As an architecture graduate, TreeHugger founder Graham Hill has always had a strong interest in merging the worlds of environmentalism and design. In 2011 he gave a TED talk espousing the joys of living with fewer possessions (“Less Stuff, More Happiness”) that garnered millions of views, and in 2013 a video in which Hill demonstrated how his tiny New York apartment had the functionality of one more than twice its size—among other things, it shows Hill assembling and disassembling a table for ten guests, creating a standing desk out of an open drawer and pulling down a shelf to reveal a Murphy bed—went viral again.
Hill’s less-is-more philosophy became the basis for LifeEdited, a website–cum–real estate developer that now aims to change the world’s housing paradigm by increasing function in small spaces. Here, Hill discusses the genesis of the idea, why it struck a nerve and why his critics have gotten it wrong.
How did you first come up with the idea for LifeEdited?
I’m attracted to well-designed projects with an environmental or progressive bent. In 2009 I decided I wanted to take the principles of TreeHugger [Hill’s online outlet dedicated to sustainability] and make them truly applicable—not just to inspire but also to show people how you can build a lifestyle around the concepts of having a smaller environmental footprint, creating less waste, taking up less space.
How did you do that?
I bought a 420-square-foot apartment in SoHo, and I found these guys in Berlin at a website called Jovoto.com, which is basically like a crowd-funding site that also helps brainstorm creative ideas with people on their projects. They were interested in the concept of a small space with maximal functionality and raised $80,000 to run a design contest to help create my ultimate idea of an apartment. I put all my aggressive specifications into a brief, and we got 300 entries from all over the world. I chose this inventive modular design plan by a group of Romanian architecture students, and we built it.
And that could’ve been the end of the story, but it wasn’t.
Exactly. So I go to TED every year, and I gave this talk. It was like a six-minute talk that got more than two million views. Which isn’t to toot my own horn and say I came up with something incredibly brilliant, but I think it just shows that there’s a much larger interest from our society in general for this project and idea.
There’s something very romantic about just going back to simpler living.
I think intuitively, as a society, a lot of us are yearning for a smaller life that’s about living within our own means. In the United States, we have about three times as much space per person as we used to have. The average house size is 2,500 square feet. We have a $22 billion personal-storage industry.
That clearly doesn’t make sense. Are Americans unique in this?
If you look at many countries like Spain, France and the UK and other places in Europe and Asia, people live with less than half of what we do—about 1,000 square feet. We’ve become voracious shoppers and have created a lot more debt, and it seems logical that if you can be smart about how you apply design technology and behavior change, you can create big lives with a much smaller footprint that’s less expensive, less to keep track of and less to worry about.
Okay, but is it truly less expensive? LifeEdited has been criticized for being elitist and out of touch. Your SoHo apartment probably cost six figures to build.
It’s early days. Yes, prototypes are pricey, and when volumes are low, things are expensive. We created some amazing, transformative furniture for the apartment, so it was costly for sure. That’s also because it was made by people who are actually paid a living wage. But once you generate volume and change the standard conventions of doing things, that’s when projects become cheaper. That’s what we’re trying to do with these new real estate developments—one in Brooklyn and the other in São Paulo—which is what LifeEdited is becoming.
What do you say to people who see your modular apartment and think it’s an unsuitable way of living?
That happens. People will come up to me after I do a speech and they’ll say they want to do it but their spouse won’t let them, or that they’re excited by the idea but don’t know where to start. But what’s important is that we’re not trying to be preachy—it all depends on who you are. You don’t have to live in a 420-square-foot apartment.
That’s all white.
Right, my apartment has this supermodern white-box look that some people love and some people hate, but it’s not an aesthetic movement by any means. You may live in an 8,000-square-foot home. All we’re saying is that it’s probably going to be better for you in many ways to live in a 5,000-square-foot home. Or to go from 5,000 to 3,000 or 3,000 to 1,500. On a societal scale, we have way more space than much of the rest of the world, but we’re not any happier. That’s all.
LifeEdited maintains a newsletter that updates members on new developments. To sign up, go to lifeedited.com. Hill’s New York apartment is available for purchase; for details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.