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Ikea tiny homes can help fight climate change by giving small footprints a big toehold

The Swedish powerhouse is pushing the market toward key features that can make housing as a whole environmentally sustainable.
Image: Escape IKEA Boho XL
Outside view of the Escape IKEA Boho XL.Escape

Ikea’s newest product line is small in stature but giant in implications: tiny houses, or trailers around 200 square feet bearing the company’s trademark airy and minimalist style and retailing for $47,550.

The wildly successful Swedish company is seeking to move ecologically optimized tiny houses from the fringes to the mainstream.

The diminutive scale of the structures means they aren’t likely to become a template for the next generation of American homes. But the wildly successful Swedish company is seeking to move ecologically optimized tiny houses from the fringes to the mainstream, aiming at a large customer base that’s already enamored of the brand. In doing so, Ikea is pushing the market toward key features that can make housing as a whole environmentally sustainable.

Housing is an important source of climate pollution — directly responsible for about 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States plus their electricity. Given Ikea’s emphasis on recycled and reusable materials, the company seems likely to accelerate some important shifts in the housing market. Ikea will also almost certainly take advantage of what it learns in the “tiny” segment of the building market to establish a foothold in the broader, potentially highly green, manufactured building space.

Importantly, Ikea has global reach: Thirty percent of its sales are outside of Europe, while China has already become its No. 5 market. Ikea also has made a major investment in sustainability as a corporate value: It’s launched major initiatives involving its own supply chain, is leading climate friendly business coalitions and is spearheading environmental philanthropy around the world. So Ikea’s supply chain standards, for instance, become hurdles that other firms feel required to meet.

The clearest step forward is that Ikea’s tiny buildings emit zero pollution, including carbon. The homes are solar-powered and all-electric, which means the only emissions come from being towed. They’re also manufactured structures, which are intrinsically less wasteful than constructed on-site homes.

Inside view of the Escape IKEA Boho XLEscape

In addition, the use of rooftop solar panels to generate power and the replacement of propane heating with a heat pump run by those solar panels is likely to become the standard in many states for manufactured homes. They will gravitate toward all-electric mobile homes because propane is a significant factor in the threat of fires to mobile home parks.

And smaller itself is climate smarter. The growing presence of tiny houses, already a trend in certain eco-conscious locales, is likely to encourage customers toward less wasteful designs with smaller footprints — an important step everywhere, but a vital one in emerging market economies where huge numbers of new housing units will be built in the next 20 years.

There’s also an environmental benefit in the materials the houses use. Most mobile homes are reliant on wood and metal framing — concrete is too heavy for mobile structures. Ikea’s focus on reusable components means that manufactured home companies, even those with larger building footprints, will be tugged to steadily increase the share of their raw materials that can be repurposed whenever the original structure they’ve built is retired.

That would push construction towards wood — which, if it became routinely reused, could then make for truly carbon neutral structures. (Right now, the average lifespan of a building is too short for the use of wood to fully offset the emissions in the construction process plus the emissions when the wood is disposed of.) It might also create market pressures on the masonry segment of the construction industry to reduce their carbon footprint and find ways to reuse their raw materials as well.

But small houses won’t tackle the biggest climate threat from construction, at the anything-but-tiny scale: the concrete used in roads, bridges, ports, factories, air terminals and other larger structural units. Most of this infrastructure becomes obsolete long before the cast concrete used to build it wears out. However, the very qualities that make concrete desirable for many large projects — its nonmodular form, low labor requirements and capacity to be shaped into one-off designs — make it essentially nonreusable except as crushed concrete for landfill or gravel substitutes.

In addition, cement, which is used in most concrete, is responsible for one-twelfth of total global carbon emissions, both from the fossil fuels used to heat it and from the carbon released when converting limestone to cement.

So while tiny houses have far more potential than their scale might suggest, it’s at the other end of the size spectrum that the most major breakthroughs in construction remain to be made.

There is plenty of historic precedent for fabricating new buildings from the skeletons of old ones. Late in the Roman Republic, the reuse of materials from an old building became a major source of materials – so much so that emperors were repeatedly forced to enact laws prohibiting the unauthorized destruction of existing structures by thieves.

Housing is an important source of climate pollution — directly responsible for about 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States plus their electricity.

But even the thrifty Romans never figured out how to reuse their durable Roman cement a second time, except by actual reuse of a building structure or parts of it — because Roman cement construction, like modern concrete buildings, was cast in large units, not assembled like brick or stone in blocks or other modular forms that, in theory, could be dismantled and used in entirely new ways.

So perhaps the lesson from tiny houses is truly fundamental: Small is beautiful, as well as sustainable.

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