Tiny house barely escapes strangulation by codes
October 3, 2006, 1:04 am by bottleman. Filed under: my tiny house project, simple living, tiny houses.

[note May 2007: people keep linking to this very old post.. if you want to see the finished house, follow this link. For the bureaucratic struggle, read on…]

Though I’ve ranted in this space about McMansions and monster houses, I haven’t spoken about my own little venture into the obvious alternative: tiny homes. Now I’m going to, with drawings and dollar numbers, and man it ain’t a pretty story.

photo by flickr user Lance McCord, thanks! see http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccord/23365446/

Tiny houses are just the rage among a certain set. The dream begins with artisans who give the structures a tremendous romance, where “small” doesn’t mean “poor,” it means “beautifully simple.” The dollish scale brings natural economy with energy and materials — saving cash and nature. Lots of greens with back-to-the-land dreams (like Sandra the Serene) are thinking about building them.

However, these buildings are usually pictured in a rural setting, where building codes and zoning regulations are lax or nonexistent. I wanted to do mine in the city, where money is big and bureaucrats rule.

Here’s what happened to me. There’s a lot of detail here, but if you are getting into this kind of thing, detail may be just what you need…

November 2005:

I pencil out the finances for a scheme I’ve had in mind a long time: to convert my detached 280-square foot garage to a cute little “granny house.” The plan is to rent the place out to a single person while my family stays nearby in the “main house” (only 800 square feet fyi).

The project starts looking great on paper. It is a way to invest in rental real estate without paying inflated prices for land. It is the kind of thing my progressive city government, one widely lauded for its environmental policies, is promoting — infill housing that increases density without changing neighborhood character. And doing a good job could make it a living example of nice housing at an appropriate environmental scale.

I make a fateful decision: to do the project completely legit, with an architect and permits and proper zoning. If it was just for me it’d be different. But if it’s for someone else I want legitimacy.

I make a project budget: $50,000. It’s not like I have this kind of money lying around, but I can borrow that much. It’s not a ton of money, no, but it’s not a cheapskate’s budget either. We can try to give this small place some full-sized quality.

December 2005-February 2006:

These are the sweet romantic days of the project. I flit through the fields of ideas like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I obsessively study books about tiny dwellings (my fave is by Lester Walker). I interview architects. (They all assure me that my budget, though not high, is realistic.) I hire the one I like most. His fee (not included in construction numbers) is about $4000. It’s too little, I know, but he thinks the project is cool and wants to do it.

He comes up with a lot of super ideas — from a gadgety playhouse with moving beds and tables to a highly conventional french-door cabin. We go with something in between. It follows a long tradition (for tiny houses) of raising the ceiling to the rafters, which allows a loft to be built — but it’s in a kind of geometric modernistic mode.

Here’s what you see from the street. It looks pretty traditional, just like my neighborhood. Note the large expanse of glass in the door/window layout and the cute circular detail window above.

Here’s a section through the place sideways. Note the stairway to the loft, and — my favorite feature — a turret topped by a skylight above the loft, making a nice little place to read.

Here’s a plan view showing the basic layout: a patio leads through french doors to a living area, then a semicircular kitchen counter (with enough room for a sink and a 2-burner cooktop) A narrow bathroom (with shower) and a space for a small fridge are crammed against the back wall. The place is heated by a high-efficiency gas stove in the corner, controlled by a thermostat.

Here’s the loft — above the kitchen and bathroom. Not a lot of headroom, but still good for something. The loft is accessed by a cool set of alternating tread stairs, much like these — which allow greater comfort and (hopefully) safety in a steep pitch, compared to standard ladders or supersteep stairs.

Esthetically, the plan is to mollify all the hard geometric lines with lots of orgrnic finishes and materials… wood, concrete, cork, natural light.

Functionally, with the loft the dwelling will be about 400 square feet. That sounds about right to me. Sure, people live in tinier places, but 100-200 square foot places rarely have standard appliances or showers, and I get the impression most aren’t really used day in day out for years — they’re more retreats or vacation spots. 400 square feet of floor is something you could live in for years.

