Supporting Tiny Houses Interests During Virginia's Code Change Process

VBCOA Committee Chairs:

Thank you in advance for your review, replies, and assistance in guiding us through the process of consideration of tiny houses in Virginia.

I have summarized my message below into four areas to outline our existing efforts, challenges we collectively face, to request guidance, and offer a connecting with knowledge leaders and subject matter experts who can aid in the process of evaluation of tiny houses in Virginia. Your help navigating the process is greatly appreciated.

Two-Step Approach

For the purposes of developing understanding and building synergy for the advocacy of tiny houses, I typically summarize our need for above-board inclusion as a two fold approach:

  1. Legitimization - A definition accepted by the burgeoning tiny house industry and Authorities Having Jurisdiction (e.g. DHCD and local code enforcement officials)
  2. Legalization - Allowance of "tiny houses" through adherence to applicable codes, and their inspection and approval by recognized certification bodies and/or local municipal enforcement officials for legal use as domicile within zones approved for habitation (i.e. prescriptive building codes and zoning ordinances).

Tiny House Conundrum

Here's a quick series of thoughts surrounding the challenge for all involved in defining, regulating, constructing, and living in approved "tiny houses."

Applying IRC/IBC/VCC codes to tiny houses (tiny homes, micro-houses, mini-homes, etc.) built on conventional foundations may be a straightforward matter of defining tiny houses and defining their construction within guidelines held within the Virginia Uniform Building Code. As such, requirements for tiny houses on foundations (THOF) may simply be a matter of their recognition for construction within state defined building codes and any modified minimum square footage definitions (which it seems local municipalities may supersede by county, subdivision, or private community C&Rs). 

As I am certain you understand, tiny houses on wheels (THOW) pose a different challenge as their "on wheels" attribute typically categorizes such structures as Industrialized Buildings, with approved dwellings meeting requirements of the IBSR. To date, most tiny houses are built by tiny houses manufacturers (some recognized as certified RV manufacturing facilities), tiny house builders (many licensed contractors), and "DIY" homeowner/builders (some working in part with licensed trade professionals). 

As the Tiny House Movement has shown, when compared to manufactured homes, most tiny houses are built below the average dimensions (8' wide by 18' to 24' is typical), minimum size requirements (avg. 200-250 sqft compared to 400 sqft HUD minimum), less GVWR (avg. 10,000-12,000 lbs), and greater long-term towing capacity than manufactured homes (custom utility trailers with multiple axles compared to one-time use axles). Due to interests in convenience, builder specialty, and increased quality for cost, tiny houses are often built in different states than the homeowners intended destination; further, tiny house owners are apt to consider the mobile aspect of their tiny houses (which usually do not require special permits for towing) to be a greater advantage than the typical scenario for use of a manufactured home at a single site.

Where it seems the "on foundation" type of tiny house is much more easily solved than their "on wheels" counterparts. This unique form of alternative housing puts it between state accredited manufactured housing, industry certified recreational vehicles, and conventional home construction on approved foundations. As with anything new that doesn't neatly fit into any one category, definitions, rules, and regulations are needed to keep pace with product development, market demand, and constituent support. 

Questions about Process

Here are my questions related to the Pending Issue for VCC: Tiny Houses:

? - Since codes do not yet exist that define the typical "tiny house on wheels," nor do we wish to attempt to modify the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code, how can we best legitimize (define) and legalize (regulation) tiny houses?

? - Do you believe a single-issue committee will be formed for tiny houses, and if one is established would we be allowed to attend their meetings?

? - If code changes are requested, is the new online system available and accessible to the public? Is there a template for change requests? Is submission (whether paper or electronic) required in advance of the March 23rd meeting?

Legal Interests and Efforts

In terms of our interests and connections, we are helping shoot the Living Tiny Legally documentary, which will be a freely available educational aid for tiny house advocates and officials across the country. We took a trip last weekend to the Georgia Tiny House Festival, during which we met with and interviewed several local, state, and national industry leaders including:

  • Atlanta Councilpersons Carla Smith (District 1) and Kwanza Hall (District 2) and who sponsored an RFP for a feasibility study on using tiny houses within the city limits. 
  • Will Johnson and John Kernohan, respectively from the Atlanta Tiny House and Georgia Tiny House Association about their local and state-wide efforts in the allowance of tiny houses as residential homes. Will is my counterpart with a local meetup group in their state's capital, and John as my peer as state chapter representative for the American Tiny House Association. 
  • Robert Reed, President of the American Tiny House Association, and Director of Southface. Southface developed the EarthCraft green building certification program, and may be instrumental in outlining ways for tiny houses to reside in harmony with the more common forms of communities and housing developments. Southface plans to respond to the RFP, and hopes to be granted the opportunity to perform the feasibility study for tiny houses in Atlanta. 
  • Founding members of the National Organization of Alternative Housing, who plan to set the standard for safety and quality for the tiny house on wheels industry. A newly organized non-profit organization, NOAH is considering review and approval through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for guidelines that -- like the ANSI 119.2 and ANSI 119.5 -- may become a multi-state code base of construction and safety standards. It is proposed that these standards would "meet or exceed" those of the RV standards (and code minimum MHs) for overall safety and efficiency, thus aiding in the utilization of tiny houses as certified full-time domiciles instead of structures for part-time habitation during recreational use, unregistered industrialized buildings, or other forms of unapproved construction. 

The purpose of my sharing the above is to illustrate the depth of interest, and level of support tiny houses are receiving across the country. We are seeing an unprecedented interest from a wide ranging demography in the more diminutive dwellings referred to as "tiny houses." 

In Closing...

As a tiny house advocate and resident of the Commonwealth, it is my hope that Virginia representatives are receptive to the great economic opportunities and housing alternatives offered through tiny houses. I can quickly tap into a variety of resources who are familiar with building codes, and have existing efforts in the feasibility of tiny houses, development of codes, and construction using prescriptive methods for conventional and alternative dwellings. 

For my part, I appreciate your inclusion in this process, and look forward to bringing the information and resources needed for appropriate consideration of tiny houses as permissible domiciles in Virginia.

Thank you in advance for your response to the above questions so I know what I can do to aid your teams in this effort. 

Looking forward to the meeting mid-month.

Thom Stanton
Founder/CEO, Timber Trails LLC
Lead Organizer, RVA Tiny House Team (Meetup Group)
State Chapter Leader, American Tiny House Association
Twitter:  @TimberTrailsTV
Web:  TimberTrails.TV
Tel:  804.714.6247