ECOURSE DAY 2:
TINY HOUSES AND CODES


There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: it can be very difficult to get code approval for a tiny house in the United States, and I would venture to guess in other countries as well. Because the vast majority of my building experience over the last 20 years has been in the United States, I will speak only to code issues in the US; however, I welcome input from any of you who have experience in another country.

GETTING CODE APPROVAL

There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: it can be very difficult to get code approval for a tiny house in the United States, and I would venture to guess in other countries as well. Because the vast majority of my building experience over the last 20 years has been in the United States, I will speak only to code issues in the US; however, I welcome input from any of you who have experience in another country.

Tiny house codeThere are currently some paths to code approval available to you if your building code enforcement agency is open to the concept of tiny living. The easiest and likely most successful option is to build your tiny home to meet International Residential Code (IRC) standards and place the home on a foundation. That foundation can either be prescriptive in nature (i.e. is specifically mentioned in the code as a viable option), or an engineered system that meets the intent of the code for managing load distribution and uplift. If you want to build a moveable tiny house (previously called a “tiny house on wheels” or “THOW”), then IRC approval is very difficult at this point in time, but not impossible.

You can indeed build on a trailer with the wheels removed and the frame attached to a fixed foundation, but that may be overkill for your intentions of moving the house, especially if you only intend to move it once or twice. That said, a “permanent wood foundation” (Section R402.1 of the 2012 IRC) may be a great option to meet code and to minimize costs for your build. What’s even better is that the foundation could be disassembled and taken with you if and when you decide to move.

Another option for a potentially transportable, yet permanent foundation system is a triodetic system like the one shown here. The foundation is assembled on site, very strong, and can be placed atop a concrete slab or bearing pads. The use of bearing pads minimizes the amount of concrete needed and the overall impact on the site. 

The biggest challenges within the current IRC (assuming the 2015 version, which is in use in most jurisdictions) are related to minimum room sizes (this is not as big a deal as you might think), foundations, ceiling heights in the home, stairway requirements, emergency egress, and the energy code. The IRC is available on line here and you can look at specific sections that address each of these sticking points. For room sizes, look at section R304. For foundations, consider chapter 4 of the code. Section R305.1 discusses ceiling heights and stair requirements are listed in section R311.7. Emergency egress requirements are laid out in sections R310 and R311 and the energy code is covered in section N1102. Perhaps the biggest challenge to IRC compliance under current, 2015 rules are sleeping lofts. There is not a way to currently utilize a sleeping loft in a tiny house legally under the code for several reasons including ceiling heights, emergency egress, minimum room size requirements, and more. 

PRESENTING THE TINY HOUSE APPENDIX

The good news is that in December of 2016, a new Tiny House Appendix was approved by the International Code Council and made part of the 2018 IRC. Martin Hammer and I wrote Appendix Q, and presented it for approval in Kansas City. We won a 2/3 majority vote in Kansas City and another 2/3 majority vote in the greater code official community during the online voting that took place in December. You can learn more about the process, the approval, and the code changes that come with this appendix here.

The appendix addresses ceiling heights, the legal use of sleeping lofts, loft access options including stairways, ladders, ships ladders, and alternating tread devices, emergency egress, and some other details that are directly related to tiny houses and code compliance within the IRC. In general, if you meet all of the provisions of the appendix, you will be able to build your tiny house to code with the exception of the trailer (assuming you are building a moveable tiny house). The trailer will need to be handled through a case-by-case analysis by local building departments at this time. We recommend that you site section R104.11 “Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and equipment” when you apply for the use of a trailer as part of your foundation/floor system. Chances are that you will have to provide an engineered option for the permanent foundation that meets the intent of the code. This is possible, however, it is not considered to be a “prescriptive path”, thus the need for the engineering. 

One last detail about the code appendix is that it is not yet adopted across the country. We need people to speak with their building departments to discover who in their state makes decisions about code adoptions. Once you know who that person is, be sure to reach out to them and lobby for the adoption of the tiny house appendix. This will make it MUCH easier to build a code compliant tiny house, something that both the building departments and individuals looking to live tiny want. We are already seeing positive movement towards code acceptance, and in some cases: official acceptance in places like Idaho, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, and other states. In June of 2017, Idaho became the first state to officially adopt the appendix statewide. Way to go Idaho! Now we have Georgia and Maine on the list as well. 

ANSI CODE

Another option is to build the home on a trailer to meet recreational vehicle standards such as American National Standards Institute (ANSI) code Section A119.5 or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard on Recreational Vehicles: NFPA 1192. Because it is, by design and definition, a mobile and non permanent structure, almost no building departments have jurisdiction over the structure so a local IRC inspection won’t be available to you. ANSI and NFPA structures are built in a registered facility that provides certification through the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and thus do not fulfill the needs of the DIYer. Because you cannot easily gain certification through a third party as a DIY builder, you may end up requiring inspections from the department of transportation in your area if they govern “custom recreational vehicles.” The downside of this approach is that you end up with an RV and your local zoning ordinances are likely to forbid permanent habitation of a recreational vehicle.

