5 ways to get around minimum size standards

Posted July 1st, 2009 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 8: Bureaucracy/Regs.
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satelliteYes, it is illegal to live in a tiny house in much of the US. Does that surprise you?

According to designer and tiny house advocate Jay Shafer, “minimum size standards have been found to be unconstitutional in several US courts.” These standards reside in model building codes, adopted and customized at the local level for the stated purpose of protecting public health, safety and general welfare.

In his Small House Book (order it here), Shafer asserts that these standards (specific to the size of houses and the rooms within) were pushed through during the 1970s and 80s by the housing and banking industries in order to produce “more profit per structure.” The result? Ugly McMansions, sprawl, construction waste, higher co2 emissions, and, now, an unaffordable housing crisis.

To make things worse, some neighborhood groups “needlessly fearful for their property values and lifestyles” also prohibit small homes in their areas, writes Shafer.

However, there are ways to get around this.

  1. Move out of the city. Many rural areas are unregulated in this way.
  2. Negotiate. Talk with your local building officials or neighborhood associations. They might be convinced that a small house is non-threatening.
  3. Accessorize. Small dwellings are sometimes allowed to be built adjacent to a house, such as a “granny flat.”
  4. Don’t hook up. If a structure is not permanently attached and not hooked up to public utilities, it may not be considered relevant to housing codes.
  5. Apply pressure. Point out the immense housing problem and give an out for your local politicians to save the day.

the smallest house in santa clara county

Of course I’m speaking in generalities here. You must check your local building codes as they vary greatly.

Alternately, you can do what was done here — turn the chicken coop into a tiny house and make it a tourist attraction. Here is a recent photo Michael took of the smallest house in Santa Clara County. It is 514 square feet on a 956-square-foot lot. The house must have been “grandfathered in” and thus, slips under the minumum size code regulations.

Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com where this article was first published.

Making a Tiny House Using a Fiberglass Trailer

Posted May 4th, 2009 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 4: Do-It-Yourself
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trailerlassenThe problem with DIY projects is that they can seemingly drag on forever. My tiny house is over a year old and only half done, but that hasn’t stopped us from taking her out on adventures!

The biggest challenge in this project is not having adequate space and tools to get the job done. We’ve been borrowing driveways, garages and backyards, and the tools that come with them. Next weekend Michael and I will be planning a work weekend at Michael’s father’s house to finish the interior walls of the trailer.

You can read here to get a glimpse of all the options we explored, and find out next week what we finally ended up deciding on. Until then, you can catch up with the top 10 the highlights of my trailer project:

  1. The Christmas present finally arrives [Jan] – I finally bought a trailer. This was written back when I thought a complete renovation would be a cinch…
  2. Gutted and primed [Feb] – I wasted no time in ripping out the guts of the camper, leaving only a shell behind.
  3. She’s got color and personality [Feb] – Fearing another rainstorm we reinstalled the windows. Michael meticulously painted the trailer in the color of my choosing and I gave her a name: Calliope.
  4. We have a floor to stand on [Mar] – We varnished and reinstalled the floor with a beautiful new piece of plywood. We’re both wanting the project to be done. We dilly-dally for the next 3 months…
  5. Indoor plumbing, yay! [Jul] – Michael, AKA my hero, re-installs the original sink and stove. Here I explain the simple plumbing system we decided on.
  6. Sizing ourselves for solar [Oct] – Summer vacations out of the way, we get down to business measuring our appliances and planning our ideal photovoltaic power setup.
  7. Maiden Voyage, continued [Oct] - We knew she was road-ready, and though we didn’t have the interior walls done, Michael and I traveled around Northern California for a month living in this unfinished trailer.
  8. Our visit with Tumbleweed Tiny House Company [Nov] – During our month-long journey, we visited our friend Jay Shafer, designer and founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, at his home in Sebastopol.
  9. How our house compares to a Tumbleweed House [Nov] - Michael gets a job offer. We move ourselves back down to San Diego. Surprisingly, the house we rent has a striking similarity to Jay Shafer’s Enesti design.
  10. Tiny house gets a new roof [Dec] - Our tiny trailer just barely fits in our new garage. Hopefully not for long, as she is itching to do some more traveling!

Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com. She is a freelance writer and consultant.

How our house compares to a Tumbleweed house (part II)

Posted April 20th, 2009 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 3: My Current Home

2 Bedrooms, 2-stories, 677 square feet

When Michael and I moved into this historic home several months ago I wrote that it is remarkably similar to a Tumbleweed Enesti design. That has been a largely unsubstantiated claim until now.

In the process of drawing up the floorplans to share with you today, I realized this is the largest place I’ve ever lived in since leaving the nest. The same is true for Michael. We’re no spring chickens either, which is why I think it’s amusing that this is where I’m living now, in the midst of writing This Tiny House blog and organizing a Tiny House Village.

Irony aside, without further ado, here are the floorplans:

Our current house

Our current house

And for comparison, here’s the Tumbleweed Enesti floorplan:

Since we’re renting, I’m allowed to complain, right? But because the home was built somewhere around 1913, I give it a lot of credit for still standing. They didn’t have power tools back then.

