Small can be beautiful, homeowner finds

The 2007 GLEE Expo followed its well-attended festival with a tour of homes that incorporate energy-saving measures ranging from arrays of electricity producing panels to water systems that reuse waste water.

One of the houses on the tour, however, takes a slightly different approach. Rich Jones saves money — and energy — by keeping his residence very small. The home, on 75th Street in Marathon, is only 600 square feet. With mega-mansions sprouting throughout the Keys, Jones is certainly bucking a “bigger is better” trend.

Actually, bigger isn’t better when it comes to saving energy, and these new, large homes tend to gobble enormous amounts of electricity and water.

Not this house. Jones describes his house as a “pod” structure. That means that he originally built only what he needed but could easily expand it at a later date. As a single man, he doesn’t really need much space, and the house is currently only 600 square feet.

That size alone keeps his energy bills very low. Currently, he has a small living room that doubles as his bedroom. The house also has an equally small but very functional kitchen, and an office. Later, he can add two bedrooms, if he wishes.

That means that even with his air-conditioning running, Jones only gets $50 to $60 electric bills. He likes it cool. On a pleasant and sunny Sunday afternoon he had the thermostat set at 75. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative recommends 78 as an energy-saving measure.

Jones also has solar hot water. After air conditioning, household use of hot water draws the most power.

“I have yet to turn on my hot water heater,” he said. “Even on cloudy days I have plenty of hot water.”

Gray days and sunny alike, steaming hot water comes from his tap.

Jones also had a 2,500-gallon cistern designed into the house when he had it built four years ago. As all permanent residents know, the winter months are normally very dry, and this year has been even drier. People who water their landscaping during this time often use large amounts of water and tax what has become a limited resource.

Jones solved that problem by having his contractor install the cistern, which is buried in the back yard. He has built an attractive screen to hide the cement covers of the unit.

Even in March, one of the Keys’ drier months, the 2,500-gallon cement cistern was full. An electric pump enables him to water his landscaping. He could also wash his car or use the water for other similar, non-drinking purposes.

The overall design of Jones’ house helps keep it cooler. The back stairway leads to a downstairs (and legal) cement enclosure. Keeping it open creates a chimney effect that brings cooler air from the lower level up to the living quarters. Jones also points to a lack of partition walls within the house as a way to maximize that cooling effect.

The home uses more than the amount of insulation required by code, and all the windows are double glazed. Doing so not only reduced the amount of energy needed to cool his home, but also reduced another kind of pollution — noise.

The metal roof helps keep the amount of heat in the structure lower, and Jones likes the fact that it is more resistant to the force of hurricane winds.

How does Jones like living in such a small house?

He loves it. He takes advantage of the temperate climate of the Keys by spending time outdoors. In fact, the dining area sits on a small deck outside his front door, thereby reducing the need for lighting and cooling. As a master gardener, Jones spends time working in his yard, made up entirely of native plants and trees. These, of course, require very little, if any, watering.

What else does Jones do to keep energy costs low?

“I try to turn off lights when I’m not in a room, just like my mother told me to do,” he quipped.