I know many of you have been waiting patiently for an update from the International Code Council (ICC) Hearings in Kansas City. As I write this, I’m in flight on my way back home and Gabriella is on her way to Seattle area. As much as we are exhausted, we want to get this update to you so that you can get a sense of what the experience was like.
Here’s the summary: we cleared two major hurdles on the track to approval of tiny houses in the international residential building code (the IRC). We are PSYCHED, BUT to be clear, we have NOT received the complete and final approval. There is one more significant step in front of us that will take place over the course of this next month. We have more work ahead of us but we truly had the very best outcome possible at the hearings.
Check out this short video we made right after the approval.
OKAY…SO HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Weeks before the hearings actually began, I assembled a group of some of the finest tiny house folks I know to create a team to defend the tiny house proposal. This team included Macy Miller, BA Norrgard, Jeremy Weaver, Meg Stephens, James Herndon, Zack Giffin, and David Latimer. Our team had the honor of being mentored by ICC hearing veterans Martin Hammer and David Eisenberg. Martin and David were co-authors of the straw bale code that was recently added into the 2015 IRC. They know all about presenting new technologies to the ICC, including dangerous pitfalls to stay clear of. We were humbled to have their guidance and owe a huge part of the success of the hearings to them.
We were also incredibly fortunate in that Christian and Alexis of TinyHouseExpedition.com were there to film the entire experience for their documentary “Living Tiny Legally”. We should add that this is the first time in ICC history that the code council has granted permission for an outside film crew to tape inside the hearing room. A huge thank you to both of them for documenting the entire event and an equal thank you to the code council for granting them this unprecedented access!
Alexis and Christian’s upcoming video will give you a front row view of our process from the planning stages all the way to the final celebrations. If you feel inspired, please consider donating to their efforts as they are going to be putting a significant amount of time into editing all the footage they captured. You can donate on their website HERE. They are tiny housers themselves and have been traveling the country documenting the monumental changes that have been happening in the legalization of tiny houses.
On Saturday morning we met with a group of tiny house supporters who had made the trip to the convention center to rally behind our team. We’d like to extend a HUGE thank you to every single person who came out. Some of you came from out-of-state, some from the local area, and we were touched that so many made a significant effort to be there. It felt great knowing you all had our backs!
After the meeting with our extended tiny house family, we gathered our team of defenders to talk strategy and to begin to unify our efforts. We broke off into a side room and got to work.
We had two phases of arguments/testimony to prepare for: Phase 1 and Phase 2, and a lot of time and effort went into each draft. With a team of ten presenters with two phases of testimony each, we spent most of the day inside a quiet, windowless room.
Even though it was hard and hyper-focused work, we of course managed to have a great time…there’s never a shortage of fun when tiny housers get together. Random quotes from “Dumb and Dumber”, bad jokes, and hilarious stories coupled well with Gabriella and Hazel (Macy and James’ 2 1/2 year old daughter) building chair castles and putting out imaginary fires in the background. Miles (their one year old) spent his time running laps in the giant, empty conference room with someone trying to keep up with him pretty much the whole time. We were truly a village working towards a common cause and we quickly coalesced into a powerful force-for-change.
After dinner on Saturday, we headed to our hotels, AirBnB’s and homes to rest up for (potentially) the big day. At this point, we still had no idea if our public comment would be heard the following day (Sunday) or the one after (Monday) which added significant challenge to the mix.
We gathered again on Sunday morning and began working on the “Phase 2” testimonies. After several dry runs, we felt ready to present our case. As we were watching the live-feed of the proceedings on a computer, we could feel the steady pace at which officials were blazing through the other public comments/proposals and our stomachs began to turn in anticipation. With about 2 hours to go, we made our way to the Great Hall and settled in the best we could.
THE NUTS ‘N BOLTS ON HOW THE PROCESS WORKS
With the help of Martin Hammer and David Eisenberg, I wrote the tiny house appendix (known as case number RB-168-16) and submitted it to the ICC in the form of a public comment. This appendix was a direct response to a proposal originally submitted at the ICC Committee Hearings in Louisville, KY this last April. The original proposal was written by a retired building official out of Oregon who is not part of the tiny house community per-se. Because it was not well written, it was immediately denied by the action committee in April.
