LORETTO, Pa. (AP) — Saint Francis University is digging into the tiny house trend as part of its Energy Technology and Policy program.

The typical American home is about 2,600 square feet, whereas the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.

Saint Francis' tiny classroom, built in a shell purchased from 84 Lumber, is 160 square feet.

"The idea is to utilize the tiny house model to educate students and the community about renewable energy, efficient living and producing a smaller environmental footprint," said Allison Rohrs, director of the Institute of Energy at Saint Francis.

The tiny house is officially parked on campus with support from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund.

It's powered by six 280-watt solar panels that work even on rainy days. But it also can be electrically charged.

The tiny house consumes between 200 and 300 kilowatt hours per month, compared with a typical home that uses between 1,000 and 1,500 kilowatt hours, Rohrs said.

It's heated by a biomass wood stove that uses wood pellets for fuel. It relies on energy sources that are replenishable rather than fossil fuels, Rohrs said.

The Saint Francis University Institute for Energy's new tiny classroom serves as an educational resource for students on campus and surrounding communities. The house is on wheels, so it can be transported by a pickup truck.

To help support the unit in its travels to schools and events throughout the state, the Institute for Energy was recently awarded a $20,000 grant from Constellation Energy. SFU was one of only 18 projects nationwide to receive a grant.

The tiny house trend is a growing movement that has inspired six national TV shows, according to the Associated Press. The tiny homes have been promoted as the solution to all kinds of housing needs — shelter for the homeless, an affordable option for expensive big cities and simplicity for people who want to declutter their lives, the AP has reported.

84 Lumber in Cresson started selling shells for tiny homes two years ago, company tiny homes sales coordinator Amanda Schmeltzer said.

Schmeltzer said the company has sold more than 20 shells to people in Pennsylvania, California, New York and Maryland.

She said people use them as "Airbnbs" and as backyard homes for their elderly parents.

The current interest in small houses follows a steady growth in the median size of homes, from 1,200 square feet in the 1940s to about 1,860 square feet in this decade.

As home sizes spiraled up, tiny house pioneers in the 1990s began promoting the austerity and frugality of spaces smaller than most garages.

The idea captivated millions of Americans, even those who remain in more spacious accommodations, the AP reported.

Penn State University also is exploring the trend.

The Penn State tiny home projects offer students of many disciplines the chance to gain hands-on experience with material re-use, advanced design and prefabrication, and solar energy systems, said David Riley, professor of the Department of Architectural Engineering.

"Tiny homes address design challenges that are important in many facets of buildings. They require you to essentialize space and be creative so you can reduce size, cost and expense," Riley said.

"They also enable us to work with super-efficient energy and water systems, which are critically important in all buildings."

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, http://www.altoonamirror.com