The New Urban Autonomous House

(above: Brenda and Robert Vale, The Autonomous House (1975) and The New Autonomous House (2000))
RVs on Cristanto Avenue, Mountain View, California.

Levels of autonomy

Really there are many possible aspects by and degrees to which a home might be ‘autonomous’ or ‘off-grid’:

  • Off-grid power (solar, wind, etc), with or without grid-tie for backup power and providing power back to grid
  • No fixed water connection, e.g. using water deliveries to an on-site tank. (inefficient in a way, but could get much more efficient with autonomous delivery vehicles & smart service walls, and it’s how most future urban dwellers will likely get water for decades, ie in lower-income countries. Tanks are also useful for many reasons including anchoring the structure, thermal mass for passive solar heating/cooling, and disaster resilience).
  • Composting/incinerating toilets
  • High water efficiency: water use can be reduced by 10–20x compared to typical US household by measures such as using recycling loop shower, composting toilet, off-site laundry, avoiding lawns & non-native plants that need watering. More nearly off-grid living strongly encourages this type of water efficiency, which chronicly drought-prone California should be moving towards generally.
  • In general, units serviced by on-demand service rather than grid connection. This might both replace some current grid services — for example, handling water supply and toilet compost — and add new capabilities such as efficient delivery (into a unit’s “service wall”) of groceries, meals, laundry, etc, which might offer higher capbilities than present housing.
  • Ability to physically move an individual unit from the site. This may range in difficulty/likelihood, from the case of say a Y:cube or MicroPAD multistory building which might eventually be disassembled, to stacked but unattached container-style units movable by crane or forklift, to units on wheels or self-powered to drive away.
  • Units or residents may to varying degrees be affiliated with a particular location/community. At one extreme is “boondocking,” just parking somewhere and staying, e.g. on a street space or as is widely done for short stays, a Wal-Mart parking lot. Or a unit/resident could have a “parking/dwelling permit” good for certain places and times, or they might have a lease agreement at a specific site.
  • You could even say that conventional renting, or using interim housing like extended-stay hotels or Airbnb, are forms of more ‘autonomous’ living, in the sense of allowing easier relocation. One form of an “autonomous house” is movable belongings, furniture, space-frame or living pod which can be easily moved to a different building.

By combining liberal land-use regulations [eg minimal setbacks, fewer parking requirements, and tiny minimum lot sizes] with narrow streets shared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities.

Who knows, perhaps even the legendary change-abhorring “homevoters,” owners assumed to be opposed to all new housing, might be softened up by seeing some swinging fun new villages springing up (popup, interim, demo, to start with), revitalizing dead zones around town, and giving their sleepy neighborhood new hip catchet and better “walk score,” both fun and great for their home values. As futurist Alex Steffen argues in “Neighborhood as Platform,” leading-edge home buyers now put a premium on neighborhoods that signal readiness to innovate and adapt.

Caravan tiny-house hotel, Portland, a successful part of greatly revitalized Alberta neighborhood in NE

The Autonomous House

To put this in wider context: in the mid-late 20th century we saw widespread movements to pull back from centralized grid energy, waste, water, etc systems — for various reasons including environmental efficiency/resiliency, cost effectiveness, or philosophical goals of more autonomous and considered living. (There had also been much exploration among leading architects like George Fred Keck into more self-sufficient, solar-powered/heated housing going much further back, at least into 1930s).

Brenda and Robert Vale, The Autonomous House (1975) and The New Autonomous House (2000)
Open Building Institute’s “$25,000 Open Source, Modular, Eco-Home”


1) A representative from the Village Coalition, in Portland Oregon just wrote in response to an earlier version of this that was a Facebook comment, to say that it could almost be a policy agenda draft for their organization, and they are exploring how to convert parking lots to villages in ways such as I’ve described. The Coalition is a formation of various groups including City Repair Project founded by Mark Lakeman, focusing on housing all the city’s unhoused, particularly through participatory, low-cost, self-build, community effort. Having followed City Repair Project and related Village Building Convergence events for years, I’ve long wondered when they might extend from their focus on public spaces/facilities into housing, that being such an urgent issue in Portland and other cities they outreach to.



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Tim McCormick

Tim McCormick


editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.