March-April-May 2006

The architect has a reasonable suggestion: to show these basic plans to our favorite contractor and get a rough quote before going on and making the true construction drawings. That way if our budget is way off we’ll know.

The contractor says: considering the engineering you’ll need to meet codes, a minimum of $80,000.

This sounds a little crazy. It is after all, a 280-square foot building. We get the feeling that the contractor is a little freaked out by the rounded details of the counter, turret, and loft and raised his price defensively. We decide to finish our engineering details while we get rough quotes from other, more creative, contractors.

The engineering is quickly and professionally sketched out. I am shocked at the level of reinforcement, anchoring, and firewalling. They are basically taking off the entire outside and inside of the building, putting an extra layer on each side, and putting it back together again.

It looks like overkill, but codes are codes. In an earthquake, this place will be as unshakeable as a sumo wrestler… a sumo wrestler made out of concrete.

Now we run into an unexpected problem. My town is undergoing a construction boom, and the summer work is starting. It is hard to get qualified contractors to even come out and LOOK at the job. It takes 2 months and dozens of calls to finally find a contractor who seems “artistic” enough to do the roundy stuff and responsible enough to trust. He’s worked on my architect’s buildings before. He comes in with a quote for $50,000. His references say is is very accurate with his prices. I hire him on a handshake.

Great! I think. We’re on track. Maybe we can finish by fall!

June-July-August 2006

All the architect needs to do is get the building permit now. He’s got decades of experience in the business and in the city. He expects it’s such a small project, he’ll just be able to “walk it through” the city building department in one day.

Wrong. At this point the city unleashed a positive medusa of incompetence and arbitrariness that boggles the mind and threatens to make me a Republican. Nay, a Liberatarian. Nay, a Natural Law candidate. Nay, a freakish hermit waving a shotgun and ranting to the moon about oatmeal.

The plans inspectors cut the turret off (calling it an illegal dormer, because they have no codes for turrets and something they have no codes for does not exist), deny the alternating tread device, deny the lovely circular detail window in the front facade, and tell us to cut the eaves off the building.

To get the pure horror of it you really have to read all the details. They’re mostly contained in this long letter I wrote my city councilor, after the final insult of being directed to cut the eaves off.

The thing that is so patently offensive is that almost none of these bureaucratic interventions have any relation to real safety or design issues. For example, the denial of the alternating tread stairway is accompanied by the suggestion that access could be provided by a portable ladder … since those are not regulated by codes. Obviously, a portable ladder is no winner when it comes to safety. Our alternating tread device is much better. But the bureaucrat doesn’t have a line in his book for that.

It is clear the system just isn’t set up to accept the creative solutions that small, environmentally sensitive houses will inevitably need to incorporate. The beautiful design is ruined. I am in despair. I can’t build this abortion.

September 2006

Oddly, the letter I wrote to my councilor starts having an effect. PR people from the city start calling me trying to do damage control. The architect and I are encouraged to submit another set of appeals, and the decisions come our way. We get the alternating tread stairway and we save the eaves. Almost the entire design is back in place, except for the turret, which is lost forever and replaced by a standard skylight. (We have to pick our battles.)

However, some extra engineering has been added by the plans inspectors along the way. The price goes up to $60,000. I grimace but am ready to go ahead.

Then comes the Hammer: getting our building permit will cost $7000. That’s $2000 for the permit and $5000 for “systems development charges” — the theoretical additions to sewer, parks, etc. that our new residence will create. For our tiny little house we are charged about 60% of the rate charged to 2000+ square foot residences.

The system clearly isn’t set up to help tiny houses. Even in my “progressive” city, the permit for a McMansion wouldn’t be that much more.

Now the cost is $67,000. Though our contractor has a great rep for sticking to his price, we still have to leave some room for contingencies, so let’s say $75,000. Plus I have already paid the architect $4000. By the time this is all over it’ll be $80,000 more or less.

.. which is just what that first contractor said. (cue ironic music)

October 2006.

I am crunching the numbers again, trying to figure out if it’s all worthwhile still. Like bottleworld reader Nick suggested, trying to create your eco-house in the city can be damningly expensive. This little granny house isn’t a path to freedom so much as another mortgage.