The Stairwell
My biggest problem with the design of this house revolves around the stairwell. I’m jealous of Jay’s super-compact stairwell in the Enesti. Ours takes up valuable space. I can’t help but think that if our steps were steeper we could’ve had room for an upstairs bathroom. (However, since our only bathroom is downstairs and the bedroom is upstairs, I’m thankful that the stairway isn’t any steeper.)

The Big Kitchen
Michael and I were surprised by how huge the remodeled kitchen is in comparison to the rest of the house. It dominates the entire first floor. We were used to having about 1/5th the amount of space! The cabinets go all the way up to the ceiling and there’s no way we could fill them with our minimal amount of kitchen accessories. So we started putting our books there in lieu of a bookshelf.

The Weird Room Under the Stairs
Not too long ago we discovered a room under the stairs. (*Cue the creepy music*) It’s basically dead space because the refrigerator completely fills up the doorway to this emptiness. I imagine back in the old days when there weren’t such things as behemoth refrigerators, the space was a cellar to keep food cool.

Tumbleweed Envy
If I could wave a magic wand and all of a sudden our house were transformed into Jay’s Enesti design, I would be one happy woman. His kitchen is much more compact, and in using compact appliances he successfully made room for a very cute dining nook. But I suppose our big kitchen is a blessing in disguise as we are buying more food, cooking more and spending less money. We even got inspired to compost our food waste and start a garden in our tiny bit of green space outside.

The Utility Bill
We replaced every light fixture with either compact flourescent or LED lightbulbs. We keep the gas furnace set at 60 at night and 65 during the day. Our California utillity bill was $20 this month, which is about $5 electric and $15 gas.

The Homey Feel

Our guests often remark on how peaceful and uncluttered the space feels. I think that’s largely due to the fact that we don’t have a lot of stuff and we don’t have a big ugly TV. We furnished the living area entirely from Craigslist finds. As it is now, it’s pretty comfortable for 4 people (and our feline neighbor) hanging out together. More than that and it’s a party!

Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com. She is a freelance writer and consultant.

Interview with Hillary “Tinyhouse”

Posted March 22nd, 2009 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 1: Introductions

My childhood playroom

What kind of house did you grow up in?

During my school-years we lived in a moderately sized one-story ranch house for a middle-class family of four. To make more room we utilized the basement and the backyard. We were close enough to walk to school. We played “house” in our tree house.

My childhood best friend lived in a huge mansion by comparison. We had to drive 30 minutes to get to her house. I will always remember the “new house” smell (which I now realize was off-gassing). During thunderstorms and tornado warnings we would get flashlights and a box of crackers and play house in one of her walk-in closets.

Do you think your upbringing had anything to do with your interest in small spaces?

My hometown, Columbus, Ohio, is a classic middle American city… so much so that it is considered the market research center of the country. Imagine growing up in the exact median of America. Naturally, I was interested counter-cultures! ( I think the small house movement is certainly a counter-cultural movement in a society where people shop for houses like they shop at Walmart.) After college I joined an intentional community (read: commune).


The communal laundry line

And what was that like?

At the community I moved my belongings into my own 10×10 room, which, at one point was an old chicken coop. The rest of the 500 acre communal land was shared space for about 90 adults. Everyone had their own room in one of about 10 different “houses” — there was no lack of kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, workspaces… plenty to choose from! I learned how to make cheese from fresh cows milk. I harvested potatoes. I helped manage a business. I discovered the concepts of peak oil, sustainability and permaculture. I sold my car and lived car-free for the first time in my adult life. I finally had a glimpse of what I wanted the future to look like.

How did you hear about the small home movement?

I learned about Tumbleweed Tiny Houses several years ago on the internet. It was just one of those random forwarded links someone sent me. I remember being really inspired for a few moments, but I didn’t think much of it. Later I got on their e-mail list and found out that they were experiencing greater success as a business and wanted to hire someone. This was maybe 3 years ago and I happened to be moving from New York to California at the time. A year later I was working for them.

What was your position at Tumbleweed?

Mostly I was answering the phone and fielding questions about the specifics of living in a tiny house. It was a frustrating job in part because I realized that I didn’t exactly have the answers. I couldn’t afford a Tumbleweed House (certainly not on the salary that I was getting!) but I really did have this intense desire to live that way.

So how did you start living smaller?

Well I say on my website that I’ve been living tiny for over 8 years. This is true when you count the commune experience and all the tiny apartments I’ve lived in. At one point I was living in my car after I had quit a job and went on a several months-long tour of the country. I visited friends along the way where I could shower and sleep comfortably.


My trailer, before and after

I loved the idea of a house on wheels but I was intimidated by the building skills needed to build one myself, nor did I have the time, space or money to do that kind of thing. So I did what I could afford to do, which was to buy a used fiberglass travel trailer and start renovating it on a shoestring budget. My significant other has been a huge help in this process. My ThisTinyHouse blog was created primarily to show my friends and family back east what we were working on.

What’s next for you?

I have a great amount of admiration and respect for Jay Shafer and others who are able to follow their dream and manifest it. My vision is a network of tiny house villages throughout the country. I’ve started the Tiny House Village Network as a beginning effort to connect people and really start discussing the details. If you’re interested, please join us. You can also cyberstalk me on Facebook and Twitter to find out what’s next.

Hillary’s blog is located at http://thistinyhouse.com.