Legalizing Tiny Houses in Oregon

Background on HB 2737 

legalizing tiny houses in oregon

Andrew walking into the Building Codes building in Salem, OR for the tiny house committee meeting.

This summer, Oregon House Bill 2737 (the tiny house bill) was passed by the State House and Senate and signed into law by the Governor. It is an important step towards legalizing tiny houses in Oregon. HB2737 was authored by state representatives and mandates that the state of Oregon create a tiny house specific building code by no later than January 1, 2018. Bills of this magnitude typically take 18+ months to move through the chain of command, but a firm deadline of Jan. 1 is speeding this process up to warp speed. Currently, the task is for the Residential and Manufactured​ Structures Board (to which Andrew Morrison was appointed) to come up with the actual code language to be adopted into the Oregon Residential Specialty Code (ORSC), the construction standard by which all legal residences in the state must adhere to.

Their findings will be sent to the Building Codes Division, which will then get their “bite at the apple.” Once BCD review is complete and the official process of hearings and meetings has run its course, the State of Oregon will implement the residential tiny house building code (no later than January 1, 2018). To be clear, this is for tiny houses built to residential standards intended for permanent residence status with an official certificate of occupancy (CO) for both “prefabricated and site built” tiny homes.  This is a big deal.

The Residential and Manufactured​ Structures Board is comprised of 7 voting members nominated by various government officials for the position. Andrew Morrison, our own tiny house expert and the co-author of the 2018 IRC Appendix Q: Tiny Houses, was nominated to the committee. On the committee are also two building contractors, an engineer, an energy compliance professional, a fire marshal, and a building official. And this is where our story and update begin… 🙂

With three days of meetings scheduled, Andrew and I traveled to Salem, Oregon this week to tackle the job at hand: legalizing tiny houses in Oregon by creating a tiny house building code for Oregonians that want to receive COs. Below is Andrew’s summary of what transpired during the first meeting (Nov. 7, 2017):

The View From the Other Side of the Table

legalizing tiny houses in Oregon meeting

The committee of 7 has been charged with coming up with the specific code language that will be adopted into the Oregon building code.

I’ve been working towards legalizing tiny houses in Oregon and beyond for a long time and I’ve been to many meetings, hearings, and gatherings as a result. I’ve presented to the International Code Council (ICC) at the national level and put together a team that won a seemingly impossible challenge: a win for a national tiny house building code. That said, I found myself more nervous about today’s engagement than almost anything else. Somehow the idea of sitting on an official, government appointed committee felt intimidating. That said, I also knew I had a very specific and important task at hand. My initial goals were as follows.

Andrew’s Three Specific Goals for the Committee Meetings

  1. Ensure the state adopt Appendix Q.
  2. Work to add language that helps people building moveable tiny houses become a part of the residential code (if they so choose).
  3. Improve the specifics around the energy code and how it’s directly related to a home’s square footage. Create some exceptions for tiny houses on the energy code because of the home’s size.

You’ll note that my number one goal was/is to see Appendix Q adopted by the state. This is because it’s a great standard to get us in the door with IRC and state building officials. This code has already been vetted at the national level and so is easier (in theory) to get passed at the local levels. We are already seeing states adopt the Appendix, and that gives each new state a higher level of comfort with the idea of joining others in adoption. 

Incredibly, the very first idea raised in the meeting by the chairman was that we should move to adopt Appendix Q as our model code and then make any necessary amendments as needed. This was a huge win, right out the gate. I know that our committee recommendation to BCD will, at the very least, include the adoption of Appendix Q, which is a fantastic start. Here’s what else we were able to accomplish in the first day alone.

Replaced Missing Exception for Headroom Above Stairs

There was an exception in the original IRC code language for Appendix Q that was mistakenly left out when the ICC transcribed the proposal. As such, it is not part of the national code approved in the IRC. We have added that language back in as it relates to the top-of-stairway/landing platform ceiling height exception. It reads as follows (so far… the language could change) “The headroom for landing platforms shall not be less than 4 feet 4 inches.”

