Do tiny houses fit into your community?

Ready for permanent placement on a foundation.  Photo credit: Corey Aldrich.

Ready for permanent placement on a foundation.  Photo credit: Corey Aldrich.

by Jayna Watson, AICP, Spearfish, South Dakota

Located in a scenic valley and surrounded by the Black Hills in western South Dakota, Spearfish was founded in the late 1800’s as an agricultural, education, and trade center in support of the gold boom taking place 20 miles southeast in the Lead-Deadwood-Central City area.  The growth of the community has been a fairly sustainable rate at 2 percent per year since that era.  Although the agricultural aspect of the area economy has significantly diminished over the years, Spearfish continues to be a regional provider of health care, post-secondary education, retail, and personal services. 

The core area of the city’s residential neighborhoods is over 125 years old and consists of lots measuring 50 x 140 feet, which at the time they were platted, represented a space adequate for a typical home built to the standards of that time; usually 1,000 square feet and less.  In some locations, the owner controlled several contiguous 50 x 140 lots, and larger homes were built.   As the city grew, housing lots in new neighborhoods became larger and changed in shape from narrow rