House Party Fail - Part 3
Houses of 15,000 square feet and
larger are being built in accordance with the ICC’s new International
Green Construction Code. The good news here is that America’s mansions
are now likely to be built for more efficiently and with fewer harmful
materials. The bad news is that, by lionizing such consumptive projects,
these incentives may mitigate the construction of truly sustainable
homes. What’s more, by attaching the “green” to its prohibition on small
houses, the ICC may be doing
more harm than good. Promoting the use of more of its backer’s ostensibly sustainable products may be what a member focused association should be doing, but presenting undue consumption as safer, more
affordable, more efficient and “green” is clearly not.
At 2,300 square feet, the average American home now emits 18 tons worth of greenhouse gasses annually. It increases deforestation and fossil fuel consumption, and it perpetuates our dependence on foreign oil. By lifting the current ban on smaller houses, this degradation could be significantly reduced.
By Popular Demand
of industry and government efforts brought us here, but it could never
have happened without our help. We the People have been pushing to ban
small houses as hard as any corporate or governmental institution.
Neighborhood covenants that prohibit little abodes are developed by the
members of homeowners’ associations concerned that their city or
counties’ laws don’t go far enough. By prohibiting residences any
smaller than 1,500, 2000 or, sometimes, even 6,000 square feet, these
regional restrictions make our countries’ legislated prohibition look
relatively benign. In addition, most of us who land in more house than
we actually need or can afford have not been forced there by law or
lending practices. We have gone there by choice, in part because we have
mistakenly assumed that the value of square footage (usable or not)
would forever continue to parallel resale value and that resale values
would continue to increase forever-and-ever.
There are probably as many reasons why Americans tend to reject small houses as there are Americans who reject them. While reasons do vary, it seems the ill-founded claim that smaller homes diminish neighboring property values has held as much sway as anything. It’s funny, then, that well-made little houses have never actually been shown to lower the
property values of neighboring large residences. In fact, the opposite holds true. When standard-sized housing of standard materials and design goes up next to smaller, far less expensive dwellings, for which some of the budget saved on square footage has been invested in quality materials and design, the value of the smaller places invariably plummets as that of the relatively derelict mansions is raised. In California, houses of just 400 square feet are selling for 10 percent more per square foot than the cost of 2,000 square foot houses in the immediate area. Needless to say, post-occupancy reports show that, though they are less expensive overall, these little homes have not had a negative impact on neighboring property values. Much to the contrary, the resale value of American houses of 2,500 square feet or more appreciated 57 percent between 1980 and 2000, while houses of 1,200 or less appreciated 78 percent. Small houses appreciated $37 more per square foot. ****
Our Darkest Hour
It’s always darkest before the dawn… or (sometimes) just before it gets completely black. Fortunately, things do seem to be looking up. The once maligned tiny house has gained some traction amongst those who’ve read the writing on the wall. The past decade has even produced what’s being called the “Small House Movement”- a widespread celebration of simple living; Prudent contractors are finally building smaller houses to meet growing demand; Iconoclast building officials are discretely suggesting to small house fans that they make use of generous loopholes in the antiquated code*****; Forward-thinking states and zoning officials are allowing for (and even providing incentives to) put granny flats in more backyards; And, where the construction of little abodes has not won official favor, people are building them anyway.
As long as the law ignores justice and reason, then just and reasonable people will ignore the law. At this point, civil disobedience is not only justified, for many it remains the only option. Thousands of Americans are already living beneath the radar in new structures commonly regarded as too small to meet code while others subvert the system from the within and still others express their dissent more loudly in the public sphere. Many of these citizens live largely outsideAmerica’s system of imposed excess. It now remains for the law to catch up.
Viva la Tiny Revolution!
****(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 2001)
*****Here are some, but surely not all, loopholes that have allowed some conscientious folks to put right over law…
The “Camping” Loophole: Depending on your local zoning, temporary structures like tents, and RVs can be positioned on many residential properties, so long as they’re not connected to utilities for more than 30 days. While it is generally illegal to live in such structures, camping in one is typically allowed. It is thru this loophole that I bought a 600 square foot house, rented it to a friend, and “camped-out” in my own backyard in a very nice 100 square foot, hand-built trailer for five years. I was allowed to do this in a residential part of Iowa City so long as I disconnected from my hose and extension cord every 30 days for a few seconds.
The “Buildings of No Consequence” Loophole: This clause can sometimes be used in conjunction with the Camping Loophole. Most municipalities allow for the construction of a structure of less than 120 (sometimes 100 or 200) square feet without a permit. While you usually can’t legally live in your shed, you may be allowed to “camp-out” in there indefinitely.
The “Adult Adoption” Loophole: Some
cities and counties will let you put as many “sheds” in your yard as
you want, thereby allowing for an entire village of no consequence (this
idea was actually recommended to me by a building official in Nevada
County). What often stand in the way, then, are laws governing how many
unrelated people can live on one property. At this point you might
consider adult adoption. Not only does it provide a legal way for a lot
of friends to live together, it even entitles them to the same shared
benefits traditionally provided by marriage. This process is a hit
amongst certain gay folks who couldn’t otherwise tie the knot. The “RV
Park” Loophole: Some trailer parks now allow full-time occupancy. This
means you can, essentially, live in a very small house in one place
forever- so long as it’s on wheels.
The “Desert Sanctuary” Loophole: Some remote parts of the U.S. still don’t have building codes or zoning. You can live in whatever you want there.
The “Sovereign Nations” Loophole: Reservations operate under their own authority and rarely subject themselves to laws that prohibit frugality or commonsense.
The “Caregiver Clause”: Most areas will let a caregiver live in a trailer on a client’s residential property. Migrant workers on rural properties are also good to go.
The “No Bedroom” Loophole: Current laws demand that every bedroom be no less than 70 square feet. They do not say that you have to include a bedroom. More efficient design can sometimes be achieved by putting a sofa bed in the living room.
The “Unenforceability” Loophole: Also known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Loophole, this one’s a favorite amongst a lot of building and zoning folks I’ve talked to. As a researcher of this sort of stuff, I often have to ask more questions
than many officials care to hear. Several have suggested that, if I wantto live in a tiny house, I should just do it like everyone else… by not telling them I’m going to do it. So long as the structure is somewhat hidden and nosy neighbors aren’t prompted into tattling, plausible deniability is maintained. As one savvy Iowa City authority put it, “ These codes aren’t even enforceable. We don’t do bedroom checks”.