Tiny Houses, Tiny Neighborhoods
By Wendy Priesnitz
The small houses in the Greenwood Avenue
Cottages Pocket Neighborhood in Shoreline, Washington. Architect:
Ross Chapin, Architects; Developer: The Cottage Company.
Photo (c) Ross Chapin, Architects
Back in 2005, when I first wrote in
this magazine about tiny houses, they were a novelty for many people, and an
extension of the pursuit of a minimalist lifestyle for others. But that was
before the recession and the escalation of concern about climate change
spiked interest in the idea of reducing one’s costs and one’s possessions
(and therefore one’s ecological footprint). So a full-fledged tiny house
movement has developed in recent years, and it continues to grow stealthily.
There are an increasing number of people attending workshops and open
houses, and visiting blogs, in order to learn about living in and building
tiny houses. And there is no lack of alluring examples to be found online.
Like any disruption of the status
quo, there are barriers to building very small houses, including building
codes, zoning bylaws, and financing constraints.
Some people are working on those issues, but in most cases they are working
around them. One tactic often used is to build the house on a steel frame
with wheels, mimicking an RV. However, some people wonder why you wouldn’t
just live in a real RV or boat, instead. Then there are those who think
that, in colder climates, the ubiquitous tiny condo spaces are preferable
than standalone tiny houses, since they use resources more efficiently.
One interesting development
accompanying the increasing interest in small and tiny houses is a return to
village-scale living. We are, I think, at the beginning of a new movement
that will see tiny communities of tiny houses popping up. The ones currently
in place or being planned include an urban demonstration project designed to
advocate for tiny houses, planned communities designed to accommodate the
homeless, a few attempts at developing what are legally RV parks, a boutique
“hotel” that’s a collection of four tiny houses on wheels, and more upmarket
developments of cottage-style housing – small but not tiny – designed to fit
within existing regulations. There are also some existing eco-villages that
allow tiny houses to be built.
When you’re living in a small space,
it’s nice to get outside and important to know (and cooperate with) your
neighbors. So grouping tiny houses into neighborhoods or villages makes
sense, allowing for shared amenities and central gathering spaces. Here are
some examples of what's currently happening on that front.
Boneyard Studios, founded in 2012 in
a dense, walkable, urban neighborhood in the Washington DC area, is a
micro-village of four tiny houses on wheels, with the largest measuring just
over two hundred square feet. The houses are situated on what was a vacant,
triangular alleyway lot full of overgrown grass, broken concrete, pooling
water, garbage, illegal parking, and occasional criminal activity like the
dumped stolen vehicle they had to have moved.
The four tiny houses of Boneyard Studios
on a small infill lot in Washington, D.C. are a demo project.
Photo (c) Jay Austin
Now, in addition to the collective’s
three tiny houses and one they’re looking after for a friend, the
rehabilitated lot houses a small fruit orchard, green open space, a
community garden, a cistern for garden watering, and a shipping container
that’s used for bike storage and a workshop.
Calling themselves Boneyard Studios,
friends Brian Levy and Lee Pera (joined by Jay Austin shortly thereafter)
hope to demonstrate creative urban infill; promote the benefits of tiny
houses; model what a tiny house community could look like; build capacity of
tiny house designers and builders; and advocate for DC zoning/code changes
to allow construction and habitation of accessory dwelling units and tiny
Since, under current city
restrictions, the houses cannot be lived in full-time, Boneyard Studios acts
as a showcase for what could be.
Tiny Houses for the Homeless
The idea that community matters is
at the root of the emerging tiny village philosophy, which addresses
affordable and sustainable housing at the same time. Local non-profits have
embraced the idea of tiny houses grouped in a village format as a way to
help the growing number of homeless or low-income people. The model is
reminiscent – and somewhat based on – the self-organized tent cities that
have become a common way for the homeless to provide for themselves. A group
will typically acquire a piece of land with the co-operation of local
government, then fundraise and construct a group of simple micro-housing
structures surrounding shared, common space.
