As the Oregon Legislative Assembly considers the legalities of tiny houses, Gabriella and I travelled to Salem, Oregon yesterday to discuss the topic with State Representatives, building officials, and industry professionals in the State Capitol building.
I was invited to take part in the “Tiny House Work Group” tasked with assessing current legislation proposals meant to address tiny houses within our home state. In attendance was a group of 25 or so people ranging from two State House Representatives, a Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) rep, the state administrator of the Building Codes Division (BCD) (Oregon’s top building official), land use planners, an Oregon Home Builders Association rep, representatives from the electrical and plumbing unions, State House lobbyists, a state fire marshal, an Oregon Manufactured Housing Association rep, several building officials from the region, and several tiny house builders, including Andrew Heben of Square One Villages and Tom Bowerman, the project director of Policy Interactive and the author of House Bill 2737, one of the two tiny house specific bills we discussed yesterday.
I must admit that it started out pretty rough and I was not thrilled with the initial input. The first few people given the opportunity to speak were from government agencies: building departments, land use planners, and the state’s top building official. There were a couple themes that quickly emerged as primary challenges in their eyes: lofts and stairs. The other shared concern for these departments related to the temporary status of a house built on wheels. The State reminded the group that they do not currently oversee vehicles within the building department. There was mention of food trucks and how they fall outside of standard oversight within the building department and how that has been challenging for them. Several officials made it clear that they have no intention of regulating vehicles as part of the building department.
As far as the industry professionals and Association members went, their concerns revolved around inspection and permitting processes for tiny houses. They spoke of the need for licensed tradespeople (electricians and plumbers) to perform the work on a professionally built tiny house. To be clear, this does not apply to the DIY tiny house builder as owner-builder status is allowed within the residential code, no matter the home size. They also asked questions about the nuts and bolts of utility hookups and how they may differ for tiny houses. Lastly, they brought up questions about the potential issue of smoke reservoirs (smoke caused during a fire event) in a tiny house loft.
In sum, the most repeated concerns were:
- Sleeping lofts are currently not allowed in Oregon’s building code.
- Loft access via anything other than a standard, Oregon code compliant stairway is not allowed.
- The state building departments do not want to be responsible for the regulation of temporary structures.
- Building departments struggle with the classification of movable tiny houses vs. RVs vs. conventional housing.
I distributed copies of the approved IRC appendix that Martin Hammer and I co-authored as well as the code language we have developed for movable tiny houses (not yet available to the public). During my opportunities to speak, my focus remained the same: keep bringing the discussion back to the solutions that Appendix V provides. Since the tiny house appendix has already gone through extreme vetting by the International Code Council’s (ICC) code development process, there is no need to start from scratch. Knowing that a code addressing the officials’ issues was recently approved after a 4 stage voting process through the ranks of the ICC served to allay a lot of the expressed concerns. In addition, I pointed out that the provisions of the proposal that specifically address movable tiny houses were sourced from existing IRC language, specifically from Appendix E which deals with manufactured housing.
Tom Bowerman, House Bill 2737 author, recently amended his bill to include a request for the statewide adoption of IRC Appendix V since it addresses nearly all of the points he is working to resolve. He also shared that the state of Washington made a recent change to their state building code as it relates to stairs and tiny houses. Their new code reads as follows:
Section 1011 STAIRWAYS
1011.17 Stairways in individual dwelling units. Stairs or ladders within an individual dwelling unit used to access areas of 200 square feet (18.5m2) or less, and not containing the primary bathroom or kitchen, are exempt from the requirements of Section 1011.
I am pleased to say that by the end of the meeting we had reached a consensus on the need for code updates relating to tiny houses and that, in the words of the state’s top building official, “We are much closer to agreement than it may have originally appeared.” This is very exciting as it shows that when a group is presented with data and clear information, common ground can often be found.
The reality is that we aren’t asking to step outside of code regulations. Instead, we are asking to be included in the code with the incorporation of Appendix V (which has already gone through extreme vetting) and to do so in a manner that is acceptable to both building officials and homeowners alike. Tiny houses, as defined in the IRC appendix, are required to meet all of the provisions of the main body of the code other than the specific elements identified within the appendix.
The ability to work together for a common goal is perhaps this group’s best attribute. It was remarkable to have such a large assembly of industry leaders with opposing views and concerns listen to each other respectfully and with genuine interest. We are optimistic about the direction that the state of Oregon is taking in the matter of providing a path to legalization of tiny houses.
Watch a video recap of the meeting: