Design student builds his own sustainable home


Marisa Charpentier

Wood paneling surrounds the fewer than 150-square-foot home. The unfinished structure sits atop an 18-by-7.5-foot trailer with no roof and no air conditioning. This is just the start of Joel Weber’s new living space, but he has big plans for his tiny home. 

For Weber, a transfer student and design sophomore, the decision to lead a more sustainable life started with a one-way ticket to Nicaragua. In 2012, Weber moved to Central America — not knowing when he would be back. 

“I wanted to get away from the culture here because it was weighing me down,” Weber said. “I wanted to experience a new language, a new culture and new perspectives.”

While living with people he met on the beaches and local families, Weber gained an appreciation for the culture’s way of life. 

“They were so happy with so little, and I was so happy with so little,” Weber said. “Modern necessities, that we would just call standard, a lot of people do not have.”

After spending three months abroad, Weber returned to the U.S. with a new outlook. He soon stumbled across a community of people building “tiny homes,” or small, sustainable living spaces that can be driven from place to place on trailers. When Weber got accepted to UT, he thought living small would be the most efficient way to combat housing prices. 

Weber’s tiny house is still in progress back home in Dallas, but he said he hopes to have it finished and moved to Austin by the end of the year. According to Weber’s friend, speech/language pathology senior Erika Lovfald, Weber is constantly sketching ideas for the home. 

“I didn’t know it was possible to make that, and then he showed me his plans, and I saw how efficient it was,” Lovfald said. “It definitely beats paying so much to live in West Campus.”

The tiny home will include such features as a loft, a guest loft, a propane stove and an energy-efficient   water heater. After acquiring the proper funds, Weber plans to add solar panels and possibly a garden on the roof as well. He also plans to harvest rainwater and recycle his own water. Weber said every aspect of a tiny home should have two purposes in order to preserve space. 

“You have to think, ‘How can I make a bookshelf a ladder?’” Weber said. “How can I make windows vents as well?”

Weber said small objects often inspire his design. He turned a bowl from World Market into a sink and used items he found in the trash. He recently found tree branches that he plans to use as a railing for the loft bed. The building process has not been without obstacles. Weber has to make sure the home meets living regulations and register the home with the city. He said, each time he has had his doubts about the project, people encourage him to keep working.

Before coming to UT, Weber worked as a lifeguard and nanny for friend Julie Riekse. Riekse is one of several people who donated to Weber’s project. 

“The tiny house reflects who Joel is,” Riekse said. “He is taking care of his own basic needs in a creative way while caring for the environment.”

According to Weber, his passion for design spurs from his desire to leave places better than he found them.

“I love to be designing objects and spaces that give back more to the Earth than they take away,” Weber said. “It’s an honor to be a part of the beginning of this movement. I feel like it’s going to leave lasting effects on us as a society.”