Monday, October 6, 2014

Tiny Houses: 120 Square Foot Requirement Eliminated in the 2015 IRC

New 2015 IRC WITHOUT the 120sf Minimum Area Requirement!

It doesn’t look like much...but it is BIG news for the Tiny House movement.   The photo on the left depicts a “change bar” in the left margin of International Residential Code Section R304.1, indicating that something that used to be there is no longer.    With a little white-out, the tiny house community can breathe a breath of legitimacy.
The 2012 and previous International Residential Code (IRC) sections read, “Every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that shall have not less than 120 square feet (11 m2) of gross floor area.”  It’s now gone.  Stricken from the code.  Khalas.  The brand new 2015 IRC no longer carries this onerous requirement. 
As I promised in a previous post,  I submitted a code change to the IRC Committee to eliminate the burdensome 120sf requirement.   Being that I am currently living in Saudi Arabia, I was not able to speak to the IRC committee as to the merits of the change.   Fortunately my fellow code geek and friend Tim (who will otherwise remain anonymous for his own protection...) spoke on my behalf and was successful with a committee approval of the 120sf elimination.   There was no contrary testimony or other evidence to show that this requirement had a legitimate life-safety benefit.   Thus “khalas”…a popular Arabic expression for “finished” or “enough”.   If it can’t be supported by technical merit, it needs to go.
For those of you trying to comply with the IRC or otherwise demonstrate habitability of your tiny house, the 120sf requirement will no longer plague you.   The only area habitability requirement is 70sf, which the code will still apply to any room deemed “habitable”.   See some of my previous blog entries for discussion on what and what is not "habitable".  One should be able to incorporate this minimum area within the normal minimal footprint of a tiny least maybe with the exception of the college professor that has taken up residence in a trash dumpster...
For those few of you that may be wondering, I am living and working in Saudi Arabia doing my small part to promote building energy efficiency, sustainable construction, and overall building safety.   Housing consumer electrical consumption here far exceeds the US average, approximately 9 times more that of other adjacent, developed Arab countries.
Most of the electrical consumption is for HVAC building cooling during our long and hot summer months. 
This work is keeping me busy…but not so much as to see me completely ignore my low-carbon-footprint friends back in the States.   
Here is the original code change with a reason statement that the committee used as part of their deliberation and approval of the change.  I have provided it to assist with jurisdictions still adopting the 2012 or earlier IRC editions.   The requirements exclusion from the 2015 IRC can be utilized in conjunction with my reason statement below for an IRC Section R104.10 "Administrative Modification if desired:
Brand New 2015 International Residential Code

Friday, December 28, 2012

Land of Illusion

Our "Historic" house on camp.  Circa 1950ish.
I awoke the other day to the exotic call of a bird just outside our bedroom window.   It apparently had spent some time in a tropical rainforest, where such sounds seem normal.  I find it strange hearing it here, but understand the root of my confusion.

I have been very negligent in maintaining this blog during the past year.   This has been a time of transition for myself and my wife.   We decided to take a big gamble, sell the house and move half way around the world.   We thought that it would be interesting to take on some new challenges and get a larger perspective on the world and its inhabitants.   So here we are for the time being: Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

The Rub al Khali desert landscape is a difficult place.   There is very little water.   What was here historically is now greatly diminished due to well pumping.   Natural vegetation is sparse, but severe in its tenacious endurance.    It can be terribly hot in the summer.   Daily highs in excess of 120 degrees F. are not uncommon.    Periodically, a north wind kicks up and brings in dust from as far away as Turkey.   When the Shamal is active, the sky turns to a burning orange and then darkens sets in as the dust completely engulfs the sun. 

We live in a western compound of 12,000.   It has all the amenities of home.   This is no surprise as it was originally built by Americans in late 1930’s.   The houses, lawns, streetscape, everything looks like it was transported from the United States.    And a lot of it was as recently as the early 90’s when US military family housing intended to support the first Bush foray into Iraq ended early.   Several boat loads of suddenly unneeded prefab housing ended up in the Dammam port and is now installed on camp.   Open your eyes and you will think you are in any-town tract suburbia in the US.

The original Americans were apparently not amused by the local archetypes and decided to replicate home as closely as possible.   Green lawns maintained via heavy irrigation is key to the illusion.   Concrete must be watered also.   The Shamal dust mixes with the Arabia Gulf moisture to create a semi-hard dust coating on everything.   Our first morning upon arrival involved constant door bell interruptions by small, marginally coherent but very conversive, extremely dark skinned men from Bangladesh looking to be our “gardener”.   One major responsibility of said gardener is to wash the walks with a garden hose on a daily basis.   This reputedly safely enconses the dust back in the soil from which it originates.

