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There’s Madness Behind This Method


I recently contacted the ICC to ask what purpose limiting minimum house size serves. I also asked what, if any, testing has been done to show that the limits achieve their intended purpose. Steve Daggers of the ’s public relations team had this to say, “The specific purpose of the International Residential Code is to establish minimum requirements to safeguard the public’s safety through affordability, structural strength, means of egress (exit) facilities, , sanitation, light and ventilation, energy conservation and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to built environment”. “Based on building science, technical knowledge, and lessons learned from experience, the purpose of a building code is to establish minimum requirements necessary to provide safety, guard public health and reduce property losses”. ** (Steve’s full response can be found below).
 
The regulations governing the size of America’s homes are, reportedly, intended to protect us from the untold dangers of small houses. We’re told they exist to guard public safety and provide affordability and  efficiency. These longstanding claims are, allegedly, based on building science and lessons learned from experience.
 
Without more substantive detail, it’s hard to know what this really means. The most independent studies clearly show that smaller houses are actually much safer, more efficient, healthier and more affordable than their larger correlate. And the collective experience of hundreds of folks whodesign, build and inhabit houses of just 50 to 500 square feet suggests the same.
 
Safety Second
 

When it comes to surviving a fire, egress is key. The closer you are to a good exit the greater your chance of making it out of a burning building alive will be. In the event of a fire, you’re more likely to make it out of a smoldering cottage, where windows and doors are never far from reach, than out of a smoldering Hearst Castle or high rise.   
 
Beyond proximity (and ensuring a door or window will actually open during a fire), an exit’s size is also clearly important. Until new testing proves otherwise, the tried and true rules pertaining to safe emergency egress (ANSI) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), should be adhered to. But our current building codes mandate egress (window, door, hallway and stairway sizes) more than twice ANSI/NFPA minimum recommendations. The variations seem to be as unsubstantiated as they are arbitrary (see ANSI A119.5 and NFPA 1192 minimums vs. the International Code Council’s 310.6.2, 310.6.2&3, 310.6.1, 310.1.1, 310.1.2 &3, 311.4.2).
 
Shear Audacity
 

Most earthquake-related deaths are caused by the collapse of structures, and large buildings tend to fall more often and harder than small ones. An article on Haiti’s 2010 earthquake published by Incorporated Research Institutions on Seismology and The University of Portland reports that, the death toll in Haiti would have been higher if the structures there hadn’t been so small. ***
 
Another study by The World Bank and The New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID) has shown that larger buildings are more easily toppled by a quake while “Buildings that are not too heavy, modestly proportioned, with good connections and properly attached to their foundations will remain”.
 
In addition, with the relative capacity to resist the shear forces posed by earthquakes, small buildings are also more resilient to the shear forces of hurricanes and other strong winds… as long as they’re fastened to the ground, of course. 

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** Hello Jay,

Here are our responses, in easy to understand language not technical terms.Thanks for your inquiry.What's the stated purpose of these codes? The International Codes, or I-Codes, published by the International Code Council provide minimum safeguards for people at home, at school and in the workplace. The International Council is a member-focused association dedicated to the development of codes and standards used by the building industry to provide safe, sustainable, and affordable structures. The I-Codes are a complete set of comprehensive, coordinated building safety, fire prevention and energy-efficient codes. Building codes benefit public safety and support the construction industry’s need for one set of codes without regional limitations. 

The specific purpose of the International Residential Code is to establish minimum equirements to safeguard the public’s safety through affordability, structural strength, means of egress (exit)  facilities, stability, sanitation, light and ventilation, energy conservation and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment. The International Residential Code provides safety to firefighters and emergency responders during emergency operations. The
International Residential Code is in use or adopted in 49 states at the state or local level, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Legislative bodies are not obligated to adopt model building safety or fire prevention codes, and may write their own code or portions of a code. A model code has no legal standing until it is adopted as law by a legislative body (state legislature, county board, city council, etc.). When adopted as law, all owners of property within the boundaries of the adopting jurisdiction are required to comply with the referred codes. Because codes are updated every three years, existing structures usually are required
 
What, if any, testing has been done to show that the codes achieve their intended goal? Based on building science, technical knowledge, and lessons learned from experience, the purpose of a building code is to establish minimum requirements necessary to provide safety, guard public health and reduce property losses. Model building codes provide protection from man-made and natural disasters. Safe buildings are achieved through proper design and construction practices in concert with a code administration program that ensures compliance. Model codes actually keep construction
costs down by establishing uniformity in the construction industry. This uniformity allows building and materials manufacturers to do business on a larger scale—statewide, regionally, nationally or internationally. Larger scale allows cost savings to be passed on to the consumer. Codes also help protect real estate investments, commercial and personal, by providing a minimum level of construction quality and safety. Many construction materials are reviewed for code compliance by the ICC-Evaluation Service.
 
Steve Daggers
VP Communications
International Code Council
 
***
 “A simple shack’s collapse is likely to cause less damage to human safety than a multi-floor building that collapses”. -Architect, John McAslan, who has been working on a project linked to the Clinton Global Initiative in Haiti
 
(http://www.iris.edu/hq/files/programs/education_and_outreach/retm/tm_100112_haiti/BuildingsInEQs_2.pdf )
 
“To be earthquake proof, buildings, structures and their foundations need to be built to be resistant to sideways loads. The lighter the building is, the less the loads”. - Rollo Reid
C Eng FIStrucE, Director, Reid Steel. 

