Housing is Above the Law When Poverty is Institutionalized

Posted July 1st, 2009 by Gregory Johnson and filed in Issue 8: Bureaucracy/Regs.

housing-south-americaMost cities have ordinances that determine how small a house can be. Typically homes must be larger than 1000 square feet in size because any dwelling smaller than that is considered to be sub-standard and not suitable for habitation. Presumably these laws are established to prevent the construction of small shacks and shanty towns such as those pictured here. Such regulations may have the appearance of equity and reason, however they are neither fair nor rational.

Although housing codes suggest that small homes are not habitable, many homes built prior to such laws being established continue to be lived in and seem to be those in highest demand — despite the current national housing crisis. Although they cost less to construct, small homes aren’t necessarily of poor quality.

How is it that homes can be bought and sold on the market that are well below the legal minimum size standards, yet current laws dictate that newly constructed homes must be large? How is it that the law in most cities requires new homes be larger than 1000 square feet, yet apartments and rooming houses can be rented that are well below that limit?

The current “minimum size standards” are nothing more than institutionalized poverty and injustice. The fact is that the per-capita square footage for most people is about 300 square feet of space per person or less. Think of how common it is for several students to share a single cramped dorm room. Singles and couples on a budget often rent a room or an efficiency to save on rent.

The current minimum size laws do nothing to help ensure more square feet of living space per person in our society. What they do is ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The minimum size rules established in a municipality are not the only regulations a builder is constrained by. Most neighborhoods have covenants that include the permitted size of homes in the neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to have 2000 square feet as a minimum size for new home construction in many neighborhoods.

Those who can’t afford to build a large home (most people) must rent. Herein lies the core of this issue. Those who rent are not building equity. They are lining someone else’s pockets with profits and paying off that person’s mortgage. Meanwhile, the renter owns nothing. Those who rent are often charged exorbitant fees and are locked into restrictive contracts. Often deposits are not returned unless a tenant takes legal action.

Allowing the construction of smaller homes and perhaps condos, would ensure that those who aren’t wealthy could at least start on their way toward home ownership and building equity.

Until the laws change, what some people have done is construct homes that are above the law by being above the ground. Homes constructed on trailers are considered to be similar to a camper or motor home RV. So, in most cities, people are able to wheel them in, rather than constructing them on site, and live independent of the laws that would otherwise have them evicted and their home condemned.

Two or More People Sharing Space in a Small House

Posted June 16th, 2009 by Gregory Johnson and filed in Issue 7: Living with other people
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20080420-gregory-johnson-img_6318-photo-courtesy-makurjain-dot-com-300x2251People are usually surprised when they learn of my experience living in 140 square feet. My home, the Mobile Hermitage, is designed for primarily a single occupant, and there are no amenities such as a shower, bathroom, or fully equipped kitchen. So, a more self-sufficient space with included amenities and space for two or more people would, by necessity, require more space.

A small space shared by two platonic friends will, of course, be a different dynamic than two people who are married or otherwise sharing the same bed. An obvious first step for two or more people sharing a small space would be to agree on consuming and using the same products such as shampoo, cleaners, appliances, and other items that can be shared easily. Doing so reduces (in half) the amount of space needed for those things.

One way of dealing with limited space more effectively is to have systems — a place for everything and everything in its place. Small places and small spaces are less forgiving when it comes to clutter. The key to having a system is having everyone know and agree upon the system. Safe Socks is an entertaining short story by Stephanie Reiley about co-habitation.

More information about smaller, simpler, and sustainable living is available at SmallHouseSociety.org

It Takes a Tiny Village – Small House Community

Posted June 2nd, 2009 by Gregory Johnson and filed in Issue 6: Community

About five years ago, when I assisted Jay Shafer with the design and construction of my tiny home, the Mobile Hermitage, I intentionally designed the home with community in mind. It was because I leveraged my interdependence with the surrounding community and resources that I was able to make the house so tiny.

Community interdependence is the cornerstone and foundation of the movement toward simpler, smaller, and more sustainable living.

Sometimes referred to as New Urbanism, the principle is to have efficiency in the practical overlap and shared utilization of services and resources. An excellent example of this is The Cottage Company and their holistic approach to right sized communities.

The short-lived trend toward bloated and oversized homes was, in fact, a symptom of a pandemic societal illness of isolationsim and selfishness. This is similar to the phenomenon where illness, imbalance, and/or behavioral disorders can lead to obesity. Our homes were becoming obese because of an inability to interact interdependently and cooperatively with each other.

The Cottage Company is developing what they call smart communities. Through innovative land use codes, a higher quality of living is acheived.

Future Plans for Small Living

Posted May 18th, 2009 by Gregory Johnson and filed in Issue 5: Future Plans
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August 2009 will mark the end of six years living in my small (10′ x 7′) home, the Mobile Hermitage. It’s been a great experience, but now I’m at the point where I want to take things to the next level of small, simple, and sustainable.

In general, it’s true to say that people just don’t need the space at home they once needed for books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, photographs, and other items that have now been digitized. In the workplace, many people are working in digital information based professions that don’t require a lot of space. Software programs such as Apple iLife combine photography, video production, and music composition all inside the personal computer.

While new tiny home construction is an option for a few people with money and access to land, we still have sprawling suburbs and urban infrastructure that was all built for an age prior to the current age of technological miniaturization. Imagine a world where people no longer wear XXL and XL sizes. What would you do with all of those old clothes? The same is true for housing. Fewer people need or want XXL size homes. So, creative solutions need to be developed whereby large homes can be downsized.

