We just heard there are still a few slots left for registration—so it's not too late to join us in Asheville. Find more info here: http://tinyhouseconference.com
Bill and I are speakers at this year's Tiny House Conference in Asheville, NC, April 2-3. The conference schedule is jam-packed with topics for everyone—from people just beginning to think about a tiny house, to folks looking to create tiny house communities. We'll add to the discussion with talks on composting toilets and financing a tiny house.
We just heard there are still a few slots left for registration—so it's not too late to join us in Asheville. Find more info here: http://tinyhouseconference.com
Sealing up our tiny house to keep rain and cold winds at bay seemed a no-brainer. But our "tight envelope" also means that moisture created inside the house doesn't have a way out unless we open a window or door. This is because one of our overlooked items was a ventilation system. Oops.
We looked at a thousand options: pricey HRVs (heat recovery ventilators), less-than-robust solar vent fans, bulky (read ugly) exhaust fans...and we didn't decide. And then we sort of forget to remember to figure out how we were going to deal with moisture in our tiny, well-sealed house.
Fast forward to winter. We cook with moisture-producing alcohol. We run water to wash our dishes. We take moisture-producing showers. We have moisture-producing bodies. You get the idea. As a result, we have enough moisture in the air that condensation forms along the bottom of many of our windows on these sub-freezing days. (Today, with the outside temp at 12 degrees, ice crystals formed on the shaded windows.)
Leave too much moisture in a house too long and you'll find mold. Seal up a house too tight without moving air and you build up carbon dioxide in the air. Obviously, we don't want either of those.
Long term, we plan to find an exhaust fan for the bathroom to deal with both moisture and any odors. Having an intake vent on the other end of the house would bring a little fresh air near our bed. It would also bring in cold on days like today. That's where having an HRV comes in. Essentially the warm air going out heats up the cold air coming in. The smallest, most efficient HRV we've found is the Lunos e2—but it comes with a high price tag ($1000+) and it requires thicker walls than we have. We have to keep looking for a ventilation system to manage our air quality.
In the meantime, we crack windows when we cook on our alcohol stove and after we shower. Anytime the temperature gets high enough, we open enough windows and doors to move air through the house. Plus, we have a carbon monoxide detector to monitor air quality and a thermometer/hygrometer that tells us how much water vapor is in our air.
To tackle the moisture issue, we started with a low-tech silica moisture absorber, specifically the Eva-Dry E-500 that had been recommended by another tiny house dweller. As far as we can tell, it has no significant impact on the humidity of our house. Yes, it has absorbed some moisture (the beads have turned from blue to pink, so it's time to plug it in and "renew" its absorbency), but it's designed to work in a small, enclosed space—not a 250-square-foot house. So, we bought a "petite" dehumidifier, also by Eva Dry, that pulls water out of the air and deposits it into a tank. This works; we can see the water collect in the tank after we turn the dehumidifier on and we can watch the humidity reading go down on our thermo hygrometer. Plus, the machine is relatively quiet and doesn't draw much electricity.
Before we plugged in the dehumidifier, our humidity readings were regularly around 55%. Too moist. Right now, with the dehumidifier running, we're at 46%. Ideally, with the weather this cold outside and the house between 65 and 70 degrees, we would be at 35%, according to what I've read.
Keeping the house warm in this weather, brings us to another purchase: our DeLonghi radiant heater. Actually, it's plural now; we bought a second heater, so we could position them on both ends of the house to keep things reasonably warm (around 64 degrees). We like the DeLonghi because it's quiet and efficient; once we get the house at a base temperature, we can leave the heaters on the energy efficient setting that draws lower amps.
When the weather dips in the evening, we fire up our Kimberly wood stove. With the stove burning, temps easily reach 75 degrees inside the house. We can feed the fire less and tamp it down to stay closer to 70, but lately we haven't minded the extra heat. (One important air quality note: the Kimberly stove draws air from outside—via a pipe that runs down through the floor—so that oxygen in the house isn't depleted.) The wood stove offers an added benefit, as well: it helps with our moisture issues by drying the air.
The casting director of a production company recently got in touch with me, asking if I know anyone interested in seeing if tiny house living would work for them. Leftfield Entertainment wants to talk to families currently living in "normal sized" houses who would be interesting in giving tiny house living a try.