Now I think I’d much rather be out in country building the place myself. In the city codes and bureaucracy are eating my ecological goals alive. I want standards for engineering, aesthetics, city review, safety that make sense for a 400 square foot house — not just a 3000 square foot one.

Next time you’re out in the sticks, just listen for me. Maybe I’ll be howling at the moon with those other Greens cum Democrats cum Republicans cum Libertarians cum Natural Law-ites cum hermits waving shotguns. Stop by the firepit. The beer will be plentiful, but warm and (gasp) in cans. I guess you have to give up the pleasures of the city along with its pains. :)

# # #

Update .. October 18, 2006

There is a whole chapter about small houses and codes in Shay Salomon’s book, Little House on a Small Planet, reviewed here.

Update .. November 15, 2006

Construction began today.

Update .. March 15, 2007

The interior is completely finished and I am shutting off comments on this post. Look on the blog’s main page for links to updates.

Thank you for this fabulous story. You have convinced me NOT to trust my town’s building rules bologna and to just build my little dream home in the backyard and pray the neighbors don’t pick up the phone. I’ve even considered building the little home off site and having it majically appear over a Holiday weekend. Then, when it is safe, quickly tear down my dalapidated 1940’s craftsman and see what happens.

Life is a gamble,

Comment by Airwick on 03.10.2006 um 9:57 am

Fabulously written story!
Not too different from tiny towns here.
One might think tiny towns had looser rules, but nope–still confused ignorant bureaucrats.
County not much better.
Their comments run to things like: “If an owner fails to pay taxes, we need to be able to easily unload the place”, or, “If a new owner does not understand the weird systems you build, there could be a failure and we do not want to be liable for allowing those off-the-wall things making environmental clean-up necessary”….

Country easier to build those things?
Only if ya don’t get caught!

Comment by Chimimahnah on 04.10.2006 um 2:45 pm

oh chimimahnah, please don’t destroy my bucolic fantasies! where will i find refuge, if not in them? i’ll have to turn to porn. oh wait, i already have. (sigh.)

Comment by bottleman on 04.10.2006 um 3:07 pm

wow, i’ve been hearing little details here and there over the months, but to see it all laid out like that… quite an ordeal!

i’m afraid i’ve got to echo Chimimahnah’s experience, i grew up in a small very conservative republican town, and it was not so different. now my aunt lives in a remote corner of montanta in a log cabin that i’m pretty sure is not up to code…

anyway, if porn is not enough, since you’re going republican, it is now ok have a harem of underage boys at your disposal… it’s only ok if you’re a republican, (IOKIYAR) though

Comment by peter on 04.10.2006 um 7:39 pm

Your plans are great, but you could do it for far less by changing a few details. Do a little research on the net. Start with strawbale buildings. I was under the impression that anything under 200 and something sq. ft. did not require a permit or permission to build. Google 50 strawbale house plans and look at the one labeled compound. This series of building should be able to be built with no permits what so ever using whatever medium you prefer to build in. Then 2 of them could be linked by a breezeway presto new domicile.

Comment by Teresa on 05.10.2006 um 9:24 pm

Hi Teresa, thanks so much for the suggestion. I found the site you were suggesting and it was quite intriguing. I recommend it to others.

I think you might have missed something about my goals. Yes, I love alternative construction techniques (straw bale, etc) and tiny tiny houses (less than 200 square feet) but my goal was to make a rental ADU in the city, by converting an existing garage. This necessitated a certain amount of conventionality in the design.

Even if conventionality was not so necessary: The compound design you suggest is clever, but actually takes up quite a bit of ground space. I don’t have room for it on my city lot!

Even if there was room: a compound of small 100 square foot buildings is NOT the same as a single 400 square foot building — not in my climate anyway. In my climate a single building would be much preferrable.

The difference between the two projects is vast, so comparing costs is a kind of theoretical exercise. The projects do not have the same function or nature.

Finally, what you suggest is to bet my entire project on a legal loophole. Even if I win, I don’t want to spend years fighting the city over that loophole. I’d rather build the safe, aesthetically proper thing I designed in the first place.

