If you are interested in seeing tiny houses legalized as primary residences across the US, we would love your help! As you likely already know, we won approval for a tiny house construction code through the International Code Council (ICC) in December. As such, we now have an official Tiny House Appendix in the 2018 version of the International Residential Code (IRC). This is HUGE news, but it’s not the end of the process. Now we have to move on to the appendix adoption process across the country.
We now need to move towards adoption of the tiny house construction code at the state level. Each state adopts IRC codes differently. Some adopt the code in its entirety. Others pick and choose the pieces they like and use them to augment their state code. Some states have statewide adoption process while others manage the adoptions at the local city or county level. Regardless of how codes are adopted in your state, we know that a code appendix is NOT automatically adopted along with the code. A code appendix has to be lobbied for individually.
You can click the following link (State Adoptions_ICCcodes_Oct2016) to review a list of all 50 states and how they adopt IRC standards. Only pay attention to the column entitled “IRC” as this is where the tiny house appendix is approved. Some states offer statewide adoptions, others offer local adoptions, and still others offer a mix of the two. You will need to know how your state operates before you start investing time into the adoption effort. If your state adopts at both the local and statewide levels, I suggest you start with your local building departments. You can connect with them in person and over community specific concerns. You can work your way up the “ladder of communication” until you have connected with everyone engaged in the appendix adoption process.
It is so important to get this code appendix adopted. Not only for us as tiny house dwellers, but also for the building departments themselves. Without a code to point to, they won’t likely risk their necks to approve a tiny house. After all, if someone gets hurt and sues the building department, they will have no legal ground to stand on. If, however, they can point to an approved code, they are protected against lawsuits and have much more solid ground to operate from. This will allow them the security they need to start approving tiny homes.
On a very relevant side note, it’s important that we not call them “Tiny Houses on Wheels” anymore as that creates problems on the code side of things. It is very important that we start referring to them the way we have defined them in the code: “Movable Tiny Houses.” The nuances of language and word choices are extremely important in the code world. The difference between “tiny house on wheels” and “movable tiny house” is enormous and could mean the difference between acceptance and refusal.
Steps to Take in the Appendix Adoption Process
First and foremost, be professional, polite, and respectful in all of your interactions with building officials and other contacts along the way. If we maintain a top caliber approach, we will have a much better outcome in the long process of code approvals and adoption that lies ahead. Please take a few minutes to get familiar with the appendix adoption process outlined below. Then take action to help get the appendix adopted and to provide a building code for LEGAL tiny houses.
- FIRST AND FOREMOST: Read the code appendix so that you understand what you are requesting and fighting for. You can find it here.
- Review this document (IRC_StateCodeAdoptionInfo_3.14.17) for your state and any known contacts. These are the folks you will contact once you have a firmed up action plan.
- Let the contacts know that you live in the state in question. Tell them that you are very interested in the adoption of the 2018 IRC Appendix V: “Tiny Houses” into your state’s building code. To be clear, when referring to the code, it is Appendix “V” as in the alphabet letter…not Roman numeral 5.
- Encourage them to incorporate the appendix into the current code. Do so ahead of the next code cycle if possible. This will immediately help mitigate the numerous challenges that building departments face regarding tiny houses.
- Perhaps they cannot adopt the language immediately. If not, ask if they will support the adoption in the next code cycle. Do your best to get a commitment without overstepping your position.
- Ask your contact(s) if there are any actions that you can take to help with the appendix adoption process. Perhaps there are study groups that you can join or other ways to get involved.
- Ask them if you need to make a formal proposal to adopt the appendix or if your encouragement is enough. You may be required to open a formal request if one has not already been initiated.
If you do not find contact information for people in your state, you will have to dig a little. You can start by going to the website of a larger city in your area and contacting the building department. Ask them who you should talk to regarding adopting an approved appendix from the IRC into the statewide or local code, depending on where you live. Once you find the right person or people to talk to, please leave a comment below this article with that information so that we can update the IRC_StateCodeAdoptionInfo_3.14.17.
Most code amendment cycles are about three years long. In other words, there is a lag time between when new codes come out and when they are implemented. What’s more, that process could be on a different cycle than ICC code development (i.e. year #1 of 3 in your state might be year #2 of 3 for the ICC). This could mean that even though your building and planning agencies support the idea of tiny house codes, they may have their hands tied in terms of adopting the appendix right now.
