Despite the best efforts of reality TV shows to make "going tiny" look easy, the challenge remains for living legally
High-level representatives, local building inspectors, and rooms full of zoning officials are watching and waiting. There's no better time to make a solid case for legal living in a tiny house. So what's the missing ingredient: Data!
Why? For my own part, I have been invited to present at the Virginia Association of Zoning Officials (VAZO) at their upcoming annual meeting. I was told that they like to include someone each year who speaks on a "hot topic," and -- you guessed it -- tiny houses are the subject of this year's statewide questions and concerns for VA's ZOs. And data drives decision making.
The request to speak was at once an honor and hint to the need to provide a solid case for the legitimate interests and concerns for tiny house people.
As many know, I have a close friend who came face-to-face with the harsh reality of The Risk of Building an Unapproved Tiny House. Since my first meeting with the folks at the top of Chesterfield County's building code and zoning offices, all whom I've met have been open, friendly, and helpful to better understanding our cause.
Further, I've become increasingly connected with the leadership of Virginia's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). My role as Virginia's State Chapter Leader with the American Tiny House Association (ATHA) has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the challenge folks face on both the tiny house builder side of the table, as well as for the people in positions appointed to officially review, recommend, and enforce rules and regulations governing building codes and zoning ordinances.
As they say, "seek first to understand," and better knowing the needs and concerns of tiny house dwellers, and those of the people in positions of authority for go/no-go approval of smaller structures, has provided some very valuable insights.
Being a big blip on the state's tiny house radar has raised my own antenna a bit higher, and tuned me in to a bigger picture than ever before.
I love a puzzle and prefer to take a balanced approach to resolving issues. The shear weight of the zoning rules and regs -- you could tip-the-scales with the mass of printed material -- illustrates the shear volume of pieces that mush be carefully evaluated to present from a position of understanding and representative authority.
While I believe we face an uphill battle when it comes to implementing changes in regulatory building codes and zoning regulations, I am privy to the concerns of individuals who choose to "go tiny" and believe serious societal issues exist for a growing number of people represented by state and local governments.
It seems the face of the "economically challenged" (read: J.O.B., or Just Over Broke) is dramatically changing, and while the size of homes may be trending smaller, the sense of value, expectation of quality, and desire for a real place to call home -- even if mobile -- remain on the rise.
As many in the Tiny House Movement illustrate, "small and affordable" doesn't have to be dismal and dilapidated. On the contrary, many tiny houses on wheels (THOW) and conventionally constructed eclectic cottages illustrate a quality of craftsmanship that is among the finest found in historic examples of architectural aesthetics.
We are living history, as the world may well remember for centuries to come the quickly conjured workshop wizardry of Deek Diedricksen and unique artistry of tiny house builder Zyl Zimmerman. That their works, and those of their peers, are unconventional shouldn't make them wrong.
Outliers like Deek and Zyl sit alongside other icons of our industry. That said, I am increasingly aware of a somewhat dangerous shift in the trend toward what some home owners and professionals call a "tiny house," and it sounds more than a little alarm.
Just last night I saw a proudly posted photo of a "tiny house," who's owner excitedly shared that "it's really coming along!" The structure was a recycled backyard barn that has become their full-time domicile, and was riddled with holes in its T-111 siding from a past life as garden/tool shed. It was a wild mix of disparate components, that will look much better when it's primed and painted.
Still, a more finished look aside, safety is my primary concern for this couple and others like them. Getting a great deal on the structure may help promote some amazingly low total construction costs, but these DIY builders may unwittingly inherit some serious health issues.
Further, living off-grid and under-the-radar provides no recorded means for reaching a remote property in case of an accident, fire, or other run-of-the-mill emergency. Remember, being at home in the woods may seem idyllic, but living among the trees means lots-o-limbs. Chainsaws take a big bite... and always when you least expect it. I like knowing I've got 911 on speed dial!
Tiny house companies are now popping up faster than mid-summer algae blooms. And while few of the thousands or organically growing businesses may be truly toxic, the lack of code compliance begs a parallel question: In case of accident, who's to blame for claims of liability?
The under-the-radar pro and off-grid resident may both have willingly stepped a bit outside the bounds of permissible home habitation. And, what about someone who bought one of the cute little "portable buildings" marketed along the roadside and turned it into a clever little off-grid cabin.
I mean, everyone knows that preservative treated materials are safe, and "PT" just means my cute little cabin will last longer, right...?
Well... as an advocate for tiny house design, building, and living, I want to see people realize their tiny house dreams. They should have the safety and security that they've made their lives better, not just put their family and finances at greater risk of disaster.
It seems more shed companies are touting their manufacture of "tiny homes," when in fact many are merely selling re-tasked sheds made using non-residential grade methods and materials that really should meet or exceed "code minimum."
While the "tiny village" that catches one's eye may be packed with new buildings... while each unit is attractively covered with a shiny roof and fresh coat of paint... while the shed was built using some IRC standards... and while a portable building may be easily permitted for placement on a property... these structures are likely NOT made for legal living.