So, sorry to sound like I’m dismissing your suggestion, but I listed out all the reasons to make a point: no single prefab solution, whether technical (straw bale) or legal (building things of less than 200 sf) is going to solve the general problem here… which is that governments and planners might give lip service to environmentally sensitve building, but when it comes to small houses are as hidebound as Gulliver.


Comment by bottleman on 06.10.2006 um 12:04 am

What would happen if you extended one side to attach it to the main house. This area could be just a hallway, would that not make it an addition? I know that ruins your design, but for livability it would serve the same purpose. And in about a year that area could “fall off”. The loft could be a “storage” area. Yah that’s the ticket. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by A Palomares on 15.11.2006 um 9:51 am

Hmm, interesting idea Palomares. I guess it still falls into the category of “achieving tiny-houseness by bureaucratic trick” but as far as such tricks go, it’s a pretty simple one. If there was ever any issue about compliance, the “missing” hallway could be restored at a reasonable cost. But I think the main thrust of my story is just frustration that people have to resort to extraordinary measures (in my case, political intervention) to get these things built, even in a city which supposedly advocates progressive, environmentally sensitive housing.

Comment by bottleman on 15.11.2006 um 12:14 pm

I must admit I live in one of those little Republican towns and what makes it so pleasant are the building codes, that is until you’re building! But, whatever. I recently purchased a POS house on a small lake. It happens to come with a boat house that is in worse shape than the main house. I would love to tear it down and rebuild something tiny. If you have any ideas, let me know (the boat we don’t have won’t fit in it anyway- it’s very old and small.

Comment by Gretchen on 17.01.2007 um 10:45 am

Hi Gretchen— a boathouse? that sounds fantastic. Obviously the big opportunity here is you can use the lake as a very large vista for your very small house. Everything else depends on your needs and scenario… part time/full time/climate/etc. Systems (especially plumbing?) might be more complex here. But the challenges are the fun of it, right? What about a very small house on pontoons? Just thinking out loud. Good luck.

Comment by bottleman on 17.01.2007 um 4:14 pm

Hello Bottleman,
Nice design. Good idea. Typical story as to building codes designed and implemented by arogant, small-minded, bureaucrats. Too bad, but ¨BIG BROTHER¨is getting stronger every year.
Trying to go to the country won’t work. There isn’t any free of headache, relaxed areas left.
There is a need for codes for safety and longivity of a home, but not the continuing implementation of idiotic rules anf shortsightness given us by fools running the U.S. government.
I’m a long time,(36 years)stick home builder, but haven’t been building in the states for a number of years,except for the below mentioned home for my son.
Last year I built a home in Salmon,Idaho for my son. This is a very small town,(maybe 3,000 people) and a 3 hour drive from Missoula, Mt.. Way out there! Same stupidy and mentality there as you experienced. There was a new code regulation the year before, stating that the anchor bolt for the foundation plates had to be 5/8¨inch dia, with a 1/4¨inch 4¨x4¨ washer plate below the nut. This is to hold down a 2¨x6¨ wallplate where the studs are held in place with two 16 penny nails ! Very brillant thinking for the code people.
Also a contractor friend in Washington state, tells me that (as in some other states) one is required to install a ¨heated air exchange system¨ in each new house ! Can’t just open a window for fresh air! Next there will be a law against opening the window ! These and many other ¨CODES¨ and regulations are making the cost of building prohibitive for the average homeowner.
However,one can avoid these problems,plus countless more imposed by the U.S. government in every phase of your life. I live a 3 hour flight south of Houston,TX, where you may build as you like. — There are building permits to get and codes for building,but there aren’t any inspections of any kind. You want to build a tree house, or whatever,just do it. No one bothers you as you put your house as you please. If you want a bamboo palapa (bamboo or wood and thatch roof) for a home, just do it. (year-round great weather here) No problems. This is in Nicaragua (cited by Interpol as 2nd country behind Canada for worlds lowest crime rate) — Good place to live.
Property taxes for a 1,500-2,000 sq. ft home might approach $100 per year,– yes per year. If you don’t want to buld it yourself, a contractor will build in concrete block, stucco walls, tile roof, etc. for as low as $32 per sq.ft. This is turn-key! Living is very cheap, and depending on your ambitions,level of skill, or business accumen, you can live here as well or better than in the U.S. Why put up with all the B.S.? Contrary to poular thinking, the U. S. is not the best place in the world to live.
Check out my website at http://www.casasbambu.com Beach front is going up !
Good luck with your bulding.
Best regards,