The population of the kingdom is growing exponentially.   Construction of multifamily housing is apparent nearly everywhere here in the Eastern Province.  Fortunately, I am starting to see the locals take action on the diminishment of precious resources.   Water meters are about to be installed at everyone’s house with the intent to inhibit waste.   Solar PV is being used to shade cars at a major new office building.   This is replacing the “normal” fabric canopy that is common in parking lots in this part of the world to mitigate heat island effect.   Insulation is just starting to be considered, primarily with a move to clad existing buildings with EIFS to at least add some protection from nature’s severity.

In the meantime, we dwell a bit in disillusion.   It may look like home, but it isn’t.   Come to find out, the bird in my yard is a common Mynah.    Where he learned to imitate that song, I have no idea.   But it isn’t his original creation and it certainly is out of place here.    In a strange way, that seems appropriate. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Half a World Away

Rainwater Harvesting Circa 1000ad - Uqair

One of my readers sent me a note with a gentle reminder to get back to work on this blog.   Sometimes it takes a little motivation in this world of constant multi-tasking to get me moving.  That note was sufficient.  It told me that somebody actually cares.

This has been a crazy year.   I have been home only one day out of every three.   That trend will continue into May.   Frankly, I am getting pretty exhausted.   I miss my wife a lot.  But it is an essential part of my job…and I remind myself that I need to be thankful that I am over-employed in this struggling economy.
Some believe that business travel is rich and rewarding.  Sometimes it actually is.   The best part is the ability to meet new people in far off places.   There are differences evident in the varied localities I visit.   But most of the time the commonalities outweigh the differences.

In January, I spent the better part of the month in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  The Kingdom adopts the same building code that we use in the United States.   Their national oil company employs me periodically to teach code seminars to their staff.   That was the point of my last visit.   It was a rewarding one.
The NICEST classroom I have ever been assigned!
 As to differences, Saudi Arabia is about as different a place that there is.   The landscape and architecture appears somewhat harsh compared to that in the US.  Despite the visual and cultural differences, I find the people to be very genuine with hopes and concerns no different than our own.
 Contrary to how the Middle East is portrayed in western media, the Saudi people are friendly, peaceful, and very dedicated to their families.   We westerners can take a lesson from that.   In the pursuit of our daily attainments, we often forget what is really important.
February provided a milestone birthday for me.  That birthday was one of “those” that usually promulgates wild desires for youthful misadventures, marginally countered with mature reassessments of life ambitions and goals.   I am directing my efforts towards the latter as the former already has a pretty firm hold.  One of those reassessments is determining how I can best provide for my wife and I in our retirement years.  
Unfortunately, savings are a big deciding factor in our eventual success.   I am not keen on spending the rest of my life sitting in an airline seat (coincidentally where I write this now) going from one job to another.   However, one must work doing something in order to save for a time when work is no longer an option.
According to a retirement article I recently read, one ultimately needs to accrue 20-25 times the annual income they desire in retirement.   If one has high expectations of their annual spending in retirement, one will need to work a lot.   If spending can be moderated, a little less money in the "nest egg" is required.   How much is too little or too much is a big question.
Then there is the problem of determining the undeterminable.   What will inflation, world economy, natural and manmade disaster do to affect the annual purchasing power of that fund?   What will the costs of health care be in 20-30 years?   What will our living conditions be and what can I do to ensure they are stable?
Each of these must be assessed and addressed to ensure some reasonable degree of success.   One can diversify ones investments sufficiently to accomodate economic variabilities and hope for the best.   Health care will always be an issue, especially since our dysfunctional government insists on meddling with it.    These two factors will remain certain uncertainties.
The “living condition” variable is the only one that I feel I have any control over.   To ensure the security of my family, I am moving toward maximized self-sufficiency.   If you have read my old posts, you know that we recently bought land in Western Colorado.   The land is tilled and fertile with good southern exposure.  We are provided with copious irrigation water from historically reliable drainage with good senior rights.  We have a potable water tap and a good natural spring in case the former goes dry for some reason.    
We will be building our future house to maximize energy efficiency and work to minimize reliance on unpredictable utilities.   The costs of energy will undoubtedly increase in time.   Gasoline is pushing $4.00 a gallon at the moment.   Home energy costs will follow the trend.   Our new house will take maximum advantage of both passive and active solar technologies.   This is the only means I know to mitigate energy based outflow of our limited nest egg.
This brings me full circle back to Saudi Arabia.   The Kingdom sits on a vast pool of oil that has yet to yeild to production demand.  The current cost of 91 octane gasoline in the Kingdom is 45 cents per gallon.   As incredible as this sounds, the Saudi’s realize that low energy costs are not permanently sustainable.  They also see the need to maximize efficiency and minimize consumption.   They are actively promoting research on solar energy and alternative fuels.   They are starting to seriously look at building energy efficiencies.   They have a strong green building program that appears to be growing.    At the very least, in this respect we are kindred.
It has been a pleasure to travel half way around the world to confirm my assumptions.  I have developed a high level of respect for the Saudi people and their efforts to improve their portion of the world.   I hope that the expertise I shared with them will benefit the Kingdom and their future generations.    I look forward to furthering that relationship in the years ahead.   No matter where I travel, I am pleased to find people looking to better building methods to help provide for better lives.   That makes my toil worthwhile.
New Multifamily Mixed Use Project