If that is the case, you may want to consider connecting with a state lawmaker in the House or Senate to see if they are interested in sponsoring a Legislative Bill to provide code guidance for tiny houses in the meantime. If you plan to take this route, please comment below so that I can help you with the specific language for the Bill. In fact, once we have developed the language for the Oregon House Bill, I will post it on our site for you to use in your own state. There are some important details to consider if going this route, so please comment below if you want more information.
What to say
You may want to discuss the topic of tiny houses with your local building and planning departments before you take action. You will learn about the issues that your community faces regarding housing. As a result, you can better articulate how tiny houses are a potential solution. Some issues we know exist in many communities are as follows:
- Shortage of housing that is within the financial reach of the general population.
- Shortage of rental properties that are within the financial reach of the general population.
- Loss of community engagement and longevity as housing markets price the population out.
- The city’s (or county’s) inability to cost effectively provide affordable housing to its constituents.
- The population’s desire to live a simpler life; with smaller housing at the core of their needs.
Needs Met by Tiny Houses
- Provides professional builders with a new, untapped market of opportunity.
- Creates housing that is affordable, as is required by the “Intent” (Section R101.3) of the code.
- Offers housing to many demographics including students, young families, retirees, and more.
- Helps cities meet their affordable housing requirements with little or no cost to the city.
- Improves pride of ownership in communities.
- Increases the money individual home owners retain after their housing payment is made. That money can be spent in the local community as a result, increasing the local revenue.
How to Respond to the Tough Questions You May Face
There are some common concerns within building departments when it comes to tiny houses. This is especially true with movable tiny houses. I have laid out some of the concerns or arguments you might hear from your officials below. I have also included some potential responses to address those concerns.
A tiny house can already be built within the code as is, so why do we need to bother with this code appendix?
It’s true that a tiny house, of sorts, can be built within the current code structure. However, the size and scale of that house is not in line with what most people are building when it comes to tiny homes. The appendix that we want adopted defers almost all construction details to the main body of the IRC. Indeed, it is almost entirely the same code restrictions used to build tiny as it is conventional homes. There are very few changes to the code within the appendix. The changes present are only there out of necessity to make the detailing and scale of the home viable.
The scale of tiny homes built to standard code requirements would be way out of whack if one were to try. Let’s consider an example. It doesn’t make sense to have minimum ceiling height requirements of 7′ 0″ when the entire structure is 13′ 6″ tall. Further, if the home is under 400SF, the width to height ratio would be off in this scenario. As such, the inclusion of a loft provision that provides safety for the occupants while limiting the impact of the scale of the design is essential. We have included such a provision in the appendix.
The definition of “intent” as defined in IRC Section R101.3 clearly mentions that housing needs to be “affordable”. Further, the code should not impact the affordability of a home such that it becomes unattainable for prospective homeowners. Tiny houses help insure affordability. However, some of the details surrounding those homes don’t work with current code standards due to their scale. Another example of scale issues is that of stairways. Standard stairways take up too much space in a tiny house. Adjustments need to be made to maintain the safety of the stairway while also providing adequate access to the loft area.
The statement that a tiny house can already be built to code within the current standards does not apply to a movable tiny house. If you are creating new legislation along the guidelines that I will present in the coming weeks (as used here in Oregon), then you can push for language on movable tiny houses as well. This changes the conversation from “it’s already doable” to “this is new ground that we need to address.”
The State has no interest in adding vehicles to building department oversight.
A movable tiny house that is compliant under IRC based codes would be designed to be placed on a permanent foundation to meet the intent of the code in a fashion similar to how manufactured housing is approved and is not considered a vehicle. A house that is designed to move all the time would not be considered permanent housing. That type of tiny house would have to be certified as an RV. That is NOT what we are discussing within this appendix.
Movable tiny houses are just glorified RVs and so should be handled by the RV industry.
A movable tiny house is not an RV when it is designed for permanent occupancy, contrary to what some have called it. Although some people are interested in moving their homes every few weeks, the vast majority of individuals within the tiny house community are looking for simple, affordable, permanent housing. The wheels provide flexibility should dramatic life changes occur; however, the primary focus of this appendix is to create permanent housing.
Tiny houses should not get any special treatment and should meet the code like any other house.