Comment by Rudy Mallonee on 26.02.2007 um 1:12 pm

A P.S. from Rudy,
As to conservation. Wood is fast disappearing worldwide as you all know. Here in Latin America grows the best alternative for sustainable building material available, and the price is competitive and depending where you buy, cheaper than wood. Bamboo. The species Guadua Angostifolia grows up to 6 inches in diameter, 80-90 feet tall. Stronger than wood, and preserved, will last just as long. Can be havested at it’s best strength at every 4 years. There are a number of websites on building with bamboo. You’re probably familar with the bamboo flooring products now available. There is also great plywood (plybamboo) of varios sizes (again codes don’t allow it’s use in structural application in the states, even though it being stronger and better than wood plywood), and varios type of paneling. Even glu-lam beams of bamboo are now being produced. Unfortunately, the shortsightness of the above mentioned bureaucrats, won’t allow the use of it in the states as a structural material.
There is one exception for homes built of bamboo now in progress in Hawaii, which can be seen at – Bamboo Technologies – on the net. Also
will give you a lot of very interesting info and photos on building with bamboo.
My condos that I’m starting here in Nicaragua will have a TimberFrame style structure of this bambo exposed on the interior of the condo, looking much the same as the photos shown at CONBAM. Nice tropical look.
Adios, Rudy

Comment by Rudy Mallonee on 26.02.2007 um 1:51 pm

Hi Rudy, thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear that you found relief from the absurdities of big brother. Now, let me play devil’s advocate with what you have suggested. Frankly, I am not sure what you are suggesting is a general solution to either societal or environmental problems.

1) On your first comment, I have no doubt that someone from the States can live very well in a Central American country. The income disparities are large.. a modest income is quite large by Central American standards. By that same token, what you are talking about is a kind of economic fiction… it requires an inflow of money from a wealthy country, and a continuous disparity between the ‘emigres’ and the citizens. I note that your condo projects are clearly aimed at an American vacationer or retiree population, what with title insurance from a florida company, prices of $189,000 to $250,000 and gated security. How many Nicaraguans will be buying these?

Perhaps this critique seems unfair.. I know that’s not strictly what my post is about — it’s about building codes and small dwellings — but my sense is that most of the people interested in living small are also interested in what might be termed social justice. They don’t see living simply as something they do ABOVE others, they see it as something they do to contribute to the community. I am not sure your gated development fits into that vision.

2) On the environmental front, sure, bamboo is a fine building material. Nothing against it. But if you’ve read this blog, especially entries like this one, you’ll know that using green materials can delude people into thinking they’re being efficient, when the real issue is scale. First of all, if this is somebody’s second or third house, it’s a nearly 100% waste of materials. Second, size matters a lot. I can save an amazing 75% of wood merely by cutting my house size by 75% … say, from 2000 to 500 square feet. At 2300 square feet, your condos are nearly average for new American dwellings, and far larger than is necessary for a high quality of life, unless you’ve got a big family, which few retirees have. That size will translate into a continued consumption of energy throughout the building’s lifetime.

I don’t mean to dump on you; perhaps there is some aspect to this that I don’t understand. But this is a site about the environment and the way people perceive and use it.  From an environmental or social perspective I can’t see that what you are building and selling differs much from what’s available in the States. It’s just cheaper, which isn’t enough.
Deepest regards, bottleman