Here's the info:
NOW CASTING: FAMILIES ACROSS AMERICA WHO ARE UP FOR THE CHALLENGE OF TEMPORARILY GOING TINY - PLEASE APPLY IMMEDIATELY
A major network and award-winning production company are seeking families nationwide that are willing to temporarily downsize their current home and "try out" tiny living in a different location. Has your family talked about moving into a tiny home but never felt fully ready to commit? Is living tiny something you've always wanted to try but never felt it was the right time? Are you and your family living with more space than you currently need and feeling less connected than you once were? Are you and your family up for the exciting challenge of a lifetime? If so, we would love to hear from you! Please email: email@example.com with your names, ages, contact info, location, attach a few photos and why you want to live tiny.
P.S. The production company would cover all expenses involved!
Ours has been a gradual downsize. From a house, to an apartment, to a studio. When we decided last year to build our own right-sized home, we toured a couple tiny houses, read articles, searched the Web and doodled countless designs on graph paper—but what really got us started was attending the 2014 Tiny House Conference in Charlotte, NC.
Ryan Mitchell of The Tiny Life has put on an annual conference for several years now. Last year's conference was in Portland, Oregon; this year's is in Asheville, NC. At his conferences, attendees can tour tiny houses, learn from experienced builders and glean invaluable information on products and techniques. We ordered our trailer from one of the conference presenters. We saw an alcohol-burning stove in action—and came home and ordered the same one. We learned framing options and talked about sustainability. Etc., etc., etc. We came home with the ideas and inspiration we needed to put our plan into action.
I'm happy to report that we'll be speakers at this year's Tiny House Conference. If you're thinking about making the move to a tiny house, I hope you'll join us in Asheville April 2-3. Bill and I will be discussing how to budget for and finance a tiny house as well as addressing the not-so-glamorous-but-very-necessary topic of composting toilets.
I've posted a few pictures from the 2014 conference below. If you have any questions about this year's conference, please send us a comment. Registration is open now; hope to see you in Asheville.
We searched big box hardware stores, lighting shops and a host of online retailers before we found ceiling fans that seemed a good fit for our tiny house. Most we'd seen were too large, many were the wrong style, some didn't rate well for efficiency. Finally, we came across the Modern Fan Company line on Lumens.com, and that's where we found our fans.
As the company itself puts it, Modern Fan Company (MFC) products "celebrate the modern idiom through mechanical simplification, geometric forms and contemporary finishes." MFC's founder, industrial designer Ron Rezak revolutioned traditional fan design by creating the first "rotor slots" that eliminated the need for heavy blade irons. In Rezek's sleek designs, blades fit into the rotor itself. According to Architectural Record, Rezek created "graceful designs for normally clunky fixtures” while promoting "sustainable design practices." Energy efficiency meets smart design.
We have three of MFC's Altus fans spaced down the length of the house. They're quiet, effective and efficient enough to run off our SolMan Classic solar generator without taxing it. We've managed to stay cool in the house on even the hottest of days.
Since my last blog introduced our kitchen, I thought I would say a little more about our oven/stove choice: The Origo 6000 non-pressurized, alcohol-burning marine stove by Dometic.
First, though, it's worth talking about what we didn't go with. Many tiny housers choose to heat water and cook with propane, especially when they're generating solar power for other energy needs. Keeping those two energy-sucking activities off a solar setup is a good idea. But we're trying to move away from fossil fuels, and we support anti-fracking efforts. Plus, poorly vented propane setups can be a major health hazard.
Alcohol, on the other hand, is a clean-burning fuel with no toxic byproducts. It's a renewable fuel, easily available and safe to transport. If we ever got enterprising enough, we could even make our own alcohol. Another bonus: An alcohol fire can easily be put out with water--and, with no gas lines or canisters and nothing under pressure, there's never a risk of leaks or explosions.
We were introduced to alcohol-burning stoves at the tiny house conference we attended last April. We ate cookies fresh out of one oven (thanks, Kelly Ross!) and drank steaming coffee prepared on someone else's stove. We had first-hand testimonials that they worked. And now we can add our endorsement: we've made our own coffee, done our own baking, cooked our own chili, etc. Though we had read complaints about how long it takes to heat up an alcohol oven and boil water on an alcohol stove, that hasn't been our experience. It may take a little longer than a traditional stove/over, but, hey, we're not in such a hurry these days.
This stove suits tiny house living. It's compact. (Adorably so, one of us would say.) Its stainless steel surfaces are a cinch to keep clean. And, with no electronics, people report using these stoves for years and years without a hitch.
