If the 20th century was about supersizing our food, stuff, cars and homes, the 21st century -- according to TreeHugger.com founder Graham Hill -- is about editing our lives back to a more more satisfying simplicity.
"We really have a culture of excess," he explained to me from his home office in his new 350-square-foot apartment in Soho. "We have excess, we're not any happier and what you'll see again and again are people who really cut back and really edit their lives will find themselves much happier. They have more mental clarity. They end up having more time and it's often better financially."
The skill of this century is editing
Hill has made millions starting and selling successful businesses (including TreeHugger.com), graced the cover of Inc magazine and the centerfold of Vanity Fair, and now he's certain that it's time to cut back our way of life -- for the planet, but just as importantly, for our own sanity.
"I believe that this century that the skill of the century is editing," explains Hill, "and so cutting back on space, cutting back on possessions, cutting back on media, cutting back on friends."
He calls his premise LifeEdited, and the basic idea is to get rid of stuff and use more shared services like Zipcar and Netflix so you can be free from having to store and care for too many possessions.
Crowdsourcing a tiny home redesign
To take the conversation public, he's bought a second tiny apartment in his building -- this one is 420 square feet -- and he's preparing to crowdsource its redesign (See Crowdsourcing tiny home design video. He's already received $10,000 from the NRDC and is looking for more prize money for those who can come up with the best ideas for his future digs. He's also getting help from crowdsourcing veterans mutopo (Starbucks, McDonalds) and jovoto (Easy Jet and Greenpeace) to make sure the effort is truly collaborative.
When Hill invited me and our mutual friend SuChin Pak (she and Hill met while shooting a story for Discovery's "Planet Green" several years ago) to tour his future tiny pad, it felt small, dark and dated -- it dates all the way back to when apartments could come without a shower (he explained that the previous tenant took sponge baths or used a community shower). But Graham, who holds a degree in architecture, believes that with the right design less square footage can truly be more.
"We don't want it to feel like it's about sacrifice. Part of the brief [one of the requirements for the competition] is a sit-down dinner for 16 so we want to have some elements of luxury. It's almost like you're just designing a massive piece of furniture -- it's so detailed and you cut down all of your stuff and really thought about what you need in there, and that will just make it an amazing place to live."
Hill already has ideas about where the design needs to go for small to work well: the walls need to be knocked down to create one big space and you need to work with multifunctional furniture to transform the space from living room to bedroom to office.
What does one man need?
The competition, the crowdsourcing, the tiny place -- it could all seem like simply a marketing stunt. But with Hill, I got the sense he's beyond commercial gags (his current apartment really is bare except for his two bikes), and a conversation between him and SuChin in his future living room made it clear my hunch was right.
SuChin: You've lived in boats [Hill spent seven months of this past year on board the 60-foot Plastiki, a boat made from recycled plastic bottles], you've lived in trailers, you've lived in tents, you've lived in really nice fancy apartments.
Graham: 720 square feet. It was very expansive (laughs).
SuChin: For New York that's a lot. In a way this project feels like a culmination of all your life experiences because you've lived in a lot of places and you know 'this is what I really do need and this is what I really don't need.'
Graham: That's a good point. I've not only lived in a lot of places I've also done a ton of traveling so I generally just need a rollie and a bookbag and that's my office and my clothing and everything I need.
SuChin: What are your essentials?
Graham: Besides a laptop, some clothes and not too many shoes and (laughs) I do have this unfortunate kite-surfing addiction (points to four huge surfboard-sized duffel bags not he floor). Yeah I probably own more kite-surfing stuff than anything else.
Go small and save yourself 100 grand
If you're not convinced by a kite-surfing entrepreneur with a lot of life experience in small spaces that your life can be improved by downsizing, Graham was also ready to point out that living small can also be a lot cheaper: "In New York a bargain is a thousand dollars a square foot so if you save 100 square feet, you save yourself a hundred grand".
TreeHugger.com founder Graham Hill on LifeEdited:
A 350-square-foot bachelor pad: Graham Hill's edited home: