For the last four months, environmental science professor Jeff Wilson has been living in a 30-square-foot dumpster on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, plotting ways to turn the former trash bin into one of the world’s most sustainable tiny homes.
Why a dumpster? Wilson wanted to rethink the resources used by a typical single-family home, and dumpsters happen to be about 1% of the size of the average new American house. He also likes the symbolism.
“Dumpsters are ubiquitous, yet unseen,” he says. “They’re these magic boxes where you throw what you don’t want and it disappears. I think they’re representative of our actions on a daily basis—when you flip on a light switch, about the only impact you might see is a little bit of change in cost. But there are all of these things happening behind the scenes.”
He also wanted to take advantage of people’s visceral reaction to trash to get them to pay attention. “It’s taking the whole idea of home and mixing it with one of the most powerful reactionary forces in the human psyche, that of disgust,” he says. “It’s so hard to engage people these days on issues of sustainability because people just largely have become numb to it, and it’s become boring. Especially if that’s not your thing.”
The oddity of the dumpster house has drawn in an audience that otherwise probably would not be talking about sustainable design. He was featured on a recent episode of a conservative radio show, for instance. Though the hosts opened the show by framing Wilson as “a hipster who’s had too many PBRs,” they ended up expressing support for the project.
“How many times do you get a conservative talk show saying they love a project that has undercurrents of sustainability?” Wilson asks. “They wouldn’t have even called me if I wasn’t living in a dumpster.”
Over the next half of the year, Wilson and a team of students will set up the dumpster like a miniature version of a typical American home, complete with air conditioning. Basically, the goal is measure "bad" performance in a tiny home. In December, they'll begin to remodel it with every conceivable sustainable feature, from solar power to a cutting-edge green toilet.
Ultimately, the team will use what they learn from remodeling the dumpster to make plans for a small house that others can build themselves. "We’re going to take all of the lessons we’ve learned from this about design and living in small spaces and we’re going to build the tiniest home to code in the city of Austin," Wilson says. "We want to develop a ‘how to’ for building the tiniest home possible."
When Co.Exist last spoke to Wilson last October, he was preparing to begin his experiment. So far, Wilson says he hasn't had any regrets about the decision to give up his ordinary house, despite the fact that garbage trucks wake him up in the middle of the night when they empty the dumpsters next to him, and summer heat will likely be a challenge. "The experience of having such a small space and no distractions when you go home has been interesting," he says. "And my commute to work is now a two-minute walk."
The Dumpster Project is currently raising funds on Kickstarter.