Opportunity Village in Eugene,
Oregon is a transitional housing community with thirty micro-housing units
for otherwise homeless individuals and couples. In Austin, Texas, Community
First! Village, a program of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, is a 27-acre
master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing
and a supportive community for some two hundred disabled, chronically
homeless people. It has been in the planning and fundraising stages for
nearly ten years and breaks ground this year. There will be tiny houses,
mobile homes, teepees, refurbished RVs, a three-acre community garden, a
chapel, a medical facility, a workshop, a bed and breakfast, and an outdoor
Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington is a two-acre
community of 30 tiny cottages and a central
community building that includes showers, laundry facilities, a shared
kitchen, and social and meeting space. With the help of government grants,
fundraising, a donation of municipal land and zoning changes, and support of
the faith community, the village replaces a tent city housed in church
parking lots. On the new site, residents hope to plant a vegetable garden
and fruit trees, and to start one or more micro-enterprises that could bring
in income to support the Village and its residents.
In 1996, architect Ross Chapin and
developer Jim Soules collaborated on building the Third Street Cottages, a
cluster of eight small cottages around a shared garden in Langley,
Washington. The cottages were tucked off a busy street, which seemed to Ross
like a pocket safely tucking away its possessions from the world outside. He
began calling it a “pocket neighborhood” and the term stuck.
Third Street Cottages in Langley,
Washington, is a cluster of eight small homes around a shared
garden, and became the first "Pocket Neighborhood." Architect: Ross
Chapin, Architects; Developer: The Cottage Company.
Photo (c) Ross Chapin, Architects
Third Street Cottages was the result
of involvement of people on every level who paved the way: a
forward-thinking state government, a pro-active planning director, an
innovative architect, a sensitive developer, an enlightened banker, and a
supportive community. Facing the same growth pressure as many towns across
America, the City of Langley, WA (pop. 1,100) adopted the innovative
“Cottage Housing Development” (CHD) zoning code provision that made these
small homes possible.
The code’s aim is to preserve
housing diversity, affordability, and character, and to discourage the
spread of sprawl. It allows for up to double the density of detached homes
in all single-family zones — providing the ground floor area is less than
700 square feet and total area including the second floor is less than 975
square feet. The cottages must also face a usable landscaped commons, and
have parking screened from the street. To ensure good fit within existing
neighborhoods, each project proposed is reviewed by the planning and design
Third Street Cottages was the first
to utilize this innovative code. The award-winning community of eight
detached cottages is located on four standard single-family lots. The homes
are approximately 650 square feet, with lofts up to 200 square feet, and are
conveyed as condominium ownership. The design imperatives were to provide
well-defined personal space while fostering a strong sense of community.
Entry to the community is through
“implied” gates into the semi-public Commons, which is a shared garden area
edged with a perennial border and a low split-cedar fence. A swinging gate
opens to each private yard, and a walk leads to steps, the front porch, and
front door. The porch railing is at a height just right for “perching” and
is adorned with flower boxes to further define a personal boundary. Within
the cottages, the layering continues with active spaces in front and private
spaces in back.
To ensure privacy between cottages,
the houses “nest” together: the “open” side of one house – with large
windows facing the side yard – faces the “closed” side of the next, which
has high windows and skylights.
The first line of defense for
personal security is a strong network of neighbors who know and care for one
another, and the houses are situated to encourage that. They also have ample
porches that extend living space and encourage interaction with neighbors in
the adjacent Commons.
Parking is intentionally situated
away from the cottages but screened from the street. When residents walk
from car to home, they can interact with neighbors and enjoy the landscaping
in the Commons, which is the locus of community. In the middle is a
combination of flowers, vegetables, and lawn, while to the side is a
workshop with terrace on the roof. A tool shed provides a place to store
shared garden tools.