Comment by bottleman on 27.02.2007 um 12:14 am

Man i totally empathise. I am an architect and carpenter. Now, I undertook a small project in my back yard, however my project is slated as a storage shed. I opted for the no permit way, and my neighbor reported me, so now i had to go get a permit. My 12×16 shed then had to be moved 2 additional feet away from the property line. Not hard, since it is on blocks with a wood framed floor, but it just pissed me off. Yea i felt like a victim too, but then i realized its my fault, not theirs. I am the one who wanted to do this. So now i have to follow their rules. I may convert the shed after i close out the permit. We will have to see how much energy and patience i have left. My total construction cost at this point is about $600 in new and used materials. I did all the design, drafting, permitting (and lack of), and labor myself. Oh yea, they doubled the permit fees for a bootleg, that was about $250. (I still dont know what all those ridiculous fees your quoting are for. Maybe its just where you live. Here in Texas there is plenty of land, and cheap, but hard to deal with, labor.) I am taking my time with completion, maybe they will forget what they put down on the last red tag six months ago. Hahaha. Mostly the guys here are helpful, they just dont want to get in trouble for not doing their job, and they want respect, but who doesnt. Maybe they need to feel important, i dont know. I do know this: after all the design and construction experience i have, i have discovered that design and construction is easy, and fun and you CAN reslolve your problems to your satisfaction, however PEOPLE are selfish and difficult, but you can manipulate them into doing things their way (read: your way). This however is an art and great skill.

I have some input that will not solve your problem, but may explain some of the trouble your having. It may be a little direct and opinionated, but i think it is realistic: First off, the Architect should be to blame for much of your trouble. He should have taken it upon himself to work out the permiting issues. That is afterall what you hired him for, right? Make him fix it. Unless the permiting service was not part of your contract. Regardless, I have never seen more problems arise than out of contracting a project before it has been permited. Your design professional should follow this process: SD, DD, CD, PERMITTING, Bidding, CA. It is in that order for a reason. If he would have advised you to wait until permiting to contract, then you would have an out. Just because you design something doesnt mean you have to build it. Its like business planning, sometimes the plan doesnt pan out. Now youre committed and stuck with a large bill. Plus you sound passionate about this. Emotional decsions are not adviseable with large budget items (ask your financial planner. I wont go into cash flow or Return On Investment) Second, you sound like your taking a victim point of view, which is great for the letter to the councilman, but you are grown and sound relatively intelligent. There is no reason for me to expect that you are not fully aware of bureaucratic inefficiency. [def. bu·reau·crat - an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment.] Besides, the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing, not to mention the mindset and personality of the people who work for the city. You have to steal something to get fired, but then you can run for mayor. We all know. So why are you suprized that this happened? You could have outsmarted them, i think. So now youre upset that we dont live in the ideal world you’d like to have? Sorry dude, get used to it. Look at all the energy your wasting on your anger. That needs to be channeled into your project. Third, why your construction cost has escalated? I would take a step back and ask some questions. Why do you need all this engineering anyway? The only re-engineering you need is Value Engineering. Wood frame construction is regulated by the IBC, it has standardized construction techniques, why cant you just follow follow convention and save like $25,000. It can still be just as cool. What is with that expensive looking kicked out wall that adds like 8 square feet to the foot print? cant you get rid of that and keep the wall that is there now? And who cares if its a turret or a sky light? you cant improve on light, just let it in. I still think you should make the connection to the house and call it an additon, and forget about it. Fourth, have you considered sweat equity? Get a discount from the contractor for work you can do yourself, demo, framing, etc., but negotiate the price and get it in writing first. There is no reason you should pay that much for that little house, its ridiculous. And stop paying those professionals that are driving up the cost and schedule. If you must pay someone, find a code consultant and a permit runner, or someone who can get the job done. What a mess.

I have said all of that to say, I think you have a people problem, and i have no idea how to fix that, cause we are all broken (insert gospel here). Best of luck.
Feeling your pain,

Comment by robert on 14.03.2007 um 2:46 pm

Hi Robert, thanks so much for you lengthy analysis. I am glad to hear that I am “relatively intelligent.” I guess we all are, relative to something.

I am flattered to know that someone cares enough to spend that much time writing to me. I also feel YOUR pain, with your frustration with your local government.

I also certainly don’t mind you being a little direct and opinionated. More power to you! On the other hand, I think that some of your direct, opinionated comments were based on, um, a less than careful reading.

You made a few assumptions about me, then critiqued me on the basis of those assumptions. (Hey, it’s just like we’re married!)