The mechanics: each burner has a reusable canister, which gets filled with 40 ounces of denatured alcohol and will burn for 4-10 hours, depending on how high the heat. The oven has its own canister. Wool inside the canisters hold the alcohol so securely, you can even turn one over without the alcohol dripping out. It's the vapor of the alcohol that burns after lighting, and, to keep the alcohol from evaporating when we're not cooking, we have rubber discs that sit atop the openings.
In sum: The Origo 6000 is efficient, clean-burning and attractive. It's also expensive (more than $1500!), but it's an investment we're happy with.
As we work to tread a little more lightly on the planet, we don't want to consume more resources than we need and don't want to produce more waste than we have to. With this in mind, fossil fuels clearly aren't a good choice for energy production. We've wanted to move to renewable energy sources but had a steep learning curve to get ourselves where we wanted to be.
So, we took a short cut. Instead of trying to design our own solar configuration, buy all the components and connect them into a functioning system, we went for the plug-and-play approach. Yes, it cost more initially to buy a system we could set up and have running in an hour. But we avoided underbuying and overbuying; we avoided compatibility issues; and we avoided a slew of other novice errors and a whole lot of second-guessing.
Which is a long way of announcing that we have solar power fueling the batteries that run our fans and lights, charge our computer and phones, keep our fridge humming and power our tools--with more energy loads to come. Our SolMan Classic from SolSolutions of California is a portable solar generator that's an all-in-one, integrated system we can place far from the trees that shade our tiny house and we can easily move throughout the day to track the sun. No noise, no fumes, no fuel, no additional costs, no maintenance required.
All the working parts of the SolMan Classic come encased in a weatherproof unit that sits behind the solar panels. The unit can be moved easily thanks to two heavy-duty wheels.
Here are some specs (for those of you to whom this means something):
· Three Kyocera 140-watt PV panels.
· Three, 110-amp hour Firefly deep-cycle, sealed-gel/AGM batteries with 3000 usable watt hours of battery storage capacity.
· Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000E MPPT charge controller.
· AIMS Global 1500-watt pure sine wave inverter/charger.
· Output: 12 volts DC or 120 volts AC.
· Digital meter for AC volts/amps/watts and cumulative watt/hours used.
Paying more than $5000 for our solar unit wasn't a decision we took lightly. It's a big chunk of our total house investment. It's not a way to save money; we could stay connected to the grid for years before our SolMan pays for itself. But when it comes to sustainability, this feels like a smart investment for our collective future.
Learn more about SolSolutions and their line of clean, off-grid products here. See our new "sun deck" here.
If you're thinking about downsizing your life, I came across a wonderful article recently: "More From Less: A Beginner's Guide to the Minimalist Movement."
Big changes can feel overwhelming. This guide breaks things down to manageable steps as it underscores the life enhancements that can come with choosing to live with less. It reflects my own experience. I don't miss the things I've "shared" (a word my husband suggested as a substitute for "gotten rid of"). More than that, I can say I get more enjoyment from the things I've deliberately chosen to keep. I've come to think of weeding out excess possessions as "editing." Just as cutting unnecessary words makes a piece of writing sharper, clearing away what I don't need and/or really care about makes my life more focused.
For the full article, go to CustomMade, a thought-provoking resource that I mentioned in a previous post. Here's a preview of what you'll find there:
The tiny house landscape is changing...slowly. But too many inexplicable (to me) building codes still require massive (again, to me) square footage, flushing toilets, hot water, etc. Here's a great blog by Jay Austin of Boneyard Studios that discusses the way tiny houses on wheels navigate the bureaucracy.
Are tiny houses legal? Yes.
MAY 14, 2015 / JAYAUSTN
Perhaps the biggest barrier to smaller living is the misconception that tiny houses are illegal. They’re not. Here’s why.
But first, a disclaimer on what I am and what I am not. I am an individual who lives (yes, full-time), in a tiny house in the District of Columbia. I am someone who has spent more time than I’d ever hoped trudging through DC zoning and planning and coding regulations. I am someone employed by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development who spends a lot of hours each day talking to—and learning from—housing lawyers and the very people who set federal housing policy. I have a penchant for taking risks, an insatiable urge to disrupt stale systems, and a graduate degree in government and public policy.
