Tutorial: Tiny Houses & Zoning Bylaws

Tutorial: Zoning Bylaws & Tiny Houses


Tiny houses are making waves across the country.  Many towns and cities are reassessing their age-old zoning laws and creating legal infrastructure for tiny houses.  Hopefully, the future will hold much clearer guidelines for tiny homes.  However, most towns have not assessed the topic yet.


The following is a beginner’s guide to zoning laws associated with tiny houses and is for people who wish to find a legal place to park a tiny home (be it on wheels or on a permanent foundation).   Becoming informed about the town’s zoning laws will give you a stronger opportunity to discuss the topic with town officials and ask knowledgeable questions.  Zoning bylaws can be very lengthy, touching upon topics from factories to swimming pools.   That is why this resource will teach you how to navigate the codes by using keyword searches, making the process more efficient.


The details provided in this guide are intended to help people who do not have extensive experience with navigating computer search tools.  If you have persistent trouble navigating your computer for these tools, seek the help of a friend who might have more experience with technology.

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The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation. – Albert Einstein

Tiny house villages for people without houses: a winter roundup

A series of tiny house villages for people without houses have been in the news recently.  Here’s a roundup:

  • Alternet has an article on Dignity Village in Portland, which is governed by a democratically elected council of nine residents and town-hall style meetings for big decisions.
  • The GoodNewsNetwork has a piece on a tiny house village in Seattle that has been built on Lutheran Church property to house people.DignityHut_610px
  • The Savannah Morning News has an update on the efforts of the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless to build a tiny house village aimed at homeless vets.

For some perspectives on tiny house villages for people without houses, we recommend:

Adult Dorms: Microunits + Community

At the Lab, we are always interested in ways that micro-units (be they in apartments or tiny houses) and community-building mix.  We were naturally excited to see a recent Atlantic article on “Dorms for Grownups”:

Coworking is probably a familiar concept at this point, but Evans wants to take his idea a step further. On Friday, on the top two floors of the building, he’s starting construction on a space he envisions as a dorm for Millennials, though he cringes at the word “dorm.” Commonspace, as he’s calling it, will feature 21 microunits, which each pack a tiny kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living space into 300-square-feet. The microunits surround shared common areas including a chef’s kitchen, a game room, and a TV room.

We like to talk about the ‘hardware’ and the ‘software’ of these projects.  The hardware is the physical design of the space. The software are the community elements laid over the space. Commonspace seems to be going hard on the software:

Worried about the complicated social dynamics of so many Millennials in one living unit? Fear not, Evans and partner John Talarico are hiring a “social engineer” who will facilitate group events and maintain harmony among roommates.

Read the full article here.

Massachusetts Regulatory Review = Tiny House Opportunity

We at the Lab received this message from a group working to #LegalizeTiny in the Cape/Islands area of Massachusetts:

On March 31, 2015 Governor Baker issued Executive Order #562 commissioning a complete and comprehensive review of every existing Executive Branch regulation in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR).

This is an important opportunity for those of us interested in making tiny houses a safe and legal housing option to report on our experience with State regulations such as the Mass Buulding code and Sanitary Codes.

The review process gives tiny house advocates the opportunity to point out where you have found that State regulations go beyond the requirements of health and safety (and common sense) and become a barrier to the tiny house initiative.

Send comments to: http://www.mass.gov/anf/regreview.html

Tiny house groups of the Cape and Islands can attend a general topic “listening session” on the Cape (at which you could provide feedback on the Mass Building Code 780 CMR 51.00):

Thursday, November 19, 2015, 1PM-3PM
Sturgis Library
3090 Main Street
Barnstable, MA 02630

The Island Coalition for Tiny Houses will have people attending the Barnstable listening session: we hope to meet you there!

Contact us at: icth@hushmail.com


Housing and Friendship

In Vox this week, David Roberts has a great piece on the connection between housing and friendship.  In addressing why the role of friends tapers off in our middle years, he shines the spotlight on housing designed around cars:

Why should it require explicit scheduling to see a friend who lives “within striking distance”? Why shouldn’t proximity do some of the work? That answer, for many Americans, is that anywhere beyond a few blocks away might as well be miles; it all requires a car. We do not encounter one another in cars. We grind along together anonymously, often in misery.

Car-based urban design, according to Roberts, limits spontaneous contact, which is a key ingredient to building friendships:

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

How do we increase spontaneous contact? First, according Roberts, is better public spaces:SunwardCohousingPlayStructure2005

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)

The second, is co-housing:

The idea behind baugruppen, and co-housing generally, is that it’s nice to live in an extended community, to have people to rely on beyond family. It’s nice to have bustling shared spaces where you can run into people you know without planning it beforehand. It’s nice to have friends for your kids, places where they can play safely, and other adults who can share kid-tending duties.

SunwardPiazzaGathering2005We at the Lab like to say “when people say they loved their time in college, we don’t think they were talking about the classes or parties…they were talking about living near their friends.”  How can we design housing and neighborhoods to promote friendship?

Informal Office’s new tiny house village for the unhoused

The folks at Informal Office, a design practice located in Lexington, Kentucky, recently sent the Lab information on their new plan for a tiny house village for the unhoused.  Below is photos and information on their project, Under One Roof:

A call for proposals was initiated by the AIA North Carolina Activate 14 committee and the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness to address a new typology of urban housing in the form of a twelve unit community of tiny homes just outside of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Activate 14 called for designs that would offer affordable housing to serve people without a stable dwelling place and as a way toTiny House-3 (1)enliven the social fabric of underserved areas and populations.

