On New Year's Day, Rob Greenfield went to Craigslist to find a small camper he could live in while building his new home. Instead, he found a version of his dream home had already been built. It was listed for $950, so he bought it.
"The original idea was to build something I could actually stand up in, but I saw this and one thing led to another, and—." Greenfield pauses and hops up into his new, squat, 50-square-foot home, which is awaiting more permanent placement while sitting atop a trailer that's parked on a hilltop in La Jolla. "This is ultimate simplicity."
The 28-year-old environmental activist's desire to live in a tiny home is part of a growing, worldwide trend of people choosing more sustainable and simple lifestyles by ridding themselves of unnecessary material items and drastically decreasing the size of their living quarters. The so-called small-house movement's grown in recent years with entire communities now dedicated to the cause and a large annual conference that draws thousands. The movement's attracted plenty of media coverage, too, inspiring documentaries and even a television show, Tiny House Nation, profiling the adventurous folks behind the crusade.
Greenfield's new, tiny home is actually a prototype of an ultra-low-cost, build-it-yourself emergency shelter designed and built by local contractor Chris Scott. Scott used a type of uniquely shaped lumber that he developed, which he touts as generating 30 percent more viable byproduct that can be turned into things like particle board and paper. Greenfield was immediately drawn to the home's additional sustainability features and saw an opportunity to introduce people to Scott's concept while setting a real-world example of how people can live quite well in a small home.
"What's exciting to me is that Rob is looking at this from the poverty aspect," Scott says. "He's showing that he can live in this amount of space comfortably and happily and humanely."
Greenfield's next step is finding a backyard to host his new home. He can pay rent, but he'd rather help start a garden, set up a rainwater-collecting system and otherwise find environmentally friendly ways to help save the host-homeowners money. He knows living in someone's backyard without proper permits violates codes, but he points to the success of the backyard-chicken movement and says he hopes to help pave the way for finding some kind of legal status for small homes like his.
His main goal, though, is to encourage others to consider downsizing, too.
"So, that's really the idea of this little guy," he says, laying down and stretching out inside his home, as if to prove it is indeed possible. "I want to show how simple living can be."
Greenfield hasn't showered since April 20, 2013—he doesn't want to waste water, so he swims in the ocean instead. He's almost always barefoot and often clad in outdoor clothing by Patagonia, a company that's considered a leader in the environmental movement. He also rides a bamboo bike and is the kind of guy who eats raw kale while in the hospital after getting into a bike accident, as he did early last year, almost losing a toe. He partially attributes his ability to stave off toe amputation to his wholesome lifestyle.
"They just sewed it back on, and I feel like it was a bit of luck and a bit of practicing good health that it ended up staying on there," Greenfield laughs.
In other words, the guy is unapologetically and almost annoyingly eco-friendly. His mere presence is enough to make most mainstream-type folks feel a little uncomfortable—and that's by design. While he says he mostly leads by example rather than forcibly telling people how to live a more ecological life, he admits that pissing people off and making them feel a little guilty about their own choices is sometimes a necessary byproduct of spawning real-world change.
He might be right: Minutes before Greenfield arrived for our interview, I felt extremely ashamed as I realized I was sitting in a running, parked car with the air conditioning on and drinking water from a plastic bottle. I quickly shut off my car and hid the bottle, resolving to never buy wasteful bottled water again.
Greenfield's tiny home is the latest in a line of recent stunts he's pulled off to draw attention to environmental issues. In 2013, he rode his bike across the country while following a strict set of rules he made up to better understand his personal impact on natural resources. He carried all the trash he generated and allowed himself to drink only water that he either harvested or salvaged from going to waste (think leaky fire hydrants). He also set out to eat only locally grown, unpacked, organic food, which he had a hard time finding, so he eventually allowed food waste as well.
"So, 70 percent of my food on that trip ended up coming from dumpsters," Greenfield says.
On his second cross-country bike trip last summer, Greenfield decided to focus solely on food found in dumpsters. That bike trip and the other eco-performances he's pulled off in the past few years have earned him spotlights on BBC, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post and in Vice, Men's Health and on a handful of local television news stations, helping him spread his message of sustainability to a much wider audience than can be reached on his website, robgreenfield.tv.
Greenfield grew up poor and, after high school, wanted desperately to become a millionaire. He started an advertising company and did pretty well, but his perspective changed after a few trips around the world. He says he was overwhelmed by the natural beauty and diversity. The big moment of change came when he decided to no longer separate his professional and personal lives. That decision has driven him to his tiny home and the ultimate goal of living an entirely money-less life dedicated to showing others how to lead a happy and sustainable existence.
"This is my work," he says, pointing to his house. "My work is making the Earth a better place."