Tiny house barely escapes strangulation by codes


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. 🙂

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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.

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