Here’s what I am not. I am not a lawyer, urban planner, or zoning expert. I am notsomeone who knows all that much about these regulations outside of DC (though I’ve picked up a little). I am not someone who can speak to tiny houses affixed to foundations, and I am not someone to be trusted exclusively and unquestioningly before you spend tens of thousands of dollars building or buying a small house and dropping it onto a piece of land. That’s important.
But I am somebody who has spoken to thousands of people about living in tiny houses, and hundreds of people earnestly looking to take that leap, and too often I see someone who reconsiders their dream at the mention of legal grey area. Too often I see journalists cover the movement or Boneyard Studios or my little house and mistakenly mention that it’s “illegal” for someone to live in a small house. In my less informed days, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated this myth myself. But it’s not, and it’s a mistruth that’s damaging to what we strive for. It’s a myth that needs to be corrected. So let’s correct it.
[ 1 ] WHAT WHEELS DO
The “tiny houses are illegal” story always starts the same way, and the first part is totally true. The District of Columbia and most other American (and international) cities follow international residential building and plumbing codes, designed in theory to make homes “safe.” They definitely do—mandated maximum spans for rafters, minimum widths for studs, and other key standards to keep homes from caving in—but often the codes overreach, focusing more on comfort than caution. For instance, a code-compliant sink must be plumbed to receive both cold and hot water, even though hot water is an electricity-intensive convenience that (unless it’s at a skin-scalding 140 degrees) can’t actually kill germs. Rooms have a required number of “convenience outlets,” designed to keep residents from overloading power strips (though a surge protector or working circuit breaker would do just fine), without much consideration of those who just don’t have that many things to plug in.
Off-grid systems are unacceptable according to plumbing code: a house mustbe hooked up to city water, even if rain catchment is sufficient, and a house must have a toilet capable of flushing waste into the Potomac River, even if the owner has found a way to safely manage waste onsite. In some sustainability-minded foundation-built houses, I’ve seen bathrooms with two toilets: a plumbed one to meet code, and a composting one to actually use. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury of space. There’s more: minimum bedroom ceiling heights (incompatible with tiny house lofts), a minimum square footage for the bedroom and kitchen and living room. Small spaces inherently can’t meet code, and because code is enforceable by the city, a foundation-built house can be condemned and bulldozed (and its owner fined and imprisoned) for repeatedly failing to meet the law of the land, or perhaps the law of the landed.
And so, we put them on wheels. And just like that, international and national and local building and plumbing codes don’t apply. The house becomes a vehicle, and though the houses are largely built to code (and often, because these houses will travel on highways at sixty miles per hour, are built above code), some of the insurmountable elements are rejected.
THE UTILITY TRAILER THE MATCHBOX WAS BUILT ON.
[ 2 ] WHAT WHEELS DO NOT DO
And here’s where the story gets a little muddled. Tiny house on wheels are considered travel trailers, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV has no idea what to do with these, but agrees it’s probably a good idea to get them tagged and registered (in DC they would also have to be taken to the DMV for inspection every other year, but by using power-of-attorney allowances, a utility trailer anywhere in the country can be registered in Maine and exempted from inspection). And once that’s taken care of, the tiny house is completely, 100%, absolutely legal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, the owner of a house-looking thing on a utility trailer is entitled to the same parking rights as any other non-house-looking thing on a utility trailer or vehicle. They can be parked on private property (with permission to park there, obviously) and parked on the street (as long as they’re attached to a lead vehicle and meet local parking rules) and driven on the road (as long as they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ and no longer than about 40′ and driven by someone with a commercial driver’s license if the trailer has more than a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating).
But, at the end of the day, a vehicle is not a house. Unless the tiny house is RVIA-certified or large enough to meet manufactured housing code, it’s more or less considered a car. Cars are not entitled to some things: namely a certificate of occupancy and the ability to declare a car as a primary residence. A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, notthe house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys. And this, finally, is where the myth of “illegal” tiny houses comes from. It’s not that you can’t live there, even full-time; you just can’t legally declare that your “full-time” “primary” “residence.”
And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else. Think 2006. No one is legally preventing you from living where you want to live (though nasty comments, gross misunderstanding, and bureaucrats not comprehending their own laws might persist), but no one is giving you the benefits your living situation really deserves, either. Your negative rights are protected, but your positive rights haven’t (yet) been granted.
LEE’S PERA HOUSE, TOURED BY THE DEPUTY MAYOR IN 2014.