Martin tipped us off a couple months ago that we may be able to essentially “re-open” that case for this Kansas City hearing and request that it be “approved as modified by the public comment”. Martin and I spent the next 7-8 weeks working full time on a new proposal to submit to the ICC for inclusion in this hearing. The timing was extremely short but we managed to not only submit the proposal by the deadline but also to get it approved for the official hearing schedule. This was not without its own set of drama and anxiety but that’s a different story for another time.
Our first objective at the hearings was to overturn the original denial of RB-168-16. In order to do so, we would need to receive a simple majority vote from all voting ICC members in attendance at the hearings. If we received the go-ahead from the ICC to essentially re-open the case, we would move on to Phase 2. We were pretty confident that they would at least be willing to re-open the case but it was Phase 2 we knew would be our biggest challenge.
During Phase 2 we would each need to present a statement no more than two minutes long, defending every code alteration request. We would also need to rebut all opposing comments from other ICC members but would only be allotted one minute each for that task. Of course we would have no idea what comments, concerns, and questions the opposing side might have, so we prepared for the worst.
Our ultimate goal at these hearings was to receive a “Yes” vote from 2/3 or more of all ICC voting members in attendance during phase 2. A 2/3 vote would be enough to move the proposal onto the next level of voting. A “No” vote would mean that our proposal was dead in the water and that we would need to wait three years until the next ICC code cycle before being allowed to try again. By the way, we needed to win a 2/3 majority from a group of roughly 120 ICC members made up of building officials, fire marshals and the like.
STEPPING UP TO THE STAGE
When our turn came to defend RB-168-16, we stepped to the front of the room and sat next to the microphones. Our team of ten was ready to go and it was showtime. I stood up as the first speaker to request a motion to re-open the public comment and was surprised when a stranger beat me to the mic. He stated that the voting members should vote yes to re-open the comment and at least give us a chance to present what we had prepared. This happened a couple more times before I was finally able to reach the mic to speak. We couldn’t have asked for a better opening or better endorsements from the ICC community itself.
The most amazing thing is that as our team continued to read each statement, more and more building officials came up and spoke on our behalf. Some faces were familiar but most were completely unknown to any of us. In fact, so many ICC members spoke that we decided to stop our Phase 1 testimony and instead opted to allow for the vote to re-open the public comment to be called. For us to win this first stage we only needed a simple majority vote; however, we were a little nervous because we had just witnessed all but one of the proposals ahead of us get shot down during Phase 1. The track record didn’t look very promising.
By a show of hands we could see that much more than 50% of voting ICC members had raised their hands and we heard the moderator say the words we had been praying for: “the motion is denied (that’s a good thing as it meant the original motion was overturned) and we call for a new motion on the floor.”
We made a motion to have our public comment heard and a building official in the audience seconded it, allowing us to proceed. As much as we were excited, we didn’t have time to celebrate. We moved immediately to Phase 2 testimonies. We continued through our ranks and once again building officials stood and spoke in our support, this time to approve the public comment and appendix.
Eventually, we finished our testimony and the opposition was invited to speak. They raised several points of concern, but in truth, none were hostile or even major oppositions. Even the self-proclaimed “bad guy” confessed to the audience that his wife is obsessed with “those tiny house shows”. We responded to their concerns in the rebuttal stage.
Finally it was time for a vote. What’s amazing is that before our comment was heard, the number of people in the room had swelled considerably. Clearly, this was an interesting topic and many had come to watch, listen, and vote.
As the moderator called for the vote, we watched the hands go up in support, followed by the hands in opposition. It was too close to call if 2/3 majority had been reached so the moderator asked for each voting member to stand in support and then in opposition while ICC staff walked around the room and tallied each vote count in each quadrant. We had only seen this process happen once before in our hours of watching the proceedings before hand.
When the count was tallied, the moderator announced, “the motion to approve the proposal as modified by the public comment carries.” We had won and were now one step closer to a national model code for tiny houses!!!! The final vote count was 81 in favor and 34 against. Five over the 2/3 majority required. There were tears of joy, ear-to-ear smiles, and even some applause from the building officials and fire marshals (I don’t think that happens too often in this domain).
