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OTIS tiny house offers a new take on the American Dream


January 22, 2014

OTIS (or the Optimal Traveling Independent Space) was created by students at Green Mountain College

OTIS (or the Optimal Traveling Independent Space) was created by students at Green Mountain College

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Students at Vermont's Green Mountain College Renewable Energy and Ecological Design class have produced an off-grid tiny house that's billed as a new take on the American Dream. While that may seem a stretch, an American Dream centered around a sustainable home with a small footprint would certainly be a step in the right direction, environmentally-speaking.

OTIS (or the Optimal Traveling Independent Space) was produced as part of a semester-long Green Mountain College class taught by Professor Lucas Brown. It measures 6.5 sq m (70 sq ft), and can be towed by a car on a standard-sized 1.5 x 2.5 m (5 x 8 ft) open-bed utility trailer, underlying its practical modern nomad appeal.

"The appeal of living a more nomadic lifestyle represents a new take on the American Dream, especially among students in this millennial generation," explains Prof. Brown. "They (students) aren’t interested in being tied down with rent or a mortgage right after college. Something about having their own living space which is very low maintenance and very mobile suggests a different set of priorities."

Brown also told Gizmag that his students applied biomimicry principles to the design of OTIS. The students drew inspiration from hollow bird bones, dragonfly wing patterns, and multifunctional skin membranes to create a lightweight, aerodynamic, and durable structure. A computer-based software digital design tool was used to create a model, and then a CNC machine fabricated many of the parts.

Inside, the snug home contains a bed, desk, composting indoor toilet, rainwater collection system, a rudimentary sink, and a small Fastco wood-burning stove. A 120 W solar panel is affixed to the front of the dwelling and serves all electricity needs.

The total cost of OTIS (not including labor) comes to between US$8,000 and $10,000.

Source: Green Mountain College

About the Author
Adam Williams Adam scours the globe from his home in North Wales in order to bring the best of innovative architecture and sustainable design to the pages of Gizmag. Most of his spare time is spent dabbling in music, tinkering with old Macintosh computers and trying to keep his even older VW bus on the road. All articles by Adam Williams

I've been sold on the tiny house concept for years. And I know all those college kids had fun with this project. But let's get real. Most people live in urban or suburban areas. The housing and zoning codes would not allow people to live in structures like this.

We don't need new ideas. We don't need new tech. It is primarily our legal system that prevents the tiny house from going mainstream.


Eddie has the key point. It's very difficult to live in a tiny house legally. Where municipalities have endorsed the concept, the result is still very expensive housing--maximizing the developer's per sq foot profits.

We have legislated/regulated our societies in a way that makes inexpensive smaller homes difficult, if not impossible. The idea that if you have no fixed address, you're undesirable and a vagrant still exists.

John Driggers

I will be really impressed when someone designs one of these micro houses in such a way that it has the same interior volume as Jack Colts trailer in Loaded Weapon.


One way around the size/permanence issue would be a subdivision built entirely on the concept of the tiny house. I can't believe they aren't springing up all over. I think one problem still facing the tiny house market is cost. Talented, high end architects design these structures, then they end up costing as much as a traditional "starter home". If these people would publish designs that could be built for under (or around) $20,000, I think there would be significant adoption of the concept. Urban adoption will not likely happen since most dense urban areas have property valued at astronomical levels. Suburbs, however, offer a target rich environment - especially ones that have access to good transit systems.

I really wish this movement would take off. The concept is solid as a rock.

Vince Pack

As Grad of Prescott College and ECOSA(Eco-Design degree). I dig it. I have been playing with the basic trailer as a platform. Could be a fun contest, small teams or solo. Nice work! Connect ability would be great for groups or small families. Again, nice idea.

Justin Schetrompf

NIce concept! I would recommend placing the solar panel on the top of the home where the panel will produce the most power. The current placement will most likely reduce production by 50%. There are solar panels available (ours, for example) that would mold to the curved roof design.


As someone who has lived in a 25' sailboat and a 28' motor home, these concepts already exist, are affordable and practical.

Minimalist living does not have to mean crude or deprived. It only takes some ingenuity and a willingness to free oneself of lot of possessions.

James Smith

How does a 70 sq ft house fit on a 40 sq ft trailer?


Another cute project from college kids who have never lived a real life. Price with labor and delivery would be about $20,000... totally absurd. You can buy a 25ft used live-aboard sailboat for that price and have twice the space. Did any project team member try renting a little camper trailer without a shower, TV, or AC power and live it it for a few days during a Polar Vortex or 90 degree heat wave? OTIS is no better than a big tent with a nice cot, a porta-potti, and an iPhone for entertainment. There are pickup truck bed campers with more room than the OTIS. For 4 years, I owned a 13' Casita camper trailer about the size of the OTIS. Rounded fiberglass shell that never leaks (All that cute OTIS artwork will start leaking at the seams after a few hot/cold spells, or a few trips down a bumpy road). The Casita has a flush toiler, stand up shower, water heater, stove, fridge, propane cylinders, air conditioning, double bed, dining table for two, TV, closet, and more. Cost $12,000 and any car can tow it. Fun to live in for a few weeks. But, like OTIS, you have to own your own land to have a place to park it that does not cost $300 a month in an RV park. I do not understand the continuous stream of tiny wacko houses that no one ever actually lives in before they exclaim all its virtues. Nowhere on Green Mountain College property would the OTIS be allowed to park while being lived in. How about a story of a guy or gal that has actually lived in a tiny eco-house for a year or two? A Motel 6 room will seem like a palace after such an eco-house experiment.