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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tiny House Building Code Compliance Part 2

This post is intended to explore the requirements for tiny houses that are placed on foundations on the ground (not placed on a trailer with wheels). These are likely to meet the dwelling criteria used by the International Residential Code and subject to permit requirements.

If you haven't already, I suggest reading the first installment of this series before heading into this "advanced" discussion.

As I stated in the first post, the International Residential Code (IRC) requires a number of minimum criteria for "dwelling units". The first is a requirement for at least one minimum habitable room that is 120sf in "gross floor area". Lacking a definition for "gross floor area" in the IRC, the user is directed to "other publications of the International Code Council". Chapter 10 of the International Building Code establishes "gross floor area" as "the floor area within the inside perimeter of the exterior walls of the building...".

If your tiny house house uses thick walls such as the cob house shown in the photo, you will not be given credit toward the 120sf for the wall thickness. Your building footprint will have to be expanded to include the room area in addition to the area comprised of the wall thickness. The 7 foot minimum habitable room dimension required by IRC Section R304.3 will also be measured from interior face of wall to opposite interior face of wall.

Once the code minimum area and dimension requirements for the this room are satisfied, the remainding code hurdles are initiated based upon what is provided within the dwelling.

Additional "habitable rooms" must have a minimum area of 70sf with the 7 foot minimum dimension and provided with a minimum ceiling of 7 feet in height. This can work to your advantage. The typical tiny houses I see on the net use a sleeping loft configuration that is pretty compact.

In order to be a habitable room, one must have the minimum 70sf room area. Frequently these spaces are designed to less than the minimum. As such, they are not "habitable" by the code definition. This allows the use of a ladder or other non-compliant vertical egress method to be employed for access since the IRC's stair and ramp provisions only apply to access to habitable spaces.

If you are ever challenged on the use of a ladder for non-habitable loft, be assured that the code allows it by default. Intentionally, there are no requirements for non-habitable loft access. I know this as I am the one that wrote this code section as it is currently provided for in the 2009 IRC. Fresh from the horse's mouth...not its posterior.

Assuming that the minimum habitable room area is provided within the loft, the next test of habitability is ceiling headroom. The IRC requires 7 feet vertical clearance except when the ceiling is sloped. When the ceiling is sloped, only one half of the required room area must be provided with the 7 foot headroom clearance. If the room is required to be 70sf in area, then 35sf of the room must have 7 feet of clearance. Additionally, all the remaining required area must have a minimum of 5 feet of clearance. If this isn't provided, the room or loft cannot be deemed habitable.

This takes us back to the definition for "dwelling unit". In order to be considered a "dwelling unit", permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation must be provided. If you are asserting that your tiny house is a dwelling, the code official is unlikely to allow you to use your non-habitable loft for compliance with permanent provision for sleeping. Best to figure out a way to put a bed (fold out or otherwise) on the lower level. If you insist upon calling your loft the sleeping area, you are sure to be forced to comply with the minimum habitability requirements...including provision of those large and space consuming code-compliant stairs.

Kitchens are deeded habitable, but are exempt from the minimum room area. Earlier editions of the code required 50sf for this location. The current exception was also one of my code changes. If was quite a battle to get the ICC membership to delete this requirement. However, we prevailed. Based on this experience, it may be quite difficult to delete the 120sf and 70sf minimums in future codes. However, I think that a proposal to do so is certainly worth consideration for the 2015 edition.

Bathrooms are not deemed habitable, but still have some minimum clearances. "Bathrooms" and "toilet rooms" must have the 7 foot minimum ceiling height. Minimum area and dimensions are not stipulated aside from plumbing fixture "usability" clearances.

