By Michael Buccino, Micro Living, LLC.
American Tiny House Association - Board Member
Michael is current serving as a planning commissioner for the City of Steamboat Springs. He owns an interior design firm and Micro Living, LLC. and began getting involved in the tiny house movement in 2016. DOLA, Department of Local Affairs in Colorado, came to rural Routt County, Colorado to discuss tiny houses and begin the conversation locally. Since then, the movement has progressed to create legal way for conforming tiny homes to local zoning.
Fad or New industry?
The idea of living tiny has been embraced by many people from a variety of demographics and locations across the world. Living tiny has been somewhat unattainable due to a couple of key factors: municipalities allowing them, and the fact that on wheels, most municipalities consider tiny houses are just really nice recreation vehicles, campers. However, with the adoption of the IRC 2018 Appendix Q, the rules have changed and Tiny Houses are here to stay! But the movement needs your help!
I have put together some of the processes local governing bodies and individuals need to know about making the move to allowing tiny homes. Here in Colorado, there are many ideas and concepts as to what direction the Tiny House movement is heading. Let me be the first to inform you, that you should consider a foundation for a sustainable housing option. Tiny houses on wheels do not seem to be getting the traction for a long term housing solution. A tiny home on a foundation is truly a small home. A home that building departments can inspect for life and safety and financial institution can offer a mortgage. Most importantly, governing bodies are more willing to consider a tiny home when it permanent and connected to utilities.
Most readers are familiar with tiny houses through shows on TV and YouTube videos that show the cute simple living and how in small spaces we can have all the luxury we need to enjoy life and live tiny. But, I always had a question in the back of my mind….”where does the poop go?” As I watch the shows, they show the builders making these cool designed interiors, reaching the the inner depths of creativity and utilizing space. But rarely do they address the sewage. It gets me thinking about long term issues like fresh water, electric and other utilities and of course….where do I park it? Our recreation vehicle has fresh water, grey water and black water holding tanks, generators, solar power along with propane heat, eventually some of these luxuries have to be emptied somewhere before the next use.
Appendix Q, has opened up a whole new set of rules that brings in new players in the decisions of making living tiny long term sustainable. Building departments have a new rule book to inspect tiny homes to a new standard, then planning departments can make choices in changing zoning or creating PUD (Planned Urban Developments) to allow tiny homes on long term locations. Then local city councils and county commissioners can approve new changes brought forth by property owners and developers. And this is how a new industry is created.
What do you mean I can’t?
We begin with the limitations and restrictions already on the books throughout municipalities across the country. First and most obvious is the use of tiny houses on wheels (THOW) vs Tiny Homes on Foundations (THOF). Many communities do not allow for long term camping. If you live tiny on wheels is exactly what you are doing in the eyes of the officials. Although Appendix Q does not define that tiny homes should be on foundations, this is what differentiates “camping” vs “residential living”. Now don’t confuse the issues of living on wheels and moving a residence from one location to another on wheels. One is simply transportation where the other is temporary location. We will discuss some advantages that a foundation in Colorado can offer.
Another limitation is with zoning rules. Both city or county planning regulations affect where you can put a tiny house and for how long. In Routt County, Colorado, you can live in an RV or trailer for 30 days without any permits. If you want to stay longer, you can request a permit for 60 days, which can be extended for up to 180 consecutive days a year. I asked our local officials what’s the big issue? I discovered that they too want to know where does the poop go? They don't want raw sewage seeping into the groundwater and showing up somewhere else. And although one location may not be a problem, other areas in the county may be more populated. So, they have regulations for entire county that try to be consistent. Building on foundations make tiny homes simply small residential units.
Another restriction in Routt county is defined by the HOA or covenants of subdivisions already in place when the original zoning was platted or updated. Some residential acreages in the county have a minimum house size of 1000 sq..ft. for all the parcels in one particular zoned area. And others consider 800 sq.ft as the smallest residence a parcel can have. These restrictions are not placed by planning and zoning departments, but through the owners associations. Now don’t despair, we have options. Many of the associations covenants can be changed. Yep, they can. We live in a democracy and usually every regulation, zoning, condition and covenant can be changed with a vote of the people involved. How much percentage and the process changes with all HOA documents, but there is usually a way to make changes to covenants. Now, I admit, getting 65-75% of a HOA membership to respond may be the roadblock as some owners just may not respond. I would suggest that you look into the Rules and Regulations for the subdivision covenants to define how big your roadblock might be.
