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What If We Filled Our Parking Lots With These Tiny, Tree-Like Houses?

Putting affordable, sustainable housing in the one place in crowded cities where there is lots of available space.

To judge by their marketing materials, most tiny houses are built in bucolic settings in the woods. But a new tiny house company has a different location in mind: The sea of parking lots that covers the United States.

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By some estimates, there are as many as 2 billion parking spots in the country, and many are often empty–probably not the best use of land in areas that struggle with affordable housing. So Elevate, a Hawaii-based tiny house company, wants to make it so parking lots can double as sustainable neighborhoods.

“It’s just an incredibly underutilized space,” says Nathan Toothman, co-founder of Elevate Structure. “There are massive, oceans of concrete. In some cities, I think a third of the area is parking lots. We’re trying to bring more usage into that area.”

The design doesn’t take away parking. To leave room for cars, the house is propped up on a trunk-like base. “It also keeps the proportions of a tree–keeps it looking like a tree,” he says. If the house looks like a tree, he thinks it will more easily be accepted into standard urban design. Most parking lots already have requirements for actual trees, so it won’t look out of place, or at least no more than the fake tree cell phone towers that have proliferated.

When it rains, the roof funnels water into a storage tank hidden in the “trunk.” That reduces stormwater runoff–a common problem in parking lots–and gives the tiny house an off-grid source of water. “The idea is really to help with water scarcity issues,” says Toothman. The base can hold up to 1,500 gallons of water.

Solar panels on the roof power the building and can also run dehumidifiers to pull even more water out of the air (at least in a place like Hawaii) to keep filling the tank even when it’s not raining. Having water in the base helps keep the home securely weighted down in case of flooding or a tsunami, and micro-piles in the the ground anchor it down even more.

The walls are covered in plants to help reduce air pollution and add to the tree-like effect. “It’s bringing more life back into parking lots,” Toothman says.

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The buildings can also be used for businesses like cafes, and because the pre-fab design can quickly be installed, they can also pop up for events. “The goal is really just to make a self-sufficient, stand-alone structure that can be used in a wide variety of applications,” he says.

The startup is currently raising funds for their first demo tiny house on Kickstarter.

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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