A rendering of a Rising Barn "Domo" unit. Image courtesy of Rising Barn.
A rendering of local San Antonio design and structure company Rising Barn's "Domo" unit. Credit: Courtesy / Rising Barn

The idea of minimalism can be traced to Greece when Diogenes, a son of a wealthy banker, rejected his family’s lifestyle of opulence. Throughout his life, Diogenes critiqued high society’s standards, norms, and beliefs.

He is known to be one of the most influential cynic philosophers. Like many cynic philosophers who wanted to live virtuously within nature’s benedictions, Diogenes encouraged individuals to rethink the definition of a simple and meaningful life. French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme famously depicts Diogenes living out of a wine barrel surrounded by only the basic needs, demonstrating the lifestyle the great philosopher opted for.

Today, such extremes are perhaps not the norm. However, Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, Graham Hill from the blog Life Edited, and countless others have strived to introduce us to the “minimalistic” lifestyle.

Fields and Nicodemus are two individuals who traded their six-figure salaries and previous ways of life in search of how to best define a meaningful life. The duo recently launched its message onto a platform with the capability of reaching 90 million users worldwide through their Netflix documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things.

The movie depicts the story of the two minimalists as they travel the country promoting their new approach to life and spreading the message of how one could learn to become a minimalist in the hope of finding a better balance. By including a wide range of experts on the topic of consumerism in the United States, a structured examination is made based on key motivators for a happy existence. Audience members are left pondering their “needs” versus “wants,” their large homes, packed closets, and stuffed schedules. At an alarming rate, the amounts of “wants” made available to consumers today are being extrapolated by the high efficiency in manufacturing and marketing that exploit our weakness for more.

The minimalistic movement of today reminds us that our consumption appears to be on autopilot, and our excessive desire for more is not equally matched with our income earned, nor is it considerate of the planet’s long-term health. More so, in a time of great technological advances and such a vast creation of wealth, society has mindfully rejected and failed to reach a consensus on how to address fair access to clean energy, food, and water.

According to NPR’s All Things Considered, the average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s, yet the use of storage containers has sprawled into a $22 billion industry, indicating that our big homes are not big enough for our stuff.

Graham Hill, a TED talk presenter through his Life Edited page, provides innovative guidance and useful tips for maximizing the usage of space within a home. In a simple demonstration, Hill and his team masterfully remodel a small 420 sq. ft. apartment in New York City to minimalistically include all the essentials. The completed Manhattan apartment project includes a working space, accommodations to seat 10 guests for dinner, a sofa with a television projector, and can comfortably host two overnight guests. Hill and his team at Life Edited remind us that “less is more.”

Significant effects to overall household expenditures when choosing to live in a smaller home can include: 1) reduced principal cost of home plus interest, if mortgaged; 2) reduced property taxes; 3) less repairs, maintenance, and operation cost; 4) savings on home insurance, closing costs, and countless other liabilities; and 5) long-term reduced energy and water consumption.

Often, homeowners overlook the benefit of reduced utility bills when arguing the minimalistic lifestyle, primarily since heating and cooling account for nearly half of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes, according to the Department of Energy.

Estimates show that in San Antonio for the year 2013, the homes with average size category of 4,000 sq. ft. and above consumed 140% more energy than average homes in the 2,000-2,499 sq. ft. range. This additional consumption is measured from 23,000 to 55,000 BTU/TDD (British Thermal Units divided by the number of Total Degree Days).

In other words, this increase in energy is highly attributed to the size of the home since the numbers are normalized for weather. Even though these homes are usually newer and more efficient on a per square foot basis due to the better building envelope construction and appliances, they still consume more total energy. When larger homes consume more energy, over time the cost is compounded. Studies we conducted have shown again and again that larger homes are a major driver for energy use, even when taking into account other variables to include both behavioral and structural influences.

Another trend, “Tiny Homes,” is receiving a multitude of attention as more people are seeking a more affordable alternative to the 15-30 year mortgage commitment. One of the individuals credited with this movement is Sarah Susanka whose “Not So Big” message has become a “launch pad for a new dimension of understanding – not just about how we inhabit our homes, but also about how we inhabit our planet and even our day-to-day lives,” according to Susanka.

This message keeps us reminiscent of the 2008 banking and economic collapse. Building tiny homes is a craft that aims for a small and sleek modern design, while challenging the building to innovatively maximize the utility for the space. Tiny homes can be run on solar panels off the utility grid, and can also be mobile.

A tiny house or Diogenes’ wine barrel might not be the solution we need, but perhaps acknowledging the impact our daily life of overconsumption has on our overall energy footprint is a good start. Aiming for our “personal space” balance from a physical and emotional perspective can now be thought of as a parallel.

Lastly, as our footprint in the state of Texas grows, there are many opportunities for living more with less. After all, everything is bigger and better in Texas: Bigger life, bigger savings and a better state of happiness all wrapped up in a smaller blueprint.

Afamia Elnakat, PhD is a published author in peer-reviewed journals scoping the fields of environmental sciences, sociodemographics, data analytics, conservation, and living energy efficient. She is recognized...

Alex Treviño is currently pursuing bachelor's degrees in business administration and finance at UTSA. He is a member of the Investment Society, UTSA Mens Soccer Team, Green Society, Student Government,...