperature often drops to below freezing at night. In the summer, temperatures often rise into the 90s, so you might jump to the conclusion that they must have very sophisticated HVAC systems. In fact we did not find a centralized system in any of the places we stayed at or saw; they all utilized either single-room solutions or portable systems such as the small electric heater we had at the B&B we stayed at in Cape Town. This establishment could accommodate 17 people in a dedicated building that had no permanent heating system in any of the bedrooms or communal areas such as the TV lounge. The proprietor just gave out these portable heaters as requested.

So what do they do? Well it is quite simple, they just wear extra layers of clothes and in the evening congregate in one or two rooms. Why worry about the rest of the house, and when you go to bed, just put an extra blanket on the bed or use a hot water bottle. In the summer the high ceilings and fans do the trick when they are in the house, which is not often. Remember how as kids you stayed out all day playing when not in school? Well they still do that. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on family life and friends with the barbeque (they call it a braai) usually at the center of proceedings.

In fact on Sept 24 there is a national Braai day, and it is so important in the social calendar that it has Rev. Desmond Tutu as a national spokesman. I am not being patronizing about life in South Africa. In fact I am in many ways envious of their lifestyle and the air of optimism I found. It reminded me very much how I felt about life in the ‘60s.

Since coming home I have been working with a company in the tiny home arena. What is a tiny home you might ask? Well it is a mobile trailer often only 120 square feet but up to 400 square feet that can be used as an office, a recreational area or to live in (type in Tiny Homes on YouTube and see some amazing homes).

They are often found in the back yards of rural properties, and although they are small, the amenities are full scale. I was working in one recently at a full size desk, sitting on a full size chair, and there was a full bathroom.  The tiny home is solar powered, and as it is run on 12v, no inverters are needed. Technically speaking they should not be used as a home, but the point is that whereas a conventional home costs hundreds of thousands and takes several years to build, you can have a tiny home in a few months and for the cost of an average permit.

Obviously one needs to completely change your lifestyle as well and be much more minimalistic, and that is not for everyone, but it did get me thinking about the rise of the McMansion and the affects reducing the average size of our homes would have on energy conservation.

How does Seth Godin fit into all of this? In his book "Tribes" he encourages everyone to be a leader even if they have to be a heretic to do so. In this context being a heretic "is not conforming to an established attitude, doctrine or perspective." Twitter was heretic, the tiny house movement is  heretic and by Title 24 standards, South Africa is  heretic.

In each of their ways, however, these three events have made me take stock of my world and what I can do to improve my energy conservation. It may be a bit fanciful to expect Title 24 to be modified and builders to immediately start building much smaller homes. I might hope that kids turn the clock back and start exercising more regularly, but I know that we can all spend more time with friends and family, and maybe I will start a push for a national barbecue day.

Seriously, energy conservation is critical to our future. But as it is currently being implemented it is financially challenging to business and radically affects the cost of housing, something we consider a basic necessity.

So let's change our focus, be heretics and come up with cost-effective, out-of-the-box alternatives to one of our biggest challenges today.


Nigel Hartley is the president of Commonwealth Advisors and is an accredited associate of the Institute for Independent Business, a CMT senior mentor and a certified behaviors coach working primarily with small and mid-size business owners. He can be reached at 707-573-7154, or you can e-mail him at nigelhartley@cmtmentors.com, www.nigelhartley.com.