Wednesday, November 2, 2011

120 Square Feet: Reconsidering the Minimum to Facilitate Tiny Houses.

2011 Solar Decathlon - Team New Zealand's Bach House
Small Enough to be Impacted by the 120sf Rule.
In my quest to address building code issues that affect sustainability, I have found myself caught up in the minimalist venture know as "Tiny Houses".   These are very small dwellings that provide for all the amenities of home, in a very compact package.   Frequently, they are constructed in the range of 96 to maybe 130sf.   That's tiny!   But for many, very livable.

If you have followed my other postings on Tiny Houses, you will find that the International Residential Code has a lot of influence on the design.  In some cases, it can be so influential as to be completely prohibitive of the tiny house in its entirety...thanks to the code's mandatory 120sf minimum area.

The basic tenant of the IRC is to provide minimum standards for life safety, welfare and sanitation.  The code's requirement for at least one habitable room to have 120sf must be traceable to one of those characteristics.   However, I can find no archival anecdotal data that supports that.  It has been in the code for eons so therefore there must have a legitimate reason for its inclusion.   Or maybe not.

During the past couple of months, I have queried my building inspector and architect students as to their thoughts on how 120sf as a minimum would ensure a safety, welfare, or sanitation benefit.   I usually get a lot of blank stares.   They have no idea either.   This tells me that it is time to re-debate the requirement.

So...I am going to submit a code change to the International Residential Code to delete the 120sf minimum.   This will elicit a lot of discussion, a lot of it will be negative.   To be successful in having the requirement deleted, I need to have a valid reason statement with good supporting evidence.   That is where I need your help, especially if you live in a small home or apartment.

The IRC contains provisions that require a minimum 7 foot high ceiling.   I know for fact that it was carried over from earlier building codes because there is a "psychological benefit".   I am not sure what the benefit is, but that will likely be a valid reason for the 120sf area inclusion.  This fits under "welfare".  In order to counter this argument, I need some real world facts on how you all feel about your tiny living environment.

For those of you in small spaces, do you yearn for bigger rooms?   Do you find yourself having to spend inordinate times outdoors to keep from going crazy?   Has moving into a tiny house caused you some detrimental harm, physical or psychological?   Is there a normal daily activity that you cannot do simply because you lack the space?    If you couldn't do this activity, would you anticipate a decline in your safety, welfare, or sanitation?   Nothing facetious please.   Just some real world examples that support or oppose the 120sf code requirement would help me tremendously.   I need to know both sides of the argument to be prepared for eventual testimony.

If you have an opinion, you can email me at   Please let me know if you are willing to let me quote you in this informal study.   In any case, your contribution will help give me some legitimate background from those that have been there...or those whose dreams have been hampered in trying to get there.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Rural Sensibility

During the past couple of months, I have been engaged in a program where I have to meet face to face with Colorado town and county governments and discuss whether they have adopted building codes...or not. Among the half dozen members of my firm, we have divided the work within areas of interest or specialty. In my case, I am assigned the rural locales with no adopted building codes. The house libertarian gets the recalcitrant.

I am enjoying the task. It has taken me to places off the interstate within the northeastern portion of the state. Most of the towns are suffering from the economy. Downtown areas are assessed by vacancy rate. I have been in more than one where the ENTIRE downtown area is completely deserted. It can be a little depressing.

Conversely, I have found thriving locations in unexpected places. My favorite so far is Wray. It is green via apparently abundant water, commerce appears to thrive, and its residential neighborhoods are well kept and nicely manicured. Mayberry on the plains.

Regardless of prosperity, each seems to be driven by resolve. They cannot control big agri-business and the consolidation of the small family farm, the vacuum created by big box retail, or the influences of an electronically connected world. What they can control is their own destiny.

When asked about the possibility of adopting a building code, I usually find a concerned and somewhat confused expression followed by the question, "Why?" The discussion usually leads into a "why do I need to have government (the code) to tell me what I really already know?" I am responsible for the safety of my family and I will happily accept that duty.

I call this "rural sensibility". As I interview these folk, I deduce that they are of hardy and intelligent stock. They have chosen to live in remote locations, absent of government services and conveniences. They are tough by attrition. You cannot survive here if you cannot think and do for yourself. The conditions can be harsh and these folk must surmount any obstacle that arises.

This process has affirmed some of my thoughts on the progression of building code regulations in the United States. The codes have increasingly become more restrictive and detailed. I have previously stated that the codes are becoming much more urban centric, catering to a populace that usually isn't required to constantly contemplate daily survival. When one is not thinking, one needs to be directed through comprehensive code requirements. On the other hand, the rural areas either don't adopt codes or essentially ignore them through marginal enforcement. They don't need to be told what they already know.

My wife and I have just returned from a several day camping trip on our land in Hotchkiss. We were schooled by our neighbors on the nuances of taking "free" irrigation water from the large run-off prior to the ditch company switching to allocation only. We observed the meadow turn green as the furrows were flooded one section at a time. We marveled at the land's fragility and fertility simultaneously. Most importantly, we witnessed proper stewardship that isn't directed by a government overseer. You either act and thrive...or perish. That is invigorating.