Bruce Warren

Bruce, you're missing a few key points. One is that you don't assume that we've considered many of the things you talk about. The students working on this project were under a number of constraints, not the least of which were time and money. We are not offering this design as the final be-all-end-all mobile tiny house. Instead it was a chance to explore a number of different technologies and building strategies. The cost of OTIS reflects what it would cost a small group or talented individual to build one. It was never our intent to market this as an optimized finished project, but instead to make the plans available for anyone interested in building one or wanted to make their own changes. It's an evolving design. Given that, we appreciate feedback and constructive criticism. Maybe we could learn something from you. Instead you chose to make a number of erroneous assumptions about us and deliver your criticisms in an extremely disrespectful tone. Grow up.

Colin Tress

Road trek RV!

June Blair

A good idea for children to play with, but it has nothing to do with actual living in, no storage of any kind and no way of washing. There is no way that even one person could live in this structure for more than a day. The concept is a very important one and deserves serious action, millions of people in the developing world could benefit from such a structure, unfortunately this falls in the no real use section, please university students put your minds to this project


Boats, RVs, and travel trailers have already worked out most of the efficient designs and low voltage appliances. Interestingly, for every two feet of added length or width there is a totally different best utilization of space. About the only way left to go is up. By that I mean adding a second floor. Most of these tiny homes are interesting but not very livable.


I don't know why these tiny homes are becoming so popular. Doesn't this equate to living in a trailer. There are already high-density sub-divisions that have these kind of homes, they are called trailer-parks.


Hello Colin, It is great that you responded to my post. But please identify the erroneous assumptions you said I made? Or answer the question I asked. I have numbered them below so you can make a quick response.

1) Assumption: "college kids who have never lived a real life." 2) Assumption: " price with labor and delivery would be about $20,000". 3) Question: "Did any project team member try renting a little camper trailer without a shower, TV, or AC power and live it it for a few days during a Polar Vortex or 90 degree heat wave?" 4) Assumption: "Nowhere on Green Mountain College property would the OTIS be allowed to park while being lived in." 5) Assumption: ..."tiny wacko houses that no one ever actually lives in before they exclaim all its virtues." 6) Assumption: "A Motel 6 room will seem like a palace after such an eco-house experiment."

On that last one, I have spent a few hundred nights in a backpacking tent in the middle of a national park, often 5 or 10 nights in a row. Believe me, that Motel 6 room does feel like a palace (for a few nights anyway....)

My son is in college now. I spent 8 years at engineering school. Valuable experience and great discoveries come from hands-on projects using good experimental designs with a hypothesis and measurements to see what really happened. Valuable results do not flow from feel-good group games spending other peoples money.

-=Bruce Warren, P.E.

Bruce Warren

These things are cute, but they need land, whether it be your own plot in the backwoods, a trailer park, or a space on the pavement in a city. There are costs associated with each. Small and efficient has been done well in places like Japan and Europe for some time, and they add the component of density. As a design excercise this was probably a good learning experience, but much like concept cars one may see at an auto show, ain't gonna happen.

Bruce H. Anderson

This structure does lack a great deal of comforts/supplies, some rather important (storage, reasonable supply of water, ability to protect inhabitant(s) from weather conditions/extremes....

...What's funny is how much it resembles a time-honored ancestral invention: The Yurt! (Which I have dreamt of living in....) .A dwelling is the marriage of human, local needs and environmental supplies. So the problem here is to adapt local supplies to modern, mobile hipster urban folk. C.

Carol Zedeck

I lived more than half my life as either an engineer on freighters or on a tug boat, or commercial fishing from a 50 foot boat (that I sailed from Seattle to King Cove Alaska) and one gets really used to having a small space. I have owned my own houses and am currently living by myself in my 3 bedroom two bathroom home. I also lived for a few years on a 34 foot Chris Craft. I never think that I am cramped on the boat, nor do I feel like I am living in a palatial estate in my home. I can only speak for myself, but I seem to adapt to the space I am living in. I do know one thing for sure. If that space isn't traveling then you are at the mercy of landlords and the people around you who will power trip on you just cause you are available to power trip on. No Condo's or Marina's for me any more. I am old and don't want to fight. Get too many humans together in a small space and they start acting like Baboons staking out their space and acting aggressive to those who invade it. This pod may be very livable but it needs to be somewhere with few neighbors is my opinion. But it sure looks cool. I wonder if you could build them and put them in a circle around a central one to make a home that grows naturally as it can be afforded! I guess the big end would be at the center and the small ends sticking out on the perimeter of the circle. And a bigger round structure in the center with bathrooms kitchen wood-stove that would blow heat into the pods?

Mot Dranwod

Hey folks, stop whining, it's a mobile home, so all of the "City codes" concerns are nonexistent. Regarding the cost. Looking to the materials and structural solutions used I can easily estimate that the house itself (perhaps without furniture, solar power, and other "amenities" built in should cost less then a $1000 to build (+ labor). I would definitely try to build it if I'd get some blueprints. Actually, a lot of the design's details could be sniffed out of the video, but surely some of the green ideas are not so obvious (like the water collection).

Alexandre Koukarine
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