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Tiny houses are getting a big boost of legitimacy

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A big step in the tiny direction

tiny house with front porch
A tiny house in a village of tiny houses for the homeless in Austin, Texas
Photo by Celesta Danger

If a million twee reality shows and blogs about tiny houses suggest that the micro home scene has reached a fever pitch, then recurring headlines about people unable to find a space to park their tiny homes—or worse, getting kicked out of them—are sure to temper the enthusiasm. The question remains: Tiny houses may have arrived, but will they stay a while?

Well, judging by a piece of news celebrated across the tiny house community last week, the answer seems to be that yes, in at least one big way, tiny houses and all those who love them are carving out their own place in our built environment.

Here’s the deal: Currently, when folks want to build a tiny house as a primary residence, they don’t have much to show their local building official except maybe bits and pieces of tiny house success stories on the internet. But that may change soon.

In a recent meeting of the International Code Council (ICC), the organization that creates the International Residential Code (IRC) model building code used throughout the United States, an appendix specifically addressing tiny houses passed the final round of voting, after receiving two-thirds majority vote. This means that, pending confirmation by a validation committee and the ICC board (a formality, mostly), the appendix’s specifications will officially be incorporated into the 2018 edition of the IRC.

The new tiny house appendix sets important health and safety standards for tiny houses

As we’ve pointed out before, having a tiny house that’s well-designed and well-built is just as (if not more) important than how cute it looks from the outside. The newly-approved appendix—spearheaded by Tiny House Build’s Andrew Morrison, a veteran builder who lives and works out of the 207-square-foot “hOMe,” along with a team of architects, builders, designers, and educators—offers much needed safety standards for tiny houses, which are defined in the appendix as single dwelling units under 400 square feet excluding lofts.

The main points of the appendix (public comment RB168-16)? Lowering the minimum ceiling height to accommodate lofts; legalizing sleeping lofts; adding emergency egress and rescue requirements that take into account sleeping lofts; adding stair and ladder requirements.

So, whereas building officials previously had nothing to reference when fielding tiny house requests, they can now grant a “Certificate of Occupancy” to any tiny house built to the standards outlined in the appendix, provided the municipality has adapted the 2018 IRC (tiny house appendix included) as the code. But that brings us to this reality...

It might take a while for local governments to adopt the new appendix

The IRC is refreshed every three years, but that doesn’t mean every town, city, county in America is caught up on their building code. In fact, some places are still operating on, say, the 2012 or even a ‘90s version of the IRC.

Furthermore, even if municipalities straight up decide to adopt the 2018 edition of the IRC, the tiny house appendix, or any appendix really, doesn’t come automatically attached. They’ll have to specifically choose to adopt each appendix.

That’s why the next challenge for Morrison’s team is to continue the grassroots approach to making sure all the jurisdictions that have the appendix available to them will actually adopt it. Even if they don’t, Morrison argues, people can still point to the fact that the appendix is in the national code, to make their case with building officials.

And building a tiny house still won’t be a simple process

First off, the new appendix only addresses tiny houses not on wheels. Morrison says he will immediately start working on another appendix that deals with tiny houses on wheels. He believes it will be a challenge, but less of one than were they to try to approve code dealing with both mobile and immobile tiny houses all in one go; The already approved appendix sets up an important precedent.

And then there’s zoning. The biggest barriers to tiny houses truly going mainstream are two-fold: Whereas building codes govern how you build a structure, zoning regulations govern where you can put that structure. The new appendix gives tiny houses legality, building-code-wise, but doesn’t touch on zoning, at least not directly.

“A lot of the zoning issues have come up because nobody knows how to classify these [tiny] houses,” says Morrison in a phone interview. “So if you had a tiny house that actually had a Certificate of Occupancy as a house—as a primary residence—then that’s going to make it easier for zoning officials to say, ‘OK, I recognize that it’s small, but it’s still a house.’”

So what’s the big deal?

Despite all the work left to do moving forward, the fact that this code got written and approved within five months is impressive. Morrison says several building officials who supported the appendix expressed excitement and shock at the outcome since changes of this magnitude usually take “two to three code cycles, or six to nine years, to get approved.”

That’s likely a testament to just how much building departments around the country have been hearing about tiny houses. It also suggests tiny houses still have the momentum, even from a regulatory standpoint. And that’s a glimmer of hope for tiny-house-friendly zoning.

Watch: 5 Cool Tiny Living Spaces