A variety of singles, couples, and
small families have been attracted to these pocket neighborhoods. They, like
everyone else interested in small or tiny houses and the communities they
create, care about increasing their connection to community while decreasing
their impact on the environment.
Regulations restricting the
construction of tiny houses vary from place to place. However, it’s common
that to be in compliance with building codes and therefore occupied
full-time, a house must be built to a dictated minimum size, usually eight
hundred square feet. (Basic principles of design state that there should be
an absolute minimum of 200 square feet per human occupant.)
During his tenure as a building code
regulator based in Colorado, Tom Meyers was building official for the US
Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon from 2005 to 2011. He also served as
the Chairman of the International Code Council’s International Residential
Code (IRC) B/E Committee for the 2006-2012 editions and as a member of its
Fire Code Committee for the 2015 edition. His
blog includes information about
tiny houses – the kind on foundations, rather than wheels – and the code.
He points out that the IRC (often
used as a basis for local codes) prescribes minimum areas for dwellings: “At
least one room must be 120 square feet in area. All other habitable rooms
except the kitchen must be 70 square feet in area. Minimum room width and
minimum ceiling headroom must be seven feet…Traditional tiny houses simply
cannot comply with the IRC if they are determined to be dwelling units.”
Meyers would like to see these minimums removed from the code, which some
jurisdictions use as the basis for their local regulations.
Of course, there are other
considerations beyond your local building code. Zoning regulations and/or
restrictive covenants on property may also preclude the construction of a
tiny house. Meyers’ advice? “Always do your homework first. Know the rules
before you build or purchase. Understand the loopholes provided by the code
and local case law. Query your code official on the requirements prior to
bringing your building on the site. Be prepared to surmount some hurdles
before enjoying your new-found minimalist venture.”
The Eco Trailer Park
Since zoning and building codes are the
bane of tiny house advocates, they are perhaps the next frontier for
so-called smart growth and eco-development. But for now, many enthusiasts
have settled for hidden, backwoods lots or trailer parks. And, says Canadian
eco architect Andy Thomson, that’s not such a bad thing. He points out that
the trailer park is probably the most overlooked form of sustainable and
An eco trailer park could provide all the
right conditions for a convivial, green neighborhood of tiny houses
like Andy Thomson's miniHOME.
Photo (c) Andy R. Thomson
Thomson says he has had a love
affair with trailer parks since 1995 when he realized it was next to
impossible to design off-grid homes to be compliant with obsolete building
codes. He then discovered that RVs, tents, and trailers fell under different
So he began designing to the trailer code, creating a
different kind of small, green, affordable, pre- fab home. He realized that
trailers are inherently greener than conventional housing (because fewer
resources are used to build them, and for heating, lighting, and cooling).
And trailer parks satisfy eco-development goals and provide an affordable
alternative to conventional housing with minimal disruption to existing
flora and fauna. He also points out that trailers do not require permanent
foundations or expensive infrastructure and landscaping, and roads are often
designed to preserve their park’s natural features.
Thomson and other architects have
many designs ready to go as soon as developers get over the trailer park
stigma and see it as the truly green community it could be. We have heard of
a few such projects at or just beyond the dream stage across North America,
reinventing the trailer park into a true tiny house community. So it’s just
a matter of time!
Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small
Scale Community in a Large Scale World by Ross Chapin (Taunton Press, 2011)
Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter by Lloyd
Kahn (Shelter Publications, 2012)
The Small House Book by Jay Shafer
(Tumbleweed Tiny House; 2nd edition, 2009)
Little House on a Small Planet by
Shay Salomon (Lyons Press, 2009)
Tiny House Design & Construction
Guide by Dan Louche (Tiny Home Builders, 2012)
Small is Beautiful by Wendy
Priesnitz in Natural Life Magazine, May/June 2007
Nomadic Small Space Living by Wendy Priesnitz in
Natural Life Magazine,
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's
editor. She has been a journalist for over 40 years and is the author of thirteen books.
This article was published in 2014.