Energy Code Discussion

We had a great discussion about the energy code requirements within the ORSC and IRC and how they don’t seem to address size in their calculations. For example, we all agree that even a very energy efficient (by Energy Code Standards), 2,600 SF house (the national SF average by the way) will never be as energy efficient as an average-efficiency tiny house simply because of the square footage.  The committee seems to agree that we need some more information about what options are available. We have tabled the provision until our next meeting (Nov. 14), and I am hopeful that we can make some smart amendments.

Are Moveable Tiny Houses Included in This Code?

This code is clearly written for “prefabricated and site built” units as required by HB2737. As such, the code can essentially be used for prefabricated moveable tiny houses that are built to ORSC standards. Specifically those built in state certified fabrication facilities and inspected by the state to ORSC standards. I am making clear throughout our meetings and behind the scenes in emails to the committee that this code NOT be required for homes that are built as Tiny House RVs. They are built to different codes: either the American National Standards Institute (ANSI 119.5) or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 1192), depending on the approach taken and the manufacturing process used. At this point in time, the code we are working on doesn’t speak directly to moveable tiny houses built by owner builders. As much as I’d love to include that in our work, I have not been able to secure that language at this time. As such, those looking to go that route will still have to follow Section R104.11 Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and equipment in order to secure their permit until we are able to create the appropriate language. I’m doing my best to make progress here. Thanks for your patience.

Required Fire Suppression Systems (Fire Sprinklers)

We had a long discussion about fire suppression system requirements in tiny houses and in other residential structures in Oregon. The IRC requires fire sprinklers in all townhomes and one- and two- family dwellings. Yes, you read that right. The IRC now requires all new residential structures as noted above to have fire suppression systems in them. The reality is that the data shows that these systems work. I learned that the average home owner has only 2-3 minutes to escape a residential fire and that the sprinklers can add critical minutes to the table. I find it hard to argue with the effectivity of the sprinklers. 

Regardless of how well they work in large spaces, we don’t have the studies to know how they work in tiny houses. After all, if you have 2-3 minutes to escape a conventionally sized home, then you could potentially need far less to get out of a tiny house. The question becomes: just how much time can you buy in a tiny house? If it’s only a few more seconds, then it’s likely not worth the added expense of installing and operating the system. It’s honestly hard for me to say as I can see the value of these systems and would probably install one in my own home were I to build again. BUT, they do add significant cost to a structure and since we don’t have any empirical data to prove that they would be useful in a tiny house, I don’t think the state should mandate their use.

What’s more, the state does NOT require them in single family dwellings within the ORSC, which tiny homes would be a subset of. So again, it feels punitive to require them on tiny houses when they’re not required on all other houses in the state. I’m trying to keep sprinkler requirements out for the moment. I think they may be a great idea for safety, but we simply don’t know without the data in hand. Wink wink, nudge nudge…we need someone to conduct an official set of studies around fire safety, flame spread, and escape systems. 

Other Details and Amendments to Appendix Q

We also tackled some smaller issues, concerns, and suggestions that made good sense for the overall clarity of the IRC language such that it better fit the ORSC language. For example, we made some simple modifications to the loft language (all of which I totally agree with). We eliminated the ability for someone to build a tiny house and then stack 4 stories of lofts on top of each other as a workaround to code restrictions. So we have limited lofts to being in a single layer. You can have multiple lofts in a house, just not right on top of each other. 

We’re changing the definition of a tiny house to read “no more than 600sf including lofts” for the State of Oregon. This will help minimize the risk of people building, essentially, 800sf houses by pushing the limits of the loft height and size (since there is no upper limit in the code). A reasonable concern. 