Consider that an empty room in a home has value that is untapped. For example, wind and solar power generating systems need a relatively climate-controlled area for electronics and battery storage. A neighborhood home could be converted into a sustainable power station that is collectively owned.

For people who need office space, and don’t have it in their current home (house or apartment), a local home converted over to shared office space would be ideal and save people in the area from a longer commute if all they are doing is driving to a cubical or small office. Homes could also be converted into fitness centers, community centers, guest houses, and coffee shops. The general idea is to allow some, limited, commercial use of homes in larger sprawling suburban areas. Larger homes could also be converted from single family to multiple occupancy. These are just a few examples of how existing wasteful urban sprawl can be recaptured an used practically.

In my travels around the world, I’ve noticed it is common in many neighborhoods to have a home fully or partially converted (perhaps the garage) to be a small grocery store, coffee shop, or business. The mixed use of spaces is commonly referred to as New Urbansim, yet the ideas has been around for a long time.

Beginning in August 2009, I plan to start a new endeavor of researching, developing, and implementing simple, small, sustainable solutions in response to some of the above strategies. The idea is to develop and showcase technologies for retrofitting apartments, homes, and businesses for greener and smaller living.

Through my website and video production services, I hope to provide tutorials on some do-it-yourself home renovation for greening and simplifying.

So, that’s a little bit about what my future small plans are.

Building the Mobile Hermitage Small House

It was late spring of 2003 when I began assisting Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company with the construction of my tiny house, The Mobile Hermitage. It amazed me that just two people, over a few months, could build a house.

At that time, I’d not heard of such a thing being done before. I’d had no prior building or carpentry experience (other than a wood shop class in high school), but found the process quite easy and fun.

The basic stages of constructing the house were actually quite simple. The smallness the house helped to constrain us a bit with the design. Being a basic 10′ x 7′ floor plan, and wanting the home to be road ready, there wasn’t much wiggle room for bay windows, overhangs, or outcroppings.

The simplicity of the house actually made the construction process much easier, less time consuming, and less costly. By necessity, we would build a simple structure of four walls and a roof.

The construction process from start to finish involved the following stages:

  1. Foundation. We purchased a high quality strong flat-bed trailer to build the home on. The trailer needed to be rated to handle the weight of the home. On top of the metal trailer frame, we constructed the basic foundation of the home out of wood framing and insulation. A wood foundation offers many benefits. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of having a home on a slab of cement to take advantage of geothermal benefits (gaining coolness or storing heat from the sun). However, it’s also nice having a home suspended a few feet off the ground (up on jacks). One benefit is a reduction in bugs. Another benefit is a reduction in wood or structural damage from water. The foundation layers were metal (to protect from water), plywood, 2×4 framing, foam board insulation, plywood, and then very nice interlocking wood flooring strips. Everything was screwed and glued for rigidity and an airtight seal. Expanding foam insulation (from a can) was used in any gaps and cracks.
  2. Walls. The walls went up fairly quickly and easily. You can see a little of the framing in the photo above. The tricky part, which required Jay’s expertise and experience, was to make sure the walls were straight and also structurally sound enough to support the loft and roofing. Jay installed numerous reinforcing mechanisms including metal bracing. As with the floor, solid foam board insulation was cut to fit into all spaces and any gaps were sealed with expanding foam insulation from a can. The layers of the walls from outside to inside were solid Cedar wood siding, plywood, foam board insulation, and then solid pine interlocking paneling inside. Everything was screwed, glued, and sealed up with expanding foam.
  3. Loft. Building the loft on top of the basic 10×7 foot cube structure was like putting a flat roof on the house. Because the ceiling for the downstairs would also be the floor of the upstairs, the same high quality wood interlocking floor boards were used as had been used in the floor downstairs. This made for a very attractive ceiling downstairs and floor upstairs with very little expenditure on materials. Jay constructed storage area on either side of the passageway between the downstairs and the loft. Instead of having stairs, a collapsible ladder was ultimately used as the way to access the loft.
  4. Roof. Because the loft area would serve as a bedroom, the roof would not have any interior support beams. So, the roof would be supported structurally at the ends. This was more than sufficient because of the short distance (10 feet) that the roof would span. Like the walls and floor, the roof had framing and solid foam board insulation along with expanding foam to fill all cracks and gaps.
  5. Furniture and Cabinets. To minimize wasted space, all furniture (other than folding chairs) was built-in, including bookshelves, tables, and clothes storage.

In the photo to the right, the basic structure of the home is complete with a space for the door and windows. This photo was taken at the beginning of stage #3 explained above.

Initially the home seemed a bit small, before having the finishing touches put on the outside and inside.

Surprisingly, after Jay added more to the inside of the house, it seemed more spacious!

The trick to designing small livable spaces seems to be in making them feel cozy and making the inside of the home to scale so that visually it has the look and feel of a normal home. Jay seems to have mastered the complexities of this challenge.

Something I really appreciate about the house is that it has a very tight building envelope. So, any airflow through the house is completely controlled and efficient. In this way, fresh air can be efficiently brought in as needed. Because of this, the heating and cooling are very efficient.

I’ve been living in my tiny home now for over five years and have really enjoyed it. The home is currently for sale, because my Fiancée and I plan to move into a slightly larger space.

Below is a photo of the home as it is today. The angle of the home in this photo is similar to how it is shown during the construction process in the photo above.