Getting there from here. 2018 IRC Appendix Q
Prior to the adoption of the IRC 2018 Appendix Q building departments could only inspect a residential home using codes that are contradictory to tiny houses. Staircases have a min width of 36”, tall railings are required, minimum ceiling heights are high and many other standard building codes. Appendix Q brings down building codes to allow some smaller designed spaces and still be safe. See the webiste https://codes.iccsafe.org/public/document/IRC2018/appendix-q-tiny-houses
So what does that do? It allows building officials to inspect a home for life & safety, specifically tiny homes. In Routt county, these residential unit must be on some type of fixed foundation and NOT on wheels. Again, the one difference that keeps coming up. Ok fine. So I have to build it on a foundation, is that so bad. Not at all. In fact I believe this is an advantage and offers more space for living tiny.
So now we have building officials willing to come inspect these tiny residential units, the next step is where do I place them? As I began to look at the places to build one tiny home or a community of tiny homes, I discovered that there are already current zoning regulations that allows tiny homes without asking for any variance at all. These are called ADU’s (Accessory Dwelling Units)The City of Steamboat Springs, Colorado allows a secondary housing dwelling under 650 sq.ft as long as it conforms to current building codes, is connected to city utilities and follows existing lot requirements. Great, so if I live in town, and have a large enough lot size, I can plop down a tiny house on a foundation and rent it or let mom or friends stay there. Again, check with local regulations that may limit your ability to rent it out. But, considering the options…. I’m done, we are ready to go. Let’s start designing.
Each municipality can adjust the Appendix Q prior to adoption
Areas in other incorporated or unincorporated areas in Routt County, Colorado have adopted new rules beginning in 2018 that constitutes a tiny house. Although the Appendix Q states a tiny house at a maximum of 400 sq.ft, in Hayden and Oak Creek, Colorado the minimum house size was adopted at 500 sq.ft. Now some really good news! I found out a very important point that actually increases the living space in a tiny home. The minimum square footage is calculated on the first floor of living space only. so the bedroom lofts are not part of the minimum requirement. Consider a small upper queen loft at 8’x8’=64 sq ft, adding two lofts would give an additional 128 sq.ft. Now, in this area of Colorado, foundations require stem walls of 48” in depth. This becomes a crawl space. We now have potential space for water storage tanks, long term storage, and a variety of creative useful designs. Tiny homes on slab foundations are simply fixed down and ready to go.
Additionally, financing has been somewhat unattainable. With THOF, we are simply getting a mortgage on a house, same as a large house, only smaller. So, now, we need to ASK the financial institutions to make changes to their rules and regulations.
PUD’s (Planned Urban Developments)
But how can we change the zoning or build a community where there are not set rules or zoning? Do we go through the long process of changing the zoning to multi- family etc. in neighborhoods that are not zoned for this? Well, yes! A PUD! A planned urban development is an avenue that opens the door for a developer to develop a parcel of land, city or county, that doesn't fall into current zoning. Consider an area in the county that is already zoned for residential that has a minimum lot size for a residence. By asking for a change in zoning, you are asking for a lot more than is required. Ask if you can create a PUD that defines a new independent set of rules for a specific parcel. So, if there is a small parcel that is zoned for one residence ask if you can put on 3, 4 or more tiny houses on the property. See with good design if you can create cute efficient neighborhoods of tiny homes. Just ask for a PUD and see if they will allow it. You are not asking them to change the zoning or the rules for everyone or even create a new zoning definition, you are just asking for this one unique parcel. PUD’s are the planning departments way of creating a way for people to ask... can I build this or that? Otherwise zoning would be too black and white for any development. If you own a parcel and want to build a small community of tiny homes all you need to do is show up with some designs and begin the process of a PUD. With the tiny house movement growing so rapidly, many municipalities are just waiting to say yes.
Once the Planning department helps with the PUD, it is then passed through a commission for review and final approval is with county commissioners or city councils, our elected officials.
As we see some tiny house communities pop up across the country I would eventually expect zoning and regulations to change and update to include tiny residential developments as a standard instead of a using PUD. However, this will only come after many successful projects help set the standards.
Lot rent vs Land ownership.