WORK WITH EXISTING CODE PROVISIONS

Another option is to build small enough to stay under the minimum square footage requirement for permitting. This is typically 120 SF to 200Sf with no more than 10’ elevation from grade to the peak of the roof. You will be required to get electrical and plumbing permits (if you include those items in your build) even though you will not need a general building permit. That said, these structures are typically considered outbuildings and are not typically granted certificates of occupancy: a requirement for using the structure as a habitable dwelling.

Some jurisdictions allow an owner/builder to build whatever they want without review. These jurisdictions are few and far between and are, in my opinion, not a good thing. Those areas typically end up with very shoddy housing as a result. Remember, just because you don’t have to build to code, in terms of structural requirements, etc., doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. No matter where or how you build (with or without permitting) I strongly encourage you to build to the best quality, safety, and energy standards possible.

Finally, some jurisdictions will allow you to build your tiny home and occupy it legally. The tiny house movement is gaining momentum in some communities and as a result, permitting is become possible. Unfortunately, the chances of receiving a permit are lower than being denied one in most areas and the only way to know for sure what legal options are available to you is to make contact with your building department and open the discussion. This is inherently risky because you will now be on their radar and if they are completely opposed to your plans they may make any progress difficult or impossible. Therefore, I suggest that any initial discussions you have with the building department be made as anonymously as possible. In every building department I have worked with in roughly 20 years of professional building, there have been specific office hours in which one can speak with a code official. Call during those times because you are likely to have an official answer the phone. If you call at other times, you will need to leave a message with a call back number which starts the process of putting you on their radar.

HOW TO APPROACH THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT

In your in initial conversation with the building department, have a clear plan of what you want to accomplish. I suggest the following:

• Tell them what your intentions are. Be clear that you have plans to build a small home on your property (assuming that it will indeed be built on your property). Notice I am using the word small, not tiny. They will potentially be taken aback by your home size as is, so no need to alarm them before the conversation has even started by using the “T” word.

• Tell them you plan to build your home to all of the applicable codes; however, if there are minimum square footage requirements, you may not be able to meet them. In general, those requirements are imposed by local ordinances so there may be room for exceptions or change to the ordinance. The fact is that within the currently enforced IRC standards, a minimum dwelling size is 120 square feet plus a bathroom that meets minimum space requirements. This makes for a house well under 200sf.

• Tell them why you plan to build small and not meet the minimum square footage requirements. Some potential reasons that are important to consider and discuss are: low environmental impact of construction materials, low carbon footprint for the life of the home, higher square foot property value, lower housing expenses provide more money to be spent in the community. These concepts are valuable because they speak to current issues that building departments are charged with addressing: environmental impacts of housing, property values, community building, etc.

• Tell them you plan to build a high quality, attractive home that will fit in with the continuity of the neighborhood (and then do just that).

• Listen to their concerns. If they are not on board with your idea, then you need to hear why not. Allow them to speak to the specific areas of the code that, in their opinion, your proposal fails to address and take careful notes on the same.

• Leave the conversation on a positive note. Thank them for their time and appreciate the input they gave you. Find a way to leave the conversation open. In other words, don’t let their “no” answer be the end of the conversation. Share with them that you will take into full account their concerns and will address them accordingly in your permit application.

Keep in mind that this entire conversation will have been done anonymously or through a “stage name” so that any future conversations or applications can be tailored to address the code official’s concerns without compromising your chances of successfully receiving building approval. If the building department needs to know your property location to decide whether such a home would be acceptable, consider the approach that you are interested in buying property in fill-in-the-blank neighborhood and are wondering if the following home design would be acceptable there. The point is, stay on target while deflecting any personal information that may flag you moving forward.

Having this conversation with the building department does more than just supply you with information about what they will and will not allow in terms of tiny housing. It puts the concept of small housing and tiny living into their consciousness. If they have never heard of a tiny house before (again, be careful when you choose to use the word tiny) they may be less likely to see it as a viable housing option. If, on the other hand, several people have called them during the last three weeks to discuss the potential of building a tiny home, then they may start to see a trend and recognize that the housing market is changing and they better get on board to change with it. Of course, government agencies have never been accused of being cutting edge and leading the way to conscious change, but that doesn’t mean we should not apply some pressure on them anyway. At this point, because of all the media coverage, it will likely be hard to find someone who has not at least heard about tiny homes, so the process of “breaking someone in” to the concept may not be that much of a challenge.

DEBUNKING TINY HOUSE MYTHS WITH YOUR BUILDING DEPARTMENT

Some common concerns that I have heard about tiny houses as they relate to building and zoning departments are listed below (along with potential responses to consider).