For example, you addressed your comments to Rudy, but were clearly referring to me, the author of this post, and I’m not Rudy!

Maybe more substantially, you worried about things like this..

I have never seen more problems arise than out of contracting a project before it has been permited. Your design professional should follow this process…

The construction job WASN’T contracted before it was permitted. Why do you assume it was? I never said it was. As you suggest, I had just paid for design and some permitting work. At the end of the post I wasn’t “committed and stuck with a large bill,” as you describe. Rather, I had construction estimates and was trying to decide whether I should go ahead with it. This was clearly suggested from my statement..

I am crunching the numbers again, trying to figure out if it’s all worthwhile still.

You also assume a bunch of stuff about my design preferences, for example that I should connect the place to the house and call it an addition, or that there’s no difference between a turret and a skylight, or that I don’t understand the consequences of a small kickout.

I interviewed a number of contractors and architects for this job, and I said no to every one who did what you’re doing: assuming you know my needs before you’ve even talked 5 or 10 minutes with me. What if I don’t want it to be connected to the main house for my own reasons? What if I completely understand that in my situation there IS a difference between a turret and a skylight? I’ve lived in a number of very small dwellings and I’ve discovered that these details DO make a difference to quality of life. Fortunately my architect wasn’t like that..

Ultimately you suggest I have a “people problem.” Meanwhile (if you’ve read the rest of this series, something you also apparently neglected to do) my project is going on in a most satisfying way, and you have been tattled on by neighbors. For the record, I visited all my neighbors with schematic drawings long before we went into permitting. I got them excited about what I wanted to do and there haven’t been any problems at all with the neighbors. Perhaps that’s an approach you should have taken? But don’t talk to me, I have a people problem.

Just givin’ it to you straight and opinionated, like you like it!

Your sidekick in “relative intelligence,”


Comment by bottleman on 14.03.2007 um 4:20 pm

Bottleman (excuse me),

First off, the relative intelligence comment was not a backhanded comment, but may be you took it that way. Sorry. I just don’t know you. Maybe you are Superintelligent. And no I haven’t spent any time talking to you about your needs. Needs are obvious, we are discussing wants. There is a reason most people are telling you the same thing and why you had to shop around for an architect and a contractor to give you wants. Most people are out here to make a living not a headache of a project, but that is only because of the budget. If you had said money was not object then none of what I have said would apply.

I read the whole string above. I didn’t read the rest of the series because I only wanted to comment on the above string. Sure I made some assumptions based on your writing above, where your wrote

“March-April-May 2006…I hire him on a handshake.

Great! I think. We’re on track. Maybe we can finish by fall!

June-July-August 2006

All the architect needs to do is get the building permit now.”

This is why I ASSUMED you hired your contractor before permitting. You have it chronologically outlined. If you didn’t actually contract, at the very least you committed your heart before you knew it was a bunch of trouble, so now instead of making a level headed decision you are all worked up about it and started your rant on this web page.

I guess I see a disconnect here with what your trying to do. You are trying to do a project which has encountered some problems with some acceptable solutions to budget, schedule, and permitting problems. Some of which have been suggested by others as well. But instead of taking clues from the environment as you have reported here, you are stubbornly try to “crunching the numbers again, trying to figure out if it’s all worthwhile still” and shoe horn this thing in at 150% your original budget. Why? I guess it’s worth it to you right?

Granted a turret and a skylight are not the same, but their net effect should not be that different (flooding the space with light). As for connection it could just be a walk way roof that was connecting the two together. And, the kick out is not doing anything for your design, that I can see, but raising the cost. After I figured out what that was I just want to know why its there? It seems like for the cost you could just expand the whole side another five feet and get your money’s worth.

I never claimed to not have a problem with people. But I didn’t air my problems to the world for critique and you did. Besides, you don’t know Peter, my neighbor. But that is not the point, so don’t change the subject. The point of this discussion is your project, not mine.

Making a tiny house doesn’t mean you have to have crazy architectural details incorporated structurally. Trim and finishes should be enough to ‘pimp your ride’. I love the stair you selected. You could have just gone with the ladder trick and then put that ladder in.

