Elevate Takes Tiny Houses to the Next Level
They look like giant, moss-covered Minecraft trees — cozy 250-square-foot plant-covered boxes perched atop tall pedestals. But the creators of Elevate have a much bigger vision for their eco-friendly design.
Elevate is the brainchild of Nathan Toothman, who previously ran BEAR Engineering, a foundation engineering and inspection business. Originally from Colorado, he served as a submarine officer, engineer, and tactics instructor with the U.S. Navy for several years, and after being stationed at Pearl Harbor, he earned his MBA from Chaminade University.
Toothman was doing engineering work at a site on the North Shore in 2012 when he began to imagine what kind of house could be designed to fit in with the natural environment, facing limited resources and natural disasters like tsunami.
He found inspiration in trees, and through biomimicry and careful design, the Elevate was born.
“So the grand idea here is to tap into the vertical space of areas,” Toothman explained tonight on Bytemarks Cafe. “We do that using a pedestal foundation — it has a small footprint on the ground, that still allows for plenty of use below.”
And the way the Elevate looks is an important part of the overall concept.
“By making it look like a tree, trying to keep the proportions of a tree, we’re also making a really functional, innovative, sustainable structure that we see could be used in a variety of applications,” he said. “Everybody likes trees, right?”
The first application that comes to mind is the housing crunch in Honolulu, Toothman said, pointing to greater flexibility in local laws for smaller structures — from the “tiny house” movement to allowing more accessory dwelling units. A property owner could put an Elevate in his backyard and rent it out, creating affordable housing while also generating income.
But he also sees the Elevate as a new model for commercial office space, including retail.
“Usually parking lots are completely devoid of nature so now we’re trying to bring nature in and use them for business space as well,” Toothman said. “Get more out of parking lots, elevate the worker space, but keep the footprint small on the ground.”
Indeed, parking lots are problematic for more than just being ugly.
“We have these giant areas of our cities that are just covered with asphalt, and they’re contributing to storm water runoff, and they’re not really being used for much other than parking,” Toothman said. “This is a way to get more out of those parking spots, do it in an environmentally friendly way where we capture rainwater and store it in the tanks, that reduces storm water runoff, and solar panels on the sides and top can get these off the grid.”
The prefabricated and portable elevated living or working spaces can range in size from 250 to 400 square feet, and the exterior “living walls” can include a range of plants, including edible ones.
“There’s a lot of benefits there — it provides insulation, a natural cooling effect, and it also feels good, it feels like you’re surrounded by nature,” Toothman explained. “But really the main driving force is to it keeps it really aesthetically pleasing.”
“I think it will fit into parking lots if it looks like a tree, if it’s pretty,” he added. “If it doesn’t look pretty, there’s going to be objections to it.”
As for the “trunk,” the modest 40-square-foot footprint offers a lot of possibilities. While it could house an elevator for universal access, it’s otherwise a steel-reinforced hollow space.
“The original inspiration was to store all your water needs within in the trunk of the tree, and that helps to weight it down, too, for tsunami or flooding events,” Toothman said, pointing to both natural disasters and water shortages in recent headlines. “A water storage foundation is something nobody is doing right now.”
And for all the attention the Elevate might get for what you can see at ground level, there’s more going on underground.
“What I do in my job as a civil engineer is foundations,” Toothman said. “What we do is we drill micropiles, or root piles, so that taps deep into the earth and get to stronger soil.”
The Elevate has certainly captured the imaginations of people both in and beyond Hawaii, with coverage by Civil Beat and Honolulu Magazine, and recent write-ups in FastCompany, Gizmag, and the Mother Nature Network.
To grow Elevate into a solid business, Toothman and his partners (including his wife and fellow engineer Tiffany) launched a Kickstarter campaign last month. So far $18,366 has been raised, but the $58,000 is still a long way off, with the deadline only 30 hours away. But the crowdfunding campaign won’t make or break Elevate.
Toothman says they’ve learned a lot of lessons with their first Kickstarter that they could apply to another run. In the mean time, he said Elevate could also find backing through local accelerator programs, from XLR8UH to the Energy Excelerator. Whatever it takes to get Elevate off the ground, I’m confident they’ll make it happen.
You can listen to today’s interview with Toothman here: