There have been a number of conversations as of late regarding the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new proposal entitled “FR–5877–P–01 Manufactured Home Procedural and Enforcement Regulations; Revision of Exemption for Recreational Vehicles” and its potential impact on tiny houses on wheels (THOWs). For those who have not yet seen the proposal, you can read the summary below.
“This rulemaking proposes to revise the exemption for recreational vehicles that are not self-propelled from HUD’s Manufactured Housing Procedural and Enforcement Regulations. This proposed rule is based on a recommendation adopted by the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee (MHCC) which would define a recreational vehicle as one built on a vehicular structure, not certified as a manufactured home, designed only for recreational use and not as a primary residence or for permanent occupancy, and built and certified in accordance with either the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1192-15 or American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A119.5-09 consensus standards for recreational vehicles. HUD is adopting the MHCC’s recommendation but modifying it to require certification with the updated ANSI standard, A119.5-15, and by including a requirement that units claiming the ANSI A119.5-15 exemption prominently display a notice stating that the unit is designed only for recreational use, and not as a primary residence or permanent dwelling.”
Many of the people who have spoken up about the proposal on Facebook and to us personally through our website have been concerned about HUD’s actions and how they will ultimately impact the concept of THOWs. The reality is that there is nothing to worry about, in my opinion. Why? Because we are discussing the wrong topic: recreational vehicles (RVs). No matter what HUD decides, or the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) for that matter, we as tiny housers should not be concerned because our goal is to live in our tiny houses permanently, not to certify them as RVs. After all, that’s specifically what HUD’s recent proposal aims to clarify.
WHAT DOES FR–5877–P–01 PROPOSE?
The new proposal would dictate that a tiny house, if built to ANSI or NFPA standards, is an RV and thus not suitable for permanent occupancy. The reality is that it is already illegal to live permanently in an RV in most places anyway. That is something that local zoning ordinances specifically dictate. So the problem here is the idea of certifying your tiny house as an RV rather than seeking permanent residential status through the building codes division.
Consider that in almost every community in the United States where zoning laws are enforced, RVs are considered temporary shelter and are only suitable for up to thirty consecutive days of occupancy. That doesn’t fit the model of tiny houses as permanent residences at all. For HUD to include all RVs that are “not self-propelled,” thus including THOWs is an acceptable practice on their part. In fact, I am not opposed in any way to HUD overseeing the construction of RVs if that is important to their industry. This is because my intention is, and always has been, to secure a path to legalization for tiny houses through the International Residential Code (IRC).
HOW TO LEGALIZE TINY HOUSES AS RESIDENCES
The IRC governs the vast majority of one- and two-family dwellings within the United States. It is a stand-alone residential code that specifically manages minimum requirements for all aspects of residential home construction including building, plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas, energy efficiency, and electrical work. It is this code that almost all jurisdictions rely on for their residential construction code compliance standards. At the end of an IRC compliant build, the structure is deemed safe for permanent occupancy and a certificate of occupancy is thus issued to the home owner. This is exactly the type of approval we as tiny housers need to live in our homes, full time and legally.
There are currently some IRC standards that average THOWs do not meet. The most obvious are head height requirements, stair design requirements, energy efficiency requirements, and the fact that THOWs are built on trailers. The vast majority of the IRC can actually be met with relative ease. In fact, with a little bit of creative design, the issues with the insulation and head height requirements can be managed as well. That leaves us with two major obstacles: stair design requirements and the trailer. With current IRC standards, there is no easy way to legally install stairs in a THOW because the maximum height requirements per road regulations limit a roof line to 13’ 6”. This means that the required head height above the nosing of a stair cannot be met all the way to the loft floor unless the roof is designed to expand/lift once the trailer is parked. Although possible, this is a tricky design and not something for the average home builder to take on. Unless changes to the code can be made, THOWs may be required to stick with single story designs for habitable rooms, thus utilizing the loft spaces for “storage only.”
The biggest sticking point to meeting IRC standards is the trailer. The IRC does not recognize trailers as a viable foundation for a permanent dwelling. As such, the tiny house would have to be built one of two ways. First, it could be built on a permanent foundation. This is by far the easiest way to build a tiny house; however, it does not allow for easy moving of the home should you decide to relocate. That said, it is possible to build a tiny house on a foundation that could be moved with relative ease with some clever design details. For example, if the home were built on a girder base, in other words large timbers that span the bottom of the house (think “skids”), then that system could be bolted to a foundation on site and equally unbolted and transported to a new site on top of a trailer. This would make the home simply a “load on a trailer” while in transit and a permanent house once attached to the foundation. This is done all the time with full size houses, so the same concept can be applied to tiny homes as well.