Agreed. Tiny houses are required to meet all of the provisions of the code other than the specific elements identified within the appendix. These small changes are necessary to build the home to proper scale. They provide adequate provisions for occupant health and safety, in line with the intent of the code as defined in IRC Section R101.3. Exceptions are used throughout the body of the code and in other appendix language. There is nothing new or unprecedented about the inclusion of a tiny house specific appendix. In fact, the tiny house appendix was actually created at the specific request of the ICC Code Committee.
How do I know that the provisions of the appendix are of high enough quality to be adopted in our state?
Appendix V went through an extreme, 4-stage vetting and voting process in order to be passed.
- First, the appendix was reviewed and approved by the code chairman of the ICC and his staff.
- Second, we won a vote to allow our appendix to be heard at the ICC Code Hearings in Kansas City this past October. That vote was a simple majority of the 250+ building officials and fire marshals present in the room.
- Third, during our hearing in which we presented testimony and where both opponents and supporters had a chance to share their views, our appendix won the 2/3 majority vote of those same 250+ officials, moving us on to the next and final stage of vetting/voting.
- Finally, we won the last stage of voting: 2/3 majority from ALL voting members of the ICC nationwide. There are 20,000 members, all of whom were given the opportunity to cast their electronic vote on the issue. We have been told by numerous officials that a code change of this magnitude typically takes a minimum of 6-9 years to be written into law. Appendix V was approved in record time (7 months from first draft to official approval).
We don’t allow for ladders/lofts in our state building code. Why should we allow tiny houses to be able to use them?
Lofts, defined as mezzanines in the IRC, are code approved at the national level. Ladders, ships ladders, and alternating tread devices (ATDs) are all approved options in the IRC for a secondary means of egress from a loft or mezzanine. When it was approved in December, Appendix V changed the use of those loft access options to allow for them to be the primary form of egress from the lofts. The main reasoning behind this decision is, once again, the scale of the home and the loft itself. With the space being so small and the lofts so low compared to conventional housing, the risks of injury are greatly reduced.
An example of how things could be handled in what I would consider to be an overly relaxed fashion is what recently passed in Washington State. There, they have simply removed small lofts from any oversight as an exception within the code. This means there is no way to ensure that egress standards are met. This also means that there is no oversight, whatsoever of the space. I think this is less than ideal and certainly less that what we are requesting in our appendix. Here is a copy of the language Washington State has implemented:
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.
What we present in the appendix is based on existing code standards from other sources, such as ANSI, or it defers to the main body of the IRC. The details of the lofts are not outrageous or dangerous. They contain provisions for guardrails, minimum size standards, and emergency escape and egress. Without oversight of sleeping lofts, people will simply label the space “storage” and ultimately use it as a sleeping loft in the future. This leaves the building department unable to oversee the safety of that space and could lead to life threatening situations.
It is important to always steer your state regulators to the fact that the language of the appendix has already been heavily vetted by building officials, fire marshals, and industry professionals. The fact that it was approved so quickly shines a light on the need for this appendix in our communities to address the ever growing tiny house movement. We need to ensure that these tiny houses are built in a way that ensures the health and safety of the occupants and any emergency workers that might appear on site in the future.
Knowing exactly what will come up in your conversations is impossible. However, I hope that the potential scenarios above are something that you will feel comfortable defending should the need arise. The truth of the matter is that this code is well vetted and ready to go. Your state may make some small changes during the appendix adoption process. The States need to ensure that the appendix fits their specific needs. That said, those changes should be few.
It may also be helpful to let your officials know that other states are already moving to adopt the appendix. In fact, Idaho, Oregon, and New Mexico are considering both the adoption of the appendix, and the expansion of that adoption to include language specific to movable tiny houses. As we have seen, once there is a precedent, others can jump on board enthusiastically. This is because they can point to other areas and say “see, they did this, so we can too.”
You can do this! The more voices that are heard in support of this appendix, the more likely it is to be adopted. The appendix adoption process is in place so that your voice can be heard. Please take the time to support this amazing opportunity. We are literally within reach of our goal of LEGAL TINY HOUSES in the United States. It’s THAT important. After all, if you intend to build legally, how good would it feel to have your plans stamped “approved” by the building department?
Let me say it again clearly. The adoption of this appendix in your area will create a path for LEGAL TINY HOUSES. Those houses can be considered actual real estate and your “permanent residence.” This is life changing for many people. It means they can afford to own their own home once again in this bloated real estate market. Make some calls. Get the word out. Let’s get this appendix adopted in every state across the nation!