1. Tiny houses would bring down property values because they will be cheap homes. I can certainly see where this would be a concern as I have been to ungoverned communities where small, shanty shack houses have scattered the landscape. That would be terrible to have happen in a well developed neighborhood, I agree. That’s not, however, what we are talking about building. Tell the building and zoning departments that the structure would still have to pass a design review as required by the county or governing jurisdiction. If the jurisdiction does not currently have a requirement for design review, then what a great opportunity for them to charge another permitting fee! After all, I would personally be willing to pay an extra design review fee to secure the approval of my tiny home. This would give the governing agency added revenue and peace of mind that the homes will meet specific criteria to maintain the property value of the neighborhood.

2. Tiny houses won’t fit in the neighborhood continuity and will make the entire neighborhood look weird. This one is easy. Does the building department really think I want to build my home in a neighborhood full of McMansions? No thanks. I would prefer to build mine in the country or in a quaint neighborhood. None of us are out to destroy neighborhoods, right? We simply want to live simply. This would also be covered in the design review process. They would have the right to deny a permit if the inclusion of the home would have a strong negative impact on the continuity of the housing facades.

3. There is no incentive for a building department to approve a tiny house because the revenue for such a home is too small. Most building permit costs are based on receiving a percentage of costs associated with the square footage of the home or even the material cost to build the home. Therefore, a tiny home, with its small square footage, would not generate enough income for the county. The solution is to create a minimum permit fee for all structures. No house shall be granted a permit unless a minimum fee of X dollars be paid to the governing agency. Now they not only have the revenue but also have far less work to do in exchange, i.e. inspections will be faster due to the home size.

4. The same argument can be used for the tax revenue concept. Obviously the county requires tax revenue to function and property taxes are a big part of that pie. So once again, instate a minimum property tax assessment so that any home under 1000 sf (or whatever number the tax assessor/governing authority deems the average home size in their area) be charged a tax valuation fee of X dollars. Again, it’s just as numbers game, so let’s compromise and come up with a number that suits us all.

5. Tiny houses will hurt property values. Keep in mind that tiny houses have all of the amenities of full scale homes: kitchen, bathroom, electricity, plumbing, etc.; however, the square footage over which those amenity costs are divided is far less. This means that a tiny home will have a much higher cost per square foot value than the larger homes around it. When real estate companies and appraisers value homes in an area, they evaluate and list sales at a “price per square foot” value. This means that a $100,000 property with a 1000 SF house on it would rate at $100/SF while a tiny house on the same property with only 200 SF would rate out at $500/SF. That makes the property value seem much higher, even though the properties are identical other than the home size.

6. There’s no demand for tiny housing and THAT will hurt property values. This is simply not true. How many New York Times articles and Wall Street Journal reports will it take before our building industry starts to take note that there is a major shift towards tiny already happening in the United States? There is no question that whereas the late 90s and early 2000s saw an increase in home size, we are currently witnessing a significant decrease in home sizes today. We need to make this point loud and clear so that minimum square footage requirements, which were initially put into force in the late 1800s, are updated to match current, modern home designs and homeowner desires.

We as home owners can choose to live in a small house if that is what we want. If I don’t want to pay 30+% of my income to my housing, that is a choice I can make. Consider that in 2009, the Mortgage Bankers Association released data that showed that homeowners in the US had the highest combined delinquency and foreclosure rate since the MBA began keeping such records in 1972. Why on earth would we want to keep creating homes that are too expensive to own? Yes, we need our homes to be safe. Yes, we need our homes to maintain or even improve property values in our neighborhoods. Yes, we need to create healthy communities. We can do all of these things within the tiny house movement.

This is, of course, the bigger question: will our society approve of the tiny lifestyle? With so much personal debt, bankruptcy, poverty, foreclosures, and financial stress in the United States, it seems crazy to think that there would be any opposition to living tiny and within our means; however, there is. We are changing years and years of stigma and cultural beliefs while also fighting the establishment. After all, the banks don’t want you to build with out of pocket cash. They want you to require a loan to build your home. The construction industry doesn’t want you to minimize your material use. They want you to buy enough materials to build a 2300 SF home. The utility industries surely don’t want you to live in a small, efficient house. They want to sell you natural gas, heating oil, and electricity to heat and cool your large home year round. Each and every one of these industries and many others like them are standing against us in our desire to live within our means. We have been taught that this is the way: accumulate debt, build big, pay for that home for the next 30+ years of your life. Personally, I’m done with that lie. I’m choosing a new path to my own personal freedom. Want to join me?

CALL TO ACTION

PhoneConsider this a call to action. Even if you don’t currently have plans to build a tiny house, call your building department and have the conversation. Start talking about tiny houses to those who will listen. Turn people on to the tiny house movement and small house revolution. Get the word out wherever you can, especially to the building department and other governing agencies in your area. Use the points in this article to spark and inspire your conversations. It’s never easy to make big changes, but big changes are always made from the bottom up. Everything else is just mandates. Be a part of the revolution and make your voice heard today.

Whew! That was a lot of information! Keep this link and feel free to refer to it anytime as questions arise. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s free lesson: Design and Tiny House Foundations!

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