The shortlisted design by Informal Office of Lexington, KY asked a simple question: When considering housing for the formerly homeless, how is it different than housing for anyone else? Issues of ownership, personal privacy, and storage were pr ioritized, but ultimately, the architecture should make homeless housing a seamless part of its community. Homeless individuals constantly live their private lives in public. Despite this public exposure, there is a clear social disengagement between these individuals and the public majority. Their design consists of a row of shotgun houses connected by a single roof and shared front porch. This connectivity establishes a series of private-public relationships along the front porch, and allows the residents to cultivate a sense of individual ownership while simultaneously feeling a part of both the immediate residential community, and the larger downtown area.Tiny House-2 (1)

Their project, Under One Roof, is a connected row of twelve 144 square foot houses flanking a centered community building. Residents are both owners of their private unit and active members of their twelve-home neighborhood. Individuality is expressed by unique roof pitches and color choices for each home. The single roof and shared porch unite these individual structures. The structure of the roof is braced by adjacent units and the continuous front porch becomes a linear social scene visible from the street. The homes, community building, and porch, work together to define the project as a cohesive architectural mass; a single building made from individual parts. As a way to present a substantial scale to the street front, Informal Office chose to consider the unification of tiny houses, into what at first glance appears to be a single building. This idea is reinforced by the use of a permeable porch screen that helps define the project as a single building consisting of parts. Tiny homes, although small in scale as individual units, should still offer a sense of stability and permanence. Every resident has their own full bathroom, full height storage wall, and sleeping quarters organized as a “shorter shotgun house”. Shared kitchen, dining, laundry, and meeting spaces are housed in the community building.

The primary cladding material of the units, community building, and porch screen is recycled wood shipping palettes sourced from a nearby palette recycling center. Once deconstructed, the shipping palettes provide a variety of dimensions and unpredictable textures. Using appropriate scale, simple site strategy, widely available materials, and a continuity of social spaces, the project proposes a housing typology for transitional communities that uses commonly understood building techniques in a way that produces a distinctive, but familiar response to the surrounding context.

See more designs for Under One Roof here.

Legal headaches

We at the Lab recently came upon a recent story in a Michigan newspaper with a disheartening title: “Tiny house turns into big headache for Michigan man.”

We were expecting it to be about how tiny house living was not what it’s usually cracked up to be.  Haters gonna hate, we shrugged.  But then, as we kept reading, it turned out that the big headache had little to do with the tiny house experience.  Rather, it had to do with outdated regulations:

For Bellows it had to do finding a legal way to keep his tiny house on his own piece of land. He found a 3.8-acre piece of land in Lapeer County, but Bellows said in order to be there legally the home had to be at least 960-square feet.

So in January 2012 — after almost five months of living in his tiny house on his own piece of land — he was forced to move out.

Now, as the tiny house movement is on the brink of going mainstream, the project of legalizing tiny — updating housing regulations to allow for voluntary tiny house living — is more important than ever!  Read the full story here.

Recycling Kitchens?

The New York Times recently ran an interesting story on ways recycling luxury kitchens can lower the cost of housing:

In New York, it’s no secret that some buyers of multimillion-dollar homes are willing to do whatever it takes to create a residence that reflects their personal taste — even if it means tearing out brand-new or lightly used kitchens and bathrooms that were installed by a previous owner or developer. The traditional way of dealing with that material is to demolish and dispose of it.

…However, some environmentally minded homeowners and contractors choose to take things apart more carefully — a process known as deconstruction — and then donate the materials to salvage operations, so they can be reused by others. For budget-conscious homeowners willing to do a little hunting, and to be flexible about design decisions, that means there’s a ready supply of high-quality building materials available for surprisingly low prices.

Read the full story, “Recycled Kitchens, Salvaged Splendor,” here.

The Millennial Commune

The New York Times just ran a feature on the growing trend of Millennial communes:

Pure House is among a handful of businesses that are renting rooms at a premium in exchange for access to amenities, a dormlike atmosphere and an instant community. For a certain set of New Yorkers, often new arrivals to the city with an income but no rental history, Pure House offers something of a reprieve. No credit check. No draconian rules about earning 40 times the monthly rent. No 12-month lease.

There’s a major community element:

“We live in a super-disconnected city that has tons and tons of people, but it can feel really lonely here,” said Harrison Iuliano, who until last week worked as the programming director of Pure House, which rents out rooms to about 40 people in nine apartments in various buildings around Williamsburg. “Our goal is to make that a nonissue.”

But some are way pricey:

Instead, they sign a 30-day membership agreement, paying from $1,600 to $4,000 a month for a room in an apartment to be shared with others who, theoretically, have a similar worldview. The arrangement is a commercial outgrowth of co-living, taking life with roommates to a different level.

And the housing security is dicey:

But perhaps the biggest drawback is the 30-day lease that many co-living advocates rally behind. It provides residents with virtually no housing security at all. Their rent could rise or they could be displaced with as little as a month’s notice.

“We are hopeful that many of our members will be able to stay in their homes after the company winds down,” Mr. Currier of the disbanding Campus wrote in an email.

As the co-housing renaissance matures, can we help keep the benefits — community and flexibility — while lowering the price tag and increasing stability?