The second approach is to build the home on a trailer and then remove the wheels once it is set on site. This would require one of two foundations options for code compliance. The first would be a standard foundation (one that meets code requirements directly) onto which the tiny house could be set and bolted in place. Once set, the tires would be removed and the home would be considered permanent. A second option would be to design an engineered system of tie-down anchors that would satisfy the “intent of the code.” This might be easier to implement than a full blown foundation; however, it would still require the removal of the wheels once set in place. A simple way to envision this is a concrete parking slab with engineered hold down locations to which the THOW would be anchored once in position.
RVIA vs HUD vs IRC
The main point I want you to understand is that the best approach for legalizing tiny houses is not through HUD, it is not through the RVIA, it is through the IRC. It is not in our best interest to refer to our homes as “tiny house RVs” because that implies temporary housing, not a permanent residence. Rather, we should proudly call ourselves “tiny houses” and work within an existing residential code (i.e. the IRC) to gain code approvals and legal, PERMANENT residential status. The IRC has recently adjusted section “R304.1 Minimum area” standards in direct response to the tiny house movement by changing the requirement for a minimum dwelling space from 120sf to 70sf (not including bathroom facilities). To me, this is a sign that they are willing to work with us and I believe that we should be willing to work with them too. We will likely have to compromise on some things and we won’t get 100% of what we ask for. That’s life. There is always balance and common ground to be found. Let’s find it sooner rather than later and get the tiny house movement on a path to legalization.
As a way to show that tiny houses can meet current IRC standards, we have redesigned hOMe and will be releasing an IRC code compliant version of our THOW in the coming weeks. There are some changes to the interior space; however, the overall design is very similar and yet TOTALLY code compliant. If you have property that does not have minimum square footage requirements in the zoning ordinances or covenants, then you would be able to build this new version of hOMe and receive an official certificate of occupancy from the building department. No more concerns about being caught and told to move your home. No more stressing about your neighbors turning you into the authorities.
HOW TO MOVE FORWARD WITH THE IRC
Now for the bad news. I recently discovered that the deadline for code change proposals for the 2018 IRC was January 11, 2016. As such, there is no way to get code revision proposals in front of the International Code Council (the ICC: the board that oversees the IRC code proposals/changes) until the next cycle, which is three years out. Yes, THREE YEARS. That means that new proposals will not be accepted until January 2019 for the 2021 IRC. That is a long time out, but it also gives us time to develop a strong proposal with adequate detailing and factual data backing up our proposal. This is something I intend to work towards and I would love your help. If you would like to participate in the IRC tiny house code compliance movement, please let me know. As we get deeper into the process, specific roles will become more apparent, but for now, general help is appreciated.
I have friends who have worked to make changes in the code over the last several years and as a result of their efforts, the IRC recently added a provision to the 2015 code that governs straw bale construction. This change was the result of many years of hard work by dedicated individuals who wanted to create the change we, as an industry, needed to be successful. The road to the code change included many studies from fire safety, to engineered wall systems, to insulation values, and more. Each of those studies provided vital data that the group pointed to in their proposals. The upcoming three year window would afford us the time we need to organize and complete similar studies, relevant to tiny houses. So what changes to you think we need to propose to the ICC? How do you see tiny houses fitting into the IRC so that we can live legally in our dream dwellings? We have our own list started, but want your input as well. After all, we are a community and we want to be representative of that community as we move forward. Please feel free to share your ideas below int he comments section.
In the meantime, I believe we need to come together as a movement and work together towards a common goal of code compliance. As I mentioned, it is possible to build within the current code structure and meet the requirements; however, there are changes to be made that will improve the design diversity of tiny houses. What we need to stay focused on, as a community and as a movement, is that what we do today will have impacts on the future of our movement. We cannot attempt to circumvent the governing agencies because they can and will find ways to shut us down if we try. We need to work with them to create tiny houses that fulfill our needs as individuals and provide the required safety standards that the governing bodies are looking for in our housing industry. This does not have to be a fight. It can be a collaboration.