I believe each community will grow in a positive way when we have home ownership and not just renters. Pride in ownership is what motivates people to move from apartments to condos and houses. Image your community with more citizens that are invested in their community through home ownership. So can I own the land my tiny home is on? It depends upon the municipality and PUD. Asking to let a developer build a community of tiny homes may be an easy yes, asking to subdivide the land to sell little parcels is a whole other question. And the answer lies in one thing. ASK! Yes, just ask. Design it up, draft up the PUD and ask! Remember, we live in a democracy. You vote for elected officials, they hire county and city managers and they in turn, instruct staff to make changes according to the elected officials. Staff and departments in municipalities have a black and white set of codes and requirements that make working with governments consistent and sometimes ridiculously difficult. However, if a community wants to change the rules, just ask. It may require voting on ballot issues or adopting resolutions, but there are avenues for change. God Bless America! Either way, providing tiny living options in our communities will help any housing problems across the country.
Off Grid or Fully Connected
Off grid or fully connected all can be done, it only depends upon your area. Consider Routt County, Colorado, who determined that you can not camp outside for longer than 180 days. However, if we put a home on a foundation and if the Environmental health department allows it, you could use storage tanks for black, grey and freshwater. Solar has developed to allow standard living expectations and there are composting toilets and propane for heat. Routt county encourages a small waste water treatment solution as opposed to hauling out the poop.
However, there has been companies with water tanks that will bring water to sites and pickup waste. Energy companies can deliver propane all over the county. Living off grid is a great option for those that want to be one with nature and in areas where there just are no other options.
Being connected to utilities seems to be most desirable with local governments to allow tiny houses. If you can connect your tiny home to water, and sewer your tiny house has a better chance of being approved, and quicker.
So, yes, build it. Follow the rules, ask for the them to change the rules if needed and/or modify your project to help create a whole new industry of tiny houses for anyone who wants it.
It seems like the biggest motivator of the Tiny House Movement is the desire to not be over burdened with an expensive home to live in. Tiny homes can be cheaper to build, to own or rent. Sometimes it is nice to just rent a place that is not connected by walls to someone else like an apartment or condo. As developers ask for PUD’s that may offer a new rental product to a growing demographic of people that just want a simple way to live, we may see small communities pop up. Consider a parcel that can be converted into a small group of 6 or 8 tiny homes in the same parcel zoned for a single family residence. This becomes one way to maximize density in communities in a controlled way.
Some local affordable housing authorities have older mobile home parks that they could take open lots and build foundations to a semi-standard size and rent that plot for a tiny home as opposed to a mobile home.
There are creative options too. Think about a development of tiny house foundations that can be rented. An individual can purchase a base model tiny home that they can live in. Then, move it if the opportunity arises and rent the foundation to the next upward thinking individual. Maybe one day there may be a collection of tiny home developments across the country with slips that can be rented for a period of time. Someone may live in one place for a few years, then a job opportunity opens up in another city and they could bring their home with them and rent another slip all ready to go.
NIMBY or Not in my backyard.
Some communities think that people do not want a community of tiny homes in their area. However, the tide seems to be changing with the creative architecture and styles of tiny homes construction. I spoke to one planning department official, and he just didn’t see, living in 250-400 sq.ft was any long term idea they would consider. But that’s just it….it’s not for you! But it may be for someone else. I propose that if we continue to see well designed tiny home, more people will find tiny home living acceptable.
Let’s get started.
What we need are examples. Examples of what a tiny house community or single home looks like in their county or city. Is it a small development of affordable housing options? Or is it a single ADU? Maybe you go big and create a large facility with slips, houses , a community building and other amenities? Do you have some land, or want to build a tiny home? I encourage you to start asking your government offices their process to allow you a new idea. This first domino fell, the IRC 2018 Appendix Q Tiny Houses. Routt County adopted the IRC update which went into effect Jan. 2018. Building departments need the Appendix Q adopted in your community first, then discuss the options in your planning departments and environmental health departments and continue to ask, “What do we need to do the change the rules?” We live in a democracy, we can change the rules.
So, be encouraged and get out there and ask! I joined the Americantinyhouseassociation.org to stay connected to what is going on across the United States. Recent years have been focused on THOW, wheels. But now, you will find that THOF are making this movement sustainable. City
It’s and counties across the country will be adopting the new building codes and changes to the rules. Now is a great time to be part of a whole new industry, Tiny homes.
Michael Buccino, Micro Living, LLC
American Tiny House Association