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Credit: Damian Brandon

We live in a world of excessiveness. The global population recently surpassed 7 billion, the internet is overflowing with information and people continue to buy more and more. Even during these economically challenging times, industries continue to increase production. According to this article, instead of constructing smaller and more efficient homes, some real estate companies are moving towards larger, cheaper homes as a way to compete with already established houses. After all, consumers want the most for their money when they shop. However, larger homes require more space, and living in such structures is inherently unsustainable, especially in a world with increasing population and decreasing developable land.

Yet we’ve all experienced living with less sometime in our lives, usually during extended stays away from our homes. We pack light and bring only the essentials so as not to be burdened with unnecessary weight and clutter. Many European countries have caught on with this trend, mainly due to necessity with Europe’s small land size, but it’s about time that Americans realize the importance of small-scale. It’s a simpler and smaller-scale lifestyle, one that should be promoted when considering resource efficiency and sustainability.

Credit: Arvind Belaraman

Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, gave a TED talk on the topic of how less stuff leads to more happiness. Hill explains that compared to 50 years ago, Americans use three times the amount of space and spurred the creation of a 2.2 billion dollar personal storage industry. It appears that the more space Americans use due to purchases, the more they purchase, continuing the cycle. The increase of possessions results in increased debt, a negative environmental impact, and overall lower happiness. In an effort to reduce his carbon footprint and save money, Hill created the LifeEdited crowd-sourced design competition – calling upon designers from all over the world to design a home that included all the same functions and accessories of normal home, but contained within Hill’s 420 square foot apartment. The plans of the winning entry featured foldable and transformable furniture, collapsible and multifunctional spaces, and reduced clutter due to digitalization. The plan is elegant and efficient in its design, a true testament to living with less.

Or is it? Hill’s new apartment certainly utilizes space efficiently, but how far does he go in editing his life “ruthlessly,” as he puts it? Hill’s plan features a large screen television that nearly fills an entire wall and personal storage space for his bike. One could argue that he really doesn’t need such a large television or a television at all and that the bike could be stored on street level or in a garage. It appears that Hill indulges still indulges in some frivolities that define a ‘civilized culture.’ But it is important to note that while Hill is a proponent of efficient and elegant design, he is not promoting an entirely simple and technology-free one. His home may be simple in the sense of less clutter, but the design itself is incredibly complex, many functions are occupying a small space. While Monks in eastern monasteries enjoy their minimalist lifestyle and bask in the beauty of the harmony of nature, Hill isn’t suggesting that we adopt the same hermitic vows. Hill utilizes technology and smart design to allow him to enjoy the ‘good life’ at a fraction of the monetary and environmental cost. Hill himself declared that “this is not a communist ploy, it’s actually very capitalistic.”

LifeEdited Winning Design Credit: michelangelo

While Hill’s philosophy of reduction appears extremely enticing – enjoying the benefits of technology with considerable less negative impact – there are some issues that should be discussed when promoting such a lifestyle:

Loss of Personality

Removing unnecessary possessions often means clearing out non-functioning items such as decorations and other items that add that ‘personal touch.’ These items serve no other purpose other than aesthetic and emotional appeal. Looking at Hill’s winning design, there is little room for personal expression except through the already established design which includes a few plants. Looking at antique and traditional homes, it is often the personal touches, the wallpaper, the pictures and the sculptures that give the home its character. Yet in modern designs, the character is already established and requires little additional work, often discouraging any changes and conveying a feeling of sterility and coldness. Indeed, an edited life means a life without any trivial items such as decorations, function is far more important. However, no one wants to live in a house that they feel disconnected from; it simply would not feel like welcoming, warm home. But we don’t want to end up like Ryan Bingham and edit our life so ruthlessly that we eliminate relationships and our emotions all together. Emotions are what sets apart from the machine. So while functionality and efficiently is important, so too is personal expression and customization. But instead of keeping all your family heirlooms or stagnant displays, consider choosing only a few that truly exemplify who you are and recycle the rest.

Loss of Interaction

With so many functions built into such a small space, the occupant finds even less reasons to leave the comfort of his home now that everything he needs is even closer. This encourages a lifestyle of solitude, especially if the occupant works at home. Of course, a smaller house means that the fridge holds less food and therefore frequent trips to the store will be required. A possible solution to prevent seclusion would be to further limit any possible storage space. Large appliances and tools that are only used occasionally (such as bikes, vacuums and handy-man tools) should be stored in a communal location, a room shared by the entire building or floor. This set-up promotes community interaction through space sharing and can even result in tool-lending libraries. Efficiency should not mean laziness.

Difficulty of Implementation

Not everyone has the time or resources to completely renovate his or her apartment like Mr. Hill. Constructing new, well-designed homes and apartments debatably might be less sustainable than renovating old, large homes. Instead of editing the environment, instead edit the lifestyle and reevaluate your possessions and the amount of space you actually need to live. There is no set standard square footage that would allow everyone to live comfortably, but it’s important to be harsh and challenge yourself. You may be surprised by just how little you really need. The idea of living with an edited life is having and using only what you use daily – including space. Any excess, unused space in the house could then be offered to tenants. This lifestyle of sharing a kitchen, laundry room and possibly even the living room or dining room encourages community interactions while providing a new source of income.

Living with an edited life does not necessarily require an overhaul of your home. Getting rid of unused space and possessions will greatly reduce stress and your carbon footprint. Whenever you buy a new product, ask yourself if you truly need it, and how often will you be using it. With this mindset, companies are encouraged to put more effort into their products in order to appear more enticing. Consider investing in efficient, well-made and multi-functional products in order to get the most out of your money, not by size but by quality. Digitize your music, books and recipes. The easiest way to lessen negative impact is simply use everything less, and make the uses count. Hopefully this line of thinking will help transition America from a “bigger is better” mentality to a mindset based on high-quality, efficiency and contentment. Less is More.