[ 3 ] IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON’T COME
So, what do cities have to say? Not much. Tiny houses have sprouted up across the United States, and as long as they’re on wheels there haven’t really been run-ins with city officials. I know of a case or two where an individual has been asked to move their house because it “doesn’t comply” with city laws, but the owners of those homes didn’t seem to push the issue; likely, the city was exercising authority it didn’t really have.
There’s an important distinction to make between cities that criminalize homelessness and those that don’t. A city that criminalizes homelessness is one that can legally fine an individual for loitering or sleeping in public—when a person has no place to go, they’re essentially being prosecuted for existing at all. In some municipalities, sleeping in a vehicle on a public street is illegal, but on private property, it’s just camping.
Here in the District, we’ve had an interesting relationship with city officials. They’ve been overwhelmingly awesome: the Deputy Mayor and her staff came for a tour of Boneyard Studios to explore tiny houses as a potential solution to chronic homelessness, and our friends in the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing & Community Development have offered us advice, support, and even land for a new community (the last of which we didn’t accept for other reasons). Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs has occasionally overstepped its authority, imposing conditions on our old lot that weren’t supported by law. And the Zoning Commission, charged with coordinating a fair and transparent rewrite of DC’s archaic zoning, managed to slip in an unsolicited provision banning “camping” in tiny-house-like structures in alleyways. The good news is that the ban is vague and both practically and (I’m told) legally unenforceable, and at the moment neither of the Boneyard Studios houses are in alleyways. I’m also not camping in my house; I’m living there full-time. Just not Full-Time.
If you build it, they won’t come. I’ve been in the Matchbox for three years, and I’ve never received so much as a warning letter. No fiscally-responsible city is going to send an officer to stake out your tiny house and record your comings and goings for fourteen days, or 185 days, or whatever threshold your municipality sets for “camping” or “primary residence.” No marshal is going to knock on your door and tell you to leave your tiny house on wheels any more than one would knock on your car window and tell you to leave the car you’ve parked in your driveway. Assuming you’re not doing anything else wrong, like improperly disposing of waste or otherwise endangering those around you, you’re safe.
Cities and towns typically aren’t to blame: journalists are. Take a recent piece about tiny houses in DC:
There’s nothing in the city’s current zoning regulations related to “tiny houses,” Edward Giefer, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email. But structures that would qualify as “accessory dwelling units” — like living in a house-on-wheels behind a friend’s rowhouse — are not permitted in the city. — Whitney Pipkin, Elevation DC
Accessory dwelling units—which I haven’t gotten into because this is already wordy and complex enough—are usually about four hundred square feet, built on a foundation, and accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Tiny houses on wheels are not accessory dwelling units, because tiny houses on wheels are not (usually) four hundred square feet, are not built on foundations, and (sometimes) don’t accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Our friend Ed tells Whitney that the city doesn’t have a stance on tiny houses, but notes that structures that would qualify as accessory dwelling units are not permitted, and Whitney just squishes the two together. This happens a lot—it’s not just Whitney—and it’s an honest but damaging mistake.
[ 4 ] TL;DR
And that’s all there is to it. With a few caveats, tiny houses on wheels are perfectly legal. They’re built on wheels to escape unnecessary code requirements, and thereby escape even the peskiest zoning official. By existing in the vehicle realm, though, they forfeit some of the great advantages of being a homeowner: tax benefits, homeowner’s insurance, full recognition by the city. They may not call you a Homeowner, but hey, you are a “homeowner.”
The city won’t give you a problem, and if it does, just remind its enforcers that if they don’t consider your house a home, that means you’re probably considered homeless and should probably go cash in on some of the pricey homelessness subsidies you haven’t been using. Or question their legal grounds, seek some pro bono help, and fight for your rights. But more than likely, you’ll never need to. Because tiny houses are legal.
So cities, thanks for your continued support.
Members of the media, please fact-check.
And people, let’s get building.
TONY WORKING ON THE MATCHBOX, 2012.
Like everything at Boneyard Studios, this information is made freely available under a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, remix, and repost as you’d like (that’s what it’s here for!).
Tiny houses! Tiny house experts! Tiny house book signings! Tiny house products! And if that's not enough, you can even get married in a tiny traveling chapel!
The place to be for all things tiny is Colorado Springs this August 7-9th, when the first-ever Tiny House Jamboree brings together small-living enthusiasts from across the country. The lineup sounds fabulous. We're still working on how to stretch our budget to get ourselves there.
And, oh, I haven't even mentioned the price for all this: It's free.