I stopped into one of these places and asked about a shed's use as a "tiny house." No cue the song-n-dance, 'cause it went a lil' somethin' like this:
"For no money down, and low monthly payments, we'll deliver this baby right to your property. We take care of it all for you. And... why once it's there, you can do whatever you like with it... even turn 'em into a cute little cabin. Now, um... just... a-hem... (add a wink here) check the little box right there that says you won't use it as a dwelling... well, 'cause then we can repo it instead of going through foreclosure... if you stop making payments."
No lie. True story. The pitch was so slick it must have been given at least once a day.
Now, I don't know the code in every county, nor do I wish to suggest that every shed company has ulterior motives and won't provide full disclosure. Remember, you're the one checking the box and signing on the dotted line.
Before you buy, you should question the marketing and sale of this type of building as a "tiny house" as the implication is that its allowed for habitation.
For example: Just yesterday, a local company boldly touted one of their structures as "another tiny house delivered!" And the photos showed that it really looked like somewhere you could live. Putting quotes around the words "tiny house" and willingly selling the unit for the purpose of habitation doesn't make it legal.
With one hand, I applaud the opportunity to provide housing that is easy to ship, affordable to buy, and cost effective to maintain. With the other hand, I raise questions of legitimacy for habitation with a current lack of true tiny house standards. Buyer beware, some recognize the opportunity to quickly cash in on the blossoming tiny house trend.
In my role for the American Tiny House Association (ATHA), the head of Virginia's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has copied me on an official letter to a tiny house builder. My name was alongside all the heads of Building Inspection departments in the immediate area.
For now, the letter was just strongly worded with lots of suggestive "you should" proclamations. This official written communication suggests that the manufacture and marketing of "tiny homes" isn't actually legal in all respects. From my point of view, the writing's on the wall that a day may soon come when companies are issued certified Cease and Desist notices that preempt their being dragged into court faster than they can tow their tiny houses out of harms way.
As a "wannabe legal" tiny house builder, I remain focused on tiny house design and advocacy during what may be a relative calm that woefully woos others into an unabashed storm. I hope for a "red sky at night" while heeding to suggestions that there are hints of "red sky at morning."
Enough with all the quips and cliches, let's get down to business.
While small structures sold along the roadside seem well built, and certainly have the capacity to be constructed to IRC standards, it begs the question:
Is the manufacture of house-like structures really in compliance for permanent residence?
If not, what steps are being taken to enforce and punish blatant rule breakers. The income and respect of companies, and financial well being of individuals, -- however well meaning their intentions -- may put them at risk of financial ruin. "Going tiny" below-the-radar isn't always the easiest and most affordable route to success. If these companies are in compliance, by what standard are their tiny man caves, she sheds, and off-the-grid cabins being built? Others might want to legally jump in the game, and boosting the economy is a good thing, right?
Also, is there an increase in requests for small homes, and what are the minimum square footages allowed for in each area? And, what is the rate of "tiny home" permit acceptance, and what size, style, or building method is most likely to be approved? Small industrialized buildings on temporary foundations have quick-and-affordable appeal, though conventionally built homes on permanent foundations seem poised for success.
From a zoning perspective, which areas of each state are accepting smaller homes, and under which form of permit? Is the request of a variance worth everyone's time, trouble, and money? If not, why? And how can we achieve approval for something smaller than yesteryear's biggie-sized home?
Answers to many of the above questions are sought through ATHA state chapters, though there's a big gap between our existing knowledge, high interest in tiny houses, and increased demand being met by DIY home owner/builders and along-the-edge commercial entities.
It's obvious that hard data is needed to make substantive decisions about the permissibility of small cabins, cozy cottages, and tiny houses at all levels, including state and local government, private industry for design and manufacture, as well as the single-unit homeowner/builder. All have interests in this venture, and -- to date -- the questions outnumber the answers.
I see many "tiny house people" asking some of the same questions, and am doing my part to try to close the gap for the greater good. My hope is to present the facts and figures and pursue changes in codes many in The Tiny House Movement are demanding in increasingly large numbers.
Presenting realities of the tiny house trend upon a firm foundation of data and analytics will give regulatory officials a statistical standpoint that reveals the motivations behind the move toward small structures, and a heavy dose of reasoning for the consideration of tiny houses as legal domiciles by some tangible definition.
The challenge is approaching the right people with the right questions to secure the information necessary to accurately represent our tiny house interests in each state, our nation, and elsewhere around the world.
Tiny house data, tiny house trends, tiny house analytics, tiny house codes, and rich tiny house stories about our needs, interests, and motivations. It's time to share, and we need 'em now!
In the end, I recognize that the trick with the allowance of any form of affordable housing is providing a means to maintain property values. For this, it seems key to keep the quality of communities with small homes high, while increasing values in neighboring commercial and residential areas.
Should we ever hope to legally live alongside others in a tiny house community, or erect a small structure on our own pieces of property, we must track down the data and reveal the issues and opportunities when applied to tiny/small home construction.
While we'd love to demand our inalienable rights, we must approach decision makers with respect and position our proposals with an even-handed approach. For now, gathering data to legitimize our interests seems the best first step along our road to tiny house freedom.
As always, providing encouragement that those who want, could and should be able to...