Toilets must have 15" of side clearance measured from either side to the centerline of the fixture. Toilets, lavatories, bathtubs and showers must have 21" clearance in front for access to the fixture. Showers must be provided with a minimum 30" by 30" shower pan. The room configuration must be such to allow for the fixture clearances. Doors may swing into any of the clearances. This is not clearly stated in the code, but it is the intent.

Hopefully this discussion is beneficial if you are trying to justify your minimum dwelling. This discussion applies only to the building code. Always be aware that zoning regulations or restrictive covenants may preclude the construction of these minimalist structures.

Photos of the cob buildings used by permission by Ziggy Liloia. His "Year of Mud" blog is an interesting and informative read if you are interested in owner built, minimal cob structures. Sustainable construction in its purest form.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tiny House Code Compliance - 120 square feet exemption?

Recently I have been researching some alternative temporary housing for our land in Hotchkiss. I have somewhat intrigued by the so-called Tiny House movement. The proponents advocate living in little houses that are frequently less than 120sf in area. These houses provide full accommodation for living, sleeping, eating, and sanitation within a compact package. Many are constructed on dual axle flat bed trailers to permit portability. Don't like your neighbors? Hitch up and leave.
There is lot of information on these buildings on the web. Interspersed is a lot of BAD information about code compliance methodologies. This blog is intended to set the record straight.
The first question is determining if the building code is applicable to the structure or not. It is my opinion that any tiny house built and left on a trailer that is provided with tires and a license plate is not subject to building code oversight. If you are in Colorado, the legal precedent affirming this is Eason v. Town of Erie.
Trailers constitute the building code dead zone that caused HUD to establish requirements for these factory built "mobile homes" years ago. The feds determined that nobody was paying any attention to these type of structures and decided that rules needed to be made. The old "mobile homes" burned hard and fast. Something needed to be done. I am not sure how the HUD regulations affect owner built "tiny houses" and don't proclaim to be an expert. This is one regulatory agency I try to avoid due to their notorious record for convoluted regulations and interpretations. However, I do believe that the "mobile home" must be at least 40' in length and 320sf in area to fall under their jurisdiction.
If the house is sited on the ground (no trailer), then the building code comes into play. The International Residential Code regulates one and two family dwellings and their accessory structures. Many proponents cite the permit exclusion provisions for "sheds" that are less than 200sf (120 sf in the 2006 edition) in area. This is not a valid permit exclusion for the typical tiny house.
The key here is the word "shed". The code states, "One-story detached accessory structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses and similar uses...". It is hard to argue that these are mere tool sheds or playhouses when they meet the entire definition of Dwelling and Dwelling Unit contained in the code.
2009 International Residential Code (IRC) Definitions:
DWELLING. Any building that contains one or two dwelling units used, intended, or designed to be built, used, rented, leased, let or hired out to be occupied, or that are occupied for living purposes.
DWELLING UNIT. A single unit providing complete independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation.
One could easily argue that a lack of one of the "permanent provisions" would preclude meeting the definition of "dwelling unit". Substitution of the built-in permanent stove with a plug-in counter top microwave would be one example. Elimination of the bathroom facilities is another.
If it isn't a complete "dwelling unit", then what is it? One could then argue it is a nice playhouse...exempt from building code permit requirements.
Assuming that all permanent provisions are in place and the local code official makes the determination that the building is a "dwelling unit", the fun begins.
The IRC prescribes some minimum areas for the dwelling. At least one room must be 120sf in area. All other habitable rooms except the kitchen must be 70sf in area. Minimum room width must be 7'. Minimum ceiling headroom must be 7'-0". The list goes on...and as you can see, so will your tiny house... going on down the road to some locale with no building code. Traditional tiny houses simply cannot comply with the IRC if they are determined to be dwelling units.
A respondent stated the she thought that it would be possible to make the 120sf minimum area work. That may be possible. I will pick this idea up and explore it in a Part 2 post as a follow up to this discussion.
Some will wonder why the code has so many restrictive requirements. These provisions go back beyond any memory, probably having their roots in the "tenement codes" first promulgated in places like New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. The intent was to provide for minimum habitability standards for conventional houses. Slum lord provisions, if you will.
Truth be known, it is unlikely that any studies or analysis was conducted to ascertain that a building is safer or more habitable simply by having a single room with 120sf in area. Unfortunately, those that came up with these standards are no longer around to justify their existence. Old "tried and proven" code lore becomes absolute when the original basis for its inclusion is lost.
Here is the moral of the story: Always do your homework first. Know the rules before you build or purchase. Understand the loopholes provided by the code and local case law. Query your code official on the requirements prior to bringing your building on the site. Be prepared to surmount some hurdles before enjoying your new-found minimalist venture.