Erin Adams

Erin Adams relaxes inside her tiny house. The interior she designed for her new home won a second-place honor from the International Design Awards in the “green living/sustainable design” category.

By John Palmieri


According to Census Bureau data, the average American home is about 2,600 square feet. Fitted with a laundry room, dining and living areas, bedrooms, bathrooms and a kitchen, American homes have been steadily growing larger, having added almost a thousand square feet since the 1980s. They are expected to continue growing larger. Some are going in the opposite direction.

Erin Adams, professor and program coordinator of interior design at Western Carolina University can condense those rooms into just 275 square feet.

These homes, like the one Adams designed and lives in, are commonly referred to as tiny homes, or microhomes.

Adams’ award-winning home appeared in the summer edition of Carolina Home & Garden in 2018. Her design, called “The Luminaire” because of its plentiful windows, has won many international awards, most recently the Silver Prize in the Best Interior Design in the Sustainable Living/Green Design category for the International Design Award Juried Competition.

Adams says her passion for tiny home life began before tiny homes were considered trendy.

“When I was 12 years old, my family bought a pop-up camper and we spent the summer months traveling across the country living in the pop-up,” she said. “I can remember being enamored with living in such a small space and finding comfort in the fact that we could be so mobile, and still have everything we needed as we traveled.” 

Fifteen years later, her captivation with tiny living became a reality upon receiving that same camper from her father while teaching interior design in Colorado. She is drawn to tiny living because “the reality of simplifying my lifestyle, lessening my carbon footprint and minimizing my impact on the land was inspiring to me,” she said.

Adams joined the WCU faculty in 2008, and with the idea of sustainable, minimal carbon-footprint style living in mind, she challenged her students to try to develop a tiny home fitted with the comforts of modern living while not exceeding 275 square feet. Over and over, her students insisted that it was an impossibility, she said.

“It was at this point that I decided to walk the sustainability walk and show my students that it could be done,” Adams said. 

For nearly two years, Adams studied and researched ways to condense all of the comforts of modern living into the size of a double room in WCU’s Noble Hall, or about 275 square feet, and finally she found her design.

She says that her design in particular stands out because it is more geared for middle-aged residents.

“Most tiny homes do not allow standing room in the entire house, especially the bedroom,” Adams said. “The crouch-down lofted bedrooms that are accessible via ladder are great for younger people, but not for middle-aged adults.” 

Her design included steps to the master bedroom, making it more easily accessible to adults. Her master suite also includes skylights, which “allows for stargazing at night, but also offers the added headroom that allows you to sit up in bed, without bumping your head or needing to ‘crawl’ into your bed, like most lofted beds in a traditional tiny home.”

Her home features multiple eco-friendly designs and equipment that help further reduce the carbon footprint from the national average of 28,000 pounds of CO-2 per year to just 2,000 pounds per year.

“In an age of economic uncertainty, coupled with the ever-increasing median cost of homes, the tiny home can be an affordable housing solution for many,” she said. “If designed with the specific end-user’s needs in mind, a tiny home can offer the freedom of downsizing without abandoning the creature comforts found in traditional housing.”

John Palmieri is a senior at WCU majoring in anthropology and minoring in political science and Cherokee studies and a Sylva Herald intern.