“Have you heard the saying: ‘All gas, no brakes?’” jokes Stephanie Main, a soon-to-be-graduate of the Sustainable Development program at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. What she means to say is that once she devotes herself to a task (be it finishing her undergraduate degree or tackling climate change) there will be no stopping her on the road to completing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Main’s most recent project: learning to make a tiny home sustainably from scratch.
Main has taken the extra time afforded to her by the pandemic, remote classwork, and living in Florida during the pandemic to design, plan, and construct a mobile tiny home that she sees as a possible solution to a crisis she is most passionate about: climate refugees and forced migration.
Columbia News caught up with Main to hear about what she’s learned while constructing a tiny home and how she made her way to the Sustainable Development program at Columbia in the first place.
How did you come to the Sustainable Development program?
I was in California. I was 18. I tried to do the whole ‘graduate from high school, go to college, get a job.’ Couldn’t do it. I made it a year. I went to a university in California for engineering because I was told I could do it. But I didn’t want to do it. I was like, “Why am I doing this for other people?” It really broke me down. I dropped out but stayed in California, took two years off, worked three jobs. I enrolled in a community college next to the university I had gone to.
I thought I would get an Associates, but my friend told me he was at Columbia doing the Sustainable Development program. And then I set my mind on getting into Columbia to do the program myself. I got to dive right into the program once I got here. I felt like I was seeing something tangible. I felt like I could relate to it. Immediately, I loved it.
What inspired you to build a tiny home?
While I was living in California I moved like every year and rent is as much as it is in New York. I went through a time when I was like ‘O.K., look at all this stuff, who needs the stuff?’ I ended up doing a closet clean-out every couple of months and I realized that, in America, you’re kind of raised to think that material items are so important and you need all these fancy clothes, and you need a nice car and a nice house to be happy and I was like, ‘I have all of these things and I’m miserable.’ So it was a combination of that and being sick of moving so often that no place really felt like home.
I was looking into retrofitting a van around the same time that I got into Columbia and I was like, “O.K., I’ll table it and I’ll do it later, but I will do it.” So, I came here and the pandemic actually was the catalyst. My parents live in Florida, and I went to live with them when the pandemic broke out. About a week after I got there, I was like “I have to do something. What am I going to do? What have I always wanted to do but never have the time? Oh my God, my house! I’ll do it.”
Tell us about how you did it.
I was torn between doing a flatbed trailer and actually building a tiny house versus the van, and I landed on the tiny house because at the time I was also feeling like I don’t have a place of my own, a home. I got a small taste of what being displaced feels like. That’s part of the reason why I kind of got into this.
So I started researching and I was committed to doing it right, sustainably, and at the least cost. I wanted to see if I could really do it, practicing what I’m preaching. So I bought a used trailer from a local person. And then I was like: ‘Alright, how am I going to go about getting building materials? What will I consider? Steel? Wood is better, but then you’re cutting down trees.’
I did a cost-benefit analysis and it’s interesting because lumber is already pretty sustainably sourced. I was shocked, but they’ve been doing it for a long time and know they’ll run out of trees if they overdo it. I was actually impressed and ended up building with wood because steel is so heavy. I have builder friends who helped me, and I had interned with an interior design firm that helped with the interiors. I went to the flea market a lot, Naples Lumber, and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore for the windows. I did things like that because sustainability has a lot to do with the economy and supporting local. We’re kind of in this mess because of huge corporations elbowing out mom-and-pop stores.
Part of this project has been about reconnecting with people, bringing people back together. Asking for help.
What’s the current status of your tiny house?
I’m actually still building it because, with COVID, there are now supply shortages and some building materials are hard to find. There was also a massive increase in prices. My goal overall is that I want it to be able to go off the grid. It is a slant roof, which is most beneficial for the weather and to harvest the sunlight. But now I need to start thinking about water! It really is such a learning process. I have no building experience and looking back I’m like “Wow, maybe I should have hired someone,” but then I wouldn’t have done it for myself. I hope to be able to live in it.
What sustainability lessons have you learned through the process of building your tiny home?
You don’t have to buy everything brand new. Buy from local vendors. Stop buying fast fashion. There are so many things that are really simple changes that can really reduce your waste and impact. A lot of it is just being aware, and being willing to repurpose things.
What do you hope to do with your degree?
There are so many things that I could do, but I do want to focus on climate refugees and the forced migration aspect of the field because even just experiencing slight displacement was awful, and I can’t imagine what climate displaced people will go through. Policy is the only way things can really change. I’ll start there and see if I can get into the implementation of policy.
Originally published by Columbia University News