I do however want to applaud your drive and the courage it took to go legit! I am sorry you are so upset by the bureaucrat and not getting exactly what you want. I hope it all works out the way you want it. Maybe you can just finish the project before it escalates to $100k (that would be $357/sf!!!!) Personally I would be cutting costs to the bare bone. At the very least I would try to make it cash flow as a rental unit for the sake

Finally, saying you have a people problem is not to say you don’t know how to deal with them. It just seems you are taking this all way too personally. It is just a remodeling project, it is not YOU. Imagine how you’d feel if you’d done twenty or thirty of them so far. Besides this is supposed to be fun right?


Comment by robert on 19.03.2007 um 7:51 am

Robert, thank you for coming back. Let’s get the snarly details out of the way first so we can return to substantive discussion.

The reason I took it personally should be fairly obvious — you MADE it that way! For example, by calling me someone with a “victim” mentality and a “people problem.” So don’t back out and try to say that you didn’t start it — you did. It’s all there in the record.

Nonetheless, I will own up you are right about my chronology. It wasn’t precise in terms of when I actually committed money; it makes sense that someone could have read it that I was in all the way. Fortunately, I wasn’t.

I’ll still dispute you on one front — and this is the problem I have with a lot of discussion about “design” in general. I don’t understand how anyone can judge the quality of an architectural design without knowing the context of it — the kind of people who are going to live in it, the time and place that the building will occupy.

The needless bump-out you speak of, for example, has a definite purpose that is immediately obvious when you are in the space — it provides a natural visual siteline to a local park which without the small change in angle would be hard to see. Such sitelines and vistas are useful in making small spaces (recall the ground floor is only like 280 sf) feel bigger. Though our change in angle might seem like architectural fancy, in a small space this kind of vista is nearly a requirement. Otherwise it will feel like you are, well, living in a converted garage.

Note that this small change in angle would not occur if the whole building rectangle was extended and we “got our money’s worth.” Similarly, I felt that maximizing space by connecting the two buildings was NOT a positive thing. I like feeling separate!

In both cases, bigger is not better. (Isn’t this one of the basic insights of the small-house movement?)

More generally, I think the division between wants and needs you describe is not nearly as obvious as you declare. All people “need” to live is the kind of dwelling and resources they get in a prison camp or hospital bed, yet very few of us would consider such situations acceptable dwellings. Humans don’t really need showers or stoves to live. Everything above basic food and warmth is a want.

So a lot of architecture is about meeting wants. I think I pretty clearly defined my wants when I said early in the post that I wanted to make this place a demonstration of “nice housing on an appropriate environmental scale”.

I guess “nice” is subjective too. From my subjective point of view, I don’t think that trim and finishes are enough to “pimp my ride.” Indeed this project doesn’t have the fanciest trim or finishes available; we decided not to put money into ostentation. We “pimped” the place up with a really nice structure and as much glass as we could get away with. It’s true there are one or two nice surfaces — like a custom concrete counter, but there were functional reasons concrete was the right choice too. But we didn’t get into “luxury” materials like marble, exotic tile, etc. Indeed the bathroom is as plain as it can be and it’s just fine with us.

As of today I pretty much know the total price of the project: $75,000 including architect and permit. The contractor very dutifully stuck to his price, except for one truly unforeseeable plumbing issue.

It’s nice to know that there are still people like this. I think it helped that his final estimate was based on plans that had really been through the wringer, so he had plenty of time to think about it. It may also have helped that he had done buildings by my architect before. The finished space elicits wows from most people who see it, so if we used it as a market rental I think we could easily get a rent that would more than meet our monthly payment.

So it seems like it’s all working out. As soon as the inside is truly finished I will do an extensive post. Hope you turn back and check it out. Good luck with your own project!

Regards, bottleman

Comment by bottleman on 19.03.2007 um 3:11 pm

The project is finished on the inside now, so I am going to cut off comments for this old post. Please see the newest posts in the series ( http://bottleworld.net/?cat=20 ) for opportunities for further discussion. Thanks, bottleman.

Comment by bottleman on 26.03.2007 um 11:00 am