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Tiny Homes: Codes

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Sparked by all of the conservation efforts, tiny homes have recently been presented in TV programs and other forms of media.  Call it a social movement – where people are choosing to downsize the space they live in. The most popular reasons for downsizing includes environmental concerns, financial concerns, and the desire for more time and freedom from the cost and effort of having a large home. One solution is to live smaller. While tiny houses are not for everyone, there are some good aspects for this approach. The typical American home is over 2,000 square feet, whereas the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.

There are some huddles for taking this approach that need to be addressed in the rules and regulations associated with construction. Both the local zoning regulations and building codes have many elements that could prevent construction of tiny homes in our cities and/or neighborhoods. We will only look some of the building code issues associated with this movement.

First, if the tiny home is on a foundation it will be regulated by the building codes. If the tiny home is on wheels or axles, it is considered a mobile home and would be regulated under those rules. Factory built homes also fall under a different set of regulations, outside of the building code. Currently the state does not have any specific regulations addressing tiny homes, but Housing and Community Development (HCD) has issued a bulletin (Bulletin 2016-01) on what current regulations do cover. Every building in the State needs to comply with something. Here is a link to the Bulletin issued by HCD:

http://www.hcd.ca.gov/docs/IB2016-01.pdf

The current building codes, California Building Code or California Residential Code would place some limitations on tiny homes and perhaps would end up not making them so tiny. Currently the codes do address the following in some way:

  • Minimum floor areas
  • Minimum ceiling heights
  • Minimum stair geometries, including handrails and guards
  • Exit and egress windows

If one were to design and build a tiny home – how would you go about getting through the building approval process? Using the code as is today, it is possible to come up with something that is less than 400 sf and would still be comfortable. If one were to design something smaller and push the design envelope beyond the code, the best way under the current code would be to approach it with the use of Section 104.11: Alternative Materials, Design and Methods of Construction. Even using this code approach, one would have to justify why a smaller stair geometry, for example, meets the intent and provides a reasonable level of safety. One would have to do some research in finding justification through test data that a different geometry is as safe as what is in the code.

There is another approach and some light at the end of the tunnel. Proposed for the 2018 edition of the International Residential Code is a new appendix section V. This new appendix will address some of the issues in permitting tiny homes, such as ceiling heights and stair geometry. It is proposed as an appendix section, which makes it optional for the local building official to use and/or adopt. The 2018 edition of the International Codes will be available soon. To even allow this appendix to be in the code was controversial. If the standards for tiny homes are acceptable, why not apply these to all homes since the code is a minimum standard? Some building officials thought the appendix would open a can of worms for smaller/lesser standards to be used everywhere and therefore compromising the already minimum safety standards.

If we expand our use of tiny homes to tiny condos/apartments, sometimes called efficiency dwelling units, we need to address and include people with disabilities. This is another area, totally dependent on space.

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