After the win we all moved into the hallway and met with several building officials that approached us to congratulate us on our efforts. We received numerous compliments on our professionalism and exceptional organization. Several officials offered their help to get the next step passed.
A few officials told us that what we had achieved was truly historic. They had never seen a major code change, such as the one we presented, pass on the first attempt. They said it is much more common for a new provision to take two to three code cycles before approval. Since each cycle is three years long, the norm is for proposals to take anywhere from six to nine years for approval!
We did it on the very first go around and for that I am very proud of our team, our preparation, and our follow through. We were even able to “turn” several ICC voting members who had planned to vote against us to ultimately stand in our support.
After basking in the victory with all the tiny housers that showed up in support, we took our celebration to the streets of Kansas City for a night out on the town. Even as we celebrated though, we knew that our efforts to get this code approved were not over, and that we would be back to work the following morning.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I want to be REALLY CLEAR…we are not done yet and the appendix has NOT BEEN APPROVED at this time. We still have work ahead of us. The final vote will take place during a two week window that starts on November 8th. All voting members of the ICC across the country will have the opportunity to vote electronically.
We need to win yet another two-thirds majority of those votes in order to have the appendix officially approved. With up to 20,000 voting members, our efforts have to be strong, coordinated, professional, and in line with ICC protocol to drum up the support we need.
We will be putting out a specific call-to-action in the days to come. WE WILL NEED YOUR HELP! The key now is that we don’t want anyone to start making phone calls, writing letters or emails, or otherwise take any steps until we’ve released the plan of action. We are creating a coordinated, concise, and respectful effort to get the word out to voting ICC members. Stay tuned for more…
WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF IT FULLY PASSES?
You may be wondering what the approval of this appendix would mean for you and/or for the tiny house community in general. I like to be an optimist, so I’ll say WHEN we get the approval, tiny houses will be added to the International Residential Code (IRC). This is the model code in the entire US (except Wisconsin), Guam, Puerto Rico, DC, and the US Virgin Islands for one and two family dwellings (i.e. residential construction). Please click here to learn more about the appendix in question and to read it for yourself.
The IRC is what nearly all building departments base their codes on in residential construction. Each jurisdiction may modify the code to fit their specific needs, but the starting point is the IRC. When the tiny house appendix is approved within that code, it will mean that you can go to any building department that has adopted the appendix and use it to build your tiny house…legally!
One note is that as we’ve mentioned in previous articles on this topic, this appendix does not currently apply to tiny houses on wheels. It covers all other aspects such as the use of lofts as sleeping areas, ceiling heights under lofts, emergency egress, loft access, and more. We were told, in no uncertain terms, by an IRC official that if we kept the portion of our proposal that included “movable tiny houses” that he would throw out the entire proposal and we wouldn’t have the chance to present it in Kansas City at all. Again, you can read more about our appendix HERE. It is my strong belief that the details of this appendix will help everyone in the tiny house movement, not just those individuals building on a foundation. I’ll write more about this topic in the coming weeks once our current efforts are taken care of.
Note that I say that the code would be in place in jurisdictions that have adopted it. That will be another battle for us in the future: getting states, counties, and cities to officially adopt the appendix into their local code. It is not a shoe-in because the IRC appendices are not automatically accepted along with the rest of the code and have to be individually adopted by each jurisdiction. That is something we will have to work for. Fortunately, most jurisdictions we have communicated with are seeking something in the code that specifically address tiny houses so that they can know what to do with all the requests they’re receiving. Chances are good that many will adopt the appendix as a result.
That comes later though. For now, let’s stay focused on our immediate task at hand: getting the two-thirds majority we need for the overall approval by the ICC. As I mentioned, we will be putting out a specific call to action in the coming days. Please look for it and please take the action described within it to help us make this a reality for our tiny house families across the country. Until then, I ask that you wait patiently and don’t start taking any action to contact your building officials on behalf of this proposal.
We want to once again thank all of our donors that enabled our entire team to be in attendance at the hearings. I truly could not have done this without their help. From the bottom of our hearts to yours…THANK YOU!