We covered some good ground on fire safety for small spaces (several NFPA 501.17 standards), flame spread issues and concerns, fire protection, and cabinet protection from fire. All of these provisions are a good idea in my mind as they are backed by years of conclusive studies that show they help to minimize flame spread and fatalities from fire in smaller structures. We also addressed several other amendment proposals. I was comfortable with everything that transpired today and feel like it was a REALLY BIG step towards legalizing tiny houses in Oregon and beyond. 

Working Together with Common Goals

I think it’s very important to acknowledge the tone that pervaded the meeting today. We have attended many of these types of meetings now and I can say that this was one was exceptional. Every person on the committee was there for the right reason (to create a code standard that provides safe AND affordable housing), was respectful in communication, listened with an open mind, and worked towards the common goal. I’m proud to be a member of this group and seeing so many working towards legalizing tiny houses in Oregon.

For a video recap of the meeting, please watch here. 

After a week of research for the committee and BCD staff, we all reconvened in Salem, Oregon to continue the process of creating recommendations for BCD or the official language of the State of Oregon’s tiny house building code. We picked up where we left off and discussed fire sprinkler requirements, energy code relief of standards, and more. Rather than write it all out for you, I’ve created another video summary for you to check out below. This will give you all of the details of what we accomplished. I have to say that I am VERY excited about how things turned out. Gabriella and I went into the meetings with the hope of seeing Appendix Q adopted. That happened, but we ended up with much more than that in our recommendations. It’s now up to BCD to make the final decisions on what to include and what to exclude from the tiny house specific code. We on the committee believe we gave them the best options for adoption and we are all confident that our recommendations will be accepted and placed in the code. We will know more on January 1, 2018 when the code is released. For now, you can view the video bellow to learn about the second, and final committee meeting.

7 Responses to Legalizing Tiny Houses in Oregon

  1. Cody Bartz November 10, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

    Wonderful news! Thank you and keep on going!

  2. Alex November 10, 2017 at 9:58 pm #

    Thank you for all you do. I am currently building my tiny home in Portland as close to code as I can. Just dried in the structure and getting ready to move onto the interior. Looking forward to a day when we can live freely.
    Thank you again.

  3. Mike November 11, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    What’s wrong with stacking lofts? Sounds like it could be a creative design solution.

  4. Laura Corkill Broussard, Lafayette Louisiana November 11, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    Andrew, thank you so much for all you do and are doing for the tiny house community. Wish I lived in Oregon.

    I am still in the dreaming stage but plan to have my tiny house built sometime in 2018. In the mean time, I’m learning everything I can about them, watching all the videos I can on them and getting my floor plan finalized on paper which I have changed several times. Tiny houses have become my passion.

  5. TJ Houston November 11, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

    Hello Andrew,

    I’ve been reading through the different building codes and the many definitions and interpretations of tiny home

    and RV and frankly, all it’s done is give me a headache.

    So I will distill my questions to you down to:

    If one were to build a tiny house on wheels, what is the best code to build by. Is movable tiny home the same

    (similar) to THOW?

    When you go in to finalize the codes can you see about grandfathering in tiny homes built in conformity to

    “X” building code that you are going to recommend here?

    What did you have to do to your THOW to get it “legal”?

    Thanks.

    TJ

  6. Liz Shibahara November 15, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi,
    I have been following the legal aspects and this is a great thing that one could potentially put up a tiny home on land in Oregon in the near future.
    As to the sprinklers, I have dealt with an Oregon Fire Marshal in the past trying to get an occupancy change for a business. I am skeptical that they will remove the sprinklers from the law. These types of laws on building come from the national fire codes and my impression of fire marshals is that they will maximize fire safety without regard for expense.
    Anyway, thanks for the update on your progress and the deadline of Jan 2018!!! How exciting 🙂
    Liz

    • TJ Houston November 16, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

      Hello Liz,
      While I’m waiting for a reply from Andrew, let me ask you if you are only referring to national fire laws pertaining to commercial buildings? I have never seen a single family dwelling anywhere I’ve been that required a sprinkler system.

      TJ

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