Editor's Pick

A Big Idea for Small Houses

Tiny houses are having their moment. They have their own television shows, magazines and festivals around the country. Enthusiasts call it a movement toward a simpler and freer way of life. Hype may best numbers, but look closer and you will see tiny houses catching the attention of insurance companies, manufacturers and builders. Growing acceptance in terms of zoning and code may mean the tiny house market has legs.

Whether built on wheels or secured to a foundation, tiny houses are now a thing. The 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) will feature an appendix (RB168-16) detailing tiny house code specifics. Approved in January 2017 after public comment, the IRC defines tiny houses as no larger than 400 square feet (excluding loft spaces). Though tiny houses were referenced in the 2015 IRC, the new Appendix V offers construction guidance for interested builders.

Christopher B. Galusha is president of the 400-member American Tiny House Association. Formed in 2015, the group is a resource and voice for U.S. tiny house enthusiasts.

“We are gathering data to help people better understand the current state of tiny house ownership, types of homes, and where you find them across the country, including respective codes and zoning,” Galusha said. “The commonly shared statistic [as best can be surmised] is that tiny houses represent 1 percent of single-family homes.”

Some areas of the country are more receptive to tiny houses than others. Galusha is working to allay the fears of village and city officials who see tiny house owners as trying to skirt code and regulation.

“Such perceptions are fading as we and others educate,” he said. “In researching, I’m finding a lot of cities and counties are very tiny-house friendly. I am looking to build one in Weatherford, Texas, that is welcoming.”

Tiny houses are popular in Arizona and Colorado, and Galusha is getting calls from across the country. He cited a rise in tiny house builders and the number of buyers contacting rural inspection departments as indicators of growing interest. Urban centers are looking at tiny houses, as well.

“Quality build and safety are now a big part of tiny house construction,” Galusha said. “Third-party inspectors have emerged to service this market, along with insurance companies. Financiers are coming online, too.”

Working for more than 30 years in the residential housing market, Galusha finds a range of buyers drawn to tiny houses due to their lower cost and expense. Household income isn’t necessarily the differentiator. Buyers can be retirees or other fixed- or low-income individuals. However, wealthier buyers may also be seeking to reduce their housing footprint and reallocate saved dollars for travel or other pursuits. Some buyers go all-out with amenities from granite countertops, high-end finishes, cleverly designed storage areas and space-saving, modern appliances.

“I am building my own tiny house based on a rehab of an existing small house,” Galusha said. “I gutted the house and have moved the walls around. At close to 600 square feet, that will give me two 10-by-13-foot bedrooms and one 10-by-12-foot, and one bath as I apply modern design and an open floor plan.”

Tiny Houses

Builders take notice

Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses in Durango, Colo., opened in 2013 and has sold 38 houses as of this writing.

“I certainly have more work than I can handle, and several more builders I know are in the same boat,” said Greg Parham, company owner. “Homes in Denver, Breckenridge and Durango might cost $500,000 minimum. We can build for $60,000 to $70,000. [La Plata County] has recently legalized tiny houses, which must now meet certain criteria and inspection.”

Parham’s home is a prototype of the tiny house he intended to manufacture and sell.

“It was built over three years ago and is already an antique as tiny houses have progressed,” he said. “Though I offer a variety of models, nothing is in stone. We will model customers’ ideas and see if we can make them work. We do find ample windows for natural light and a tall ceiling help to avoid a claustrophobic feel. With customers all over the country, our homes are on wheels. Customers can block their trailers and level them out.”

Parham’s tiny houses can also be solar-ready. He subcontracts such work.

The Tiny Home Industry Association supports home builders, community developers and sustainable energy professionals. Andrew Odom, a tiny house advocate, said the association helps add credence to the tiny house movement.

“When insurance policies now protect and promote the safe building and operation of a tiny house, when banks offer financing, builders and contractors see the value in this emerging market,” he said.

A confluence of enthusiasts and commerce can be seen as tiny house festivals grow in popularity. The 2016 Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs drew more than 40,000 people. 

“In just two years of existence, the jamboree just exploded and took off and will be held again this year,” Odom said.

The first Tiny House N.C. Street Festival takes place in Pink Hill, N.C., this month. Odom expects up to 5,000 attendees.

“North Carolina is largely comprised of small municipalities,” he said. “Many are losing populations to Raleigh or Wilmington. To draw in new residents and businesses, some towns have worked their zoning to accommodate tiny houses.”

Odom and his family live rurally in a converted 860-square-foot house modernized to LED lighting. Their property features a micro schoolhouse used for homeschooling their daughter.

Activity around the country

Tiny house progress depends on welcoming towns and municipalities. In Coconino County, Ariz., 200–400-square-foot tiny houses are allowed to be built on-site or on an approved trailer. Houses built on trailers can be no smaller than 160 square feet and must meet wastewater, zoning, building code and engineering requirements. Briley Township, Mich., changed its zoning ordinances in late 2015 recognizing “economy efficient dwelling” (240–500 square feet) built to state building and sanitary codes. A permanent approved foundation must be used.

Last September, Washington, D.C., eased restrictions on “accessory dwelling units” within certain district zones. The new zoning essentially designates tiny houses as a homeowner’s backyard carriage house. Maryland and Virginia have also loosened restrictions in certain counties, as have other states.

[SB]In San Jose, Calif., micro houses (70 square feet for individuals and 120 square foot for couples) will be constructed as temporary housing for the city’s homeless.

In Cleveland, the Citizens Tiny House Experiment involves two 680-square-foot demo homes built within the Cleveland EcoVillage. Each home has a loft and storage space above the first-floor bedroom and bath, both accessed by a rolling library ladder. The houses are solar-ready and entirely electric. Heating, ventilation and cooling is supplied by a Mitsubishi mini-split system. The LED-lit homes also feature abundant natural light.

“Our tiny houses include a small city yard and permeable paver driveway,” said Adam Davenport, project and operations manager, Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization. “Design approval was granted in March 2016, and the houses were completed that June. Both houses are privately owned. We were lucky to find a builder [Sutton Builders] interested in tiny houses. The city took a chance on this project.”

Cleveland code doesn’t allow homes smaller than 950 square feet, but a variance was granted.

“Our city is open to more tiny houses,” Davenport said. “I think tiny houses could provide a housing solution for smaller lots in denser city neighborhoods.”

Lofts are often used as bedrooms
Lofts are often used as bedrooms

A call to ECs

To enter the tiny home market, ECs may need to get creative.

“If contractors price their services based on more traditional single-family homes, the dollars might not work due to the smaller size of tiny houses,” Galusha said. “Perhaps offer a package of services. Maybe it’s laying out the electrical design, designing the box, running the wiring to receptacles, laying out the fixtures and lighting or an all-in-one service. Ultimately, the contractor must make sure the electrical is up to Code and safe. Running electric to a box in small closet space is a real challenge.”

Odom said the market offers exposure to new technology that may run on 12-volt or hybrid systems or the Internet of Things.

“Just because customers want a smaller house footprint, they aren’t looking to give up technology,” Odom said. “A customer wants a contractor who can make these houses work technologically, be extra energy-efficient with, say, LED lighting, and maybe be powered with clean energy. The owner doesn’t want to lose anything except the size of their dwelling.”

So, where should ECs start?

“Tiny house is a very socially driven movement and connected,” Galusha said. “To scout out activity, learn more about these customers and find active builders, look for tiny house groups on Facebook or Meetup.com. Our association and others, festivals, and home trade shows, are also good sources to learn more.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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