Posted by Jay Shafer — May 06, 2013

Comments

Tord Martell:

Hello Jay,

Public authorities and politicians have a need to control people. In detail.
How would the world look if people lived how they wanted, if people were eating what they wanted, drove the car they wanted and so on? (We can’t have that, can we?)

Then there is also the property tax. Large and expensive properties generate more tax revenues than small houses. Even if I understand zoning in some cases, I see no reason for not creating free zones.

Banks goes along with the authorities on this, because you will have to borrow a lot to own a big house. The one who owes a lot of money isn’t free, and un-free people are easier to control than free people.

But Steve Daggers’ reply disclosed an even more direct reason – that the building industry is the driving engine behind ICC (just as the food and pharmaceutical industry controls FDA and oil companies control their regulations).

May 10 2013 at 06:05 PM

R. Sherman:

Land use regulations of all sorts are designed to protect the status quo. In most cases, the prohibition against smaller square foot homes and high density type developments are to keep the “riff-raff” out, and not for safety purposes. There’s no reason a 200 square foot home cannot be as safe or safer than a McMansion.

May 11 2013 at 10:05 AM

ET:

Here’s someone who part of the building code, is willing to discuss it and like tiny houses Tom Meyers:

http://sustainablebuildingcodes.blogspot.ca/

May 11 2013 at 03:05 PM

Joost:

In The Netherlands there are minimum and maximum building sizes for specific house building sites, but that has to do with the type of house meant to be built c.q. the type or income level of households that the governments wants at that particular building location c.q. street. At new building sites the Dutch government does not want very large house next to very small houses but they aim for uniformity. I do not know of the existance of minimum house sizes in The Netherlands as such so I think building tiny houses should be possible within The Netherlands.

May 12 2013 at 11:05 AM

s brooke:

bottomline is they can’t generate enough revenue for cities or towns, to sustain the political parties in power. POWER=MONEY-=POWER! they don’t care about us only their coffers and positions!

May 12 2013 at 01:05 PM

Richard Callaway:

As a Code Certified Building Official for almost 20 years, I believe I can offer some insight.
As to controlling people, they can only be controlled as much as they allow. Every jurisdiction has a review board and variance board where people are allowed to request variance to the adopted codes and regulations. I personally have had a developer request to build smaller homes because the larger were not selling. The request was granted.
Which goes to the second statement, banks in control. If houses aren’t selling, the banks can’t loan money. So shouldn’t they not care about the size of the house. As long as they are selling what is the problem?
At many public meetings area residents speak against smaller as they believe it will lower their property values.
Instead of blaming government, how about educating the public. AS I feel sure if people ask for changes, the jurisdiction will change.
AS to the ICC they have used much testing to back up their guidelines. And also, the regulations of the ICC do not allow materials manufactures to vote on any code changes. You can submit code changes and present them to be voted on at any code conference you so wish. Maybe instead of blaming everyone in codes and government, you could step up to the plate and do something about it.

As to egress requirements. These have been looked at and tested by many agencies. And I for one am concerned about putting my family or myself in a structure that does not have an industry standard and tested means of egress.
In other words, are you willing to bet your life on it?

May 12 2013 at 08:05 PM

Rebecca:

Richard, I was following you until you got to the “are you willing to bet your life on it?” Typical scare tactic. My son lives in a code-approved 2,400 square foot house with his wife and two children… and no, they probably could not get out safely in case of a fire. I live in a cabin, and I could get out safely. Having worked over 30 year in corporate/lobbying law firms that write most of these laws…. they are not written for safety, but profits, and for large corporations or industry groups.

May 14 2013 at 02:05 PM

Chris:

I strongly disagree with the notion that small houses are bad because they bring in less tax revenue. This is something I have heard from the neighbors next to my tiny house building site and it could not be more wrong.

In small towns the largest expense by far is schools. Between 50 and 65 percent of town budgets go to pay for schools. The cost per student in my state is $8000-$12000 annually. Only the largest homes in this area pays anywhere close to an $8000 property tax bill.

IF you own a very large and expensive home AND you have ONLY ONE school age child then your property taxes MIGHT BARELY pay for your kids education. In other words, most property owners do not pay their kids way thru school….the rest of us with no kids pay for the school system.

How many tiny homes will have children living in them? Very very very few! Towns should be rolling out the red carpet to tiny home dwellers because it generates revenue without adding expenses (other than sending out the tax bill).

May 21 2013 at 01:05 PM

Constitutionalist:

I lived on a sailboat for a few years and learned to appreciate the wisdom of living in small spaces; also the much lower ongoing costs: maintenance, heating, and cooling, that the smaller footprint provides.

I have been looking into this for quite some time and have noticed two topics seems to be absent from discussion – the Constitution. There is no way that a ‘minimum size’ requirement, nor any consideration of property values could hold-up to constitutional scrutiny. Folks who are concerned about such things have the option to live in the kind of planned community where everyone agrees to keep their homes up to contracted standards, but such rules have no place in the general housing market. If people are ‘allowed’ to live in mobile homes, any stipulations beyond those required for a mobile home is an unfair burden on property owners. The other topic is personal liberty. Aren’t we told that we live in a ‘free country’? If so, as long as what we do on our own property doesn’t directly effect our neighbors, there should be no prohibitions on how we use it. If a person wants to live in a tent on his own property, what right to others have to try to prohibit that choice?

June 15 2013 at 05:06 PM

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