Living small is a new philosophy that can make a big difference on the environment, and ultimately us, discovers Elena Koshy.
IT’S almost too good to be true: The house will be running at zero cost. There’s no need to pay bills.
Imagine living in a home so efficient it’s completely free, unencumbered by monthly electricity and water charges. The liberating thought perks me up despite the blazing equatorial sun overhead.
That is eco-warrior and green lifestyle advocate Matthias Gelber’s declaration as he shows me around his brainchild, the prototype for the GreenMan Tiny Home — Malaysia’s first-ever extreme zero energy, completely off-grid, carbon neutral, water-efficient and affordable house inspired by the traditional Malaysian kampung (village) house.
The construction of this ambitious prototype commenced almost half a year ago, at the Construction Research Institute of Malaysia (Cream).
The first fully “green” home in the country was completed in February, in time for its unveiling to almost 50,000 visitors at the National Craft Day event held recently at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex, KL.
At first glance, the experimental home looks small. At only 4.5m by 2.5m with a floor space spanning 120 square feet (11.14sq m) and slightly smaller than a standard parking lot, it’s what it promises to be — a tiny home.
“This house is hijau (green) all the way,” says Gelber as he welcomes me inside. “Tiny Home has zero carbon footprint and zero waste.”
I gingerly step into the house feeling like I’m about to step into a hobbit’s abode. It appears more spacious than I originally assumed. What’s surprising is that it comes complete with a bedroom, toilet and a kitchen. The essentials of what makes a comfortable home are all here, lending credence to his claim that living smaller doesn’t have to mean sacrificing comfort.
Gelber, a proponent of this shrunken living space, says it champions environmental and economic efficiencies.
Using biodegradable products and built from reclaimed construction waste, this experimental green home comes complete with sustainable rain harvesting and waste management systems that have been incorporated into the blueprint of its design.
With those emplaced along with solar panels and other innovative green features, the home is fully functional without having to rely on external power supply, water or sewerage treatment.
“No sewage system?” I ask incredulously as I look at the composting toilet — a common feature shared by tiny home toilets in other parts of the world but somewhat of an anomaly in Malaysia.
“The composting chamber uses bacteria to break down waste into odour-free fertilising soil,” explains Gelber.
Environmental footprint reduction aside and the fact that your plants would be growing in nutrient rich fertiliser (yours!), I imagine that Gelber’s Tiny Home is useful in areas facing floods and natural disasters.
It doesn’t need to rely on existing sanitation systems, making it suitable for coping with situations where the lack of suitable water supply, sewers and sewage treatment affect living conditions.
German-born Gelber hopes the mindset of Malaysians will change with the introduction of this new green living concept.
“I’ve been living in Malaysia for more than a decade and one of the questions that has always bothered me is: How can we inspire people here to go green? People need to see the relevance of green technology, and what better way than to build a tiny self-contained home? The tiny home movement is a huge global trend in other parts of the world but has yet to gain traction in Malaysia.”
He is referring to the movement that has been gaining popularity in North America where people are opting to downsize their living space due to economic and environmental concerns.
The idea of owning the house without owning the land it sits on and making it possible to transport it to various locations is revolutionary — particularly for Malaysians who have a more conventional concept of house ownership.
“It’s an ingrained concept over here as we’ve been told throughout our lives that we need a big house and a big car to be ‘somebody’. If there are seven billion people here who want the same things in life, we’re going to overload the system.”
By system, Gelber means Earth, of course. We all know how our planet has been assailed with issues such as climate change, pollution and other serious environmental concerns as a result of unsustainable practices combined with the “overloading” of rampant development and overpopulation.
“We’ve got to start somewhere and challenging this concept is something
I hope this Tiny Home will do,” says Gelber.
He goes on to add: “With house ownership getting expensive, Tiny Home offers Malaysians the possibility of owning a home without putting a financial ball-and-chain on their ankles.” It’s time to introduce dematerialization and the philosophy of “less is more” — presenting to people that it’s possible to own a self-contained mobile home with features that allow them to live sustainably without breaking the pocket”
It’s clear that Gelber is passionate about the things he believes in. And you can’t help being influenced by his earnestness and enthusiasm.
“I am really a kampung boy at heart,” he says, smiling.
“I lived in small village called Burbach-Lippe in Germany where I developed a strong connection with Mother Nature
from a very young age. After all, she provided my playground!” recalls Gelber with a smile.
“When I was a teenager, Chernobyl blew up,” he continues, referring to the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred in 1986, a few thousand kilometres away from where he lived.
“We couldn’t eat the vegetables in our garden that year. At that time, the forests in Germany were also dying due to acid rain and pollution from factories. It was also during the same time that I read Silent Spring by nature writer Rachel Carson, documenting the detrimental effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of pesticides,” recalls Gelber.
He pauses for a moment before vehemently declaring: “We humans are screwing Mother Earth!”
The passionate German continues: “I realised from a young age that it was my mission to inspire people to go green. My late father didn’t understand my resolve. He said to me, ‘What are you doing? Get a proper job. You can’t make money from hugging trees!’ But I knew that this was my path. I decided to study chemistry to further understand where pollution comes from. Eventually, however, I realised my main skill is communication. I’m a communicator, an inspirer. That’s what I’m passionate about and I convince people to make responsible lifestyle changes by inspiring them.”
Known as the Green Man, Gelber gained a huge following inspired by his philosophy of sustainability and green living.
In 2008, he was voted Greenest Person on the Planet in an online competition in Canada by 3rdWhale, a sustainability-driven mobile applications builder.
Since then, Gelber has been inspiring people to switch to a greener lifestyle which he hopes would happen in Malaysia, his adopted home for 12 years.
“I’d love to see this concept travel all through Malaysia and be accessible to a whole new generation of young Malaysians to get ideas about green living and green technology.
I’m not hoping just for people to change their housing to one of these,” he says, patting the wall next to him.
“If people change how they live in their existing homes — by reducing their electricity bill and start thinking about how to reduce the massive amount of waste they’re generating — all this ‘sikit-sikit lama-lama jadi bukit’ (bit by bit, over time, it will accumulate into a mountain) components are part of the educational change I’d like to see happen,” continues Gelber
Concluding, he says: “Malaysians have actually got it right with their kampung houses. We took inspiration from the original structure of these village houses and came up with this home.
“Perhaps it’s about reminding Malaysians to remember their simple style of living in the past.
Who better to remind them than a simple kampung boy from Germany whose priority is to be a good servant of Mother Earth and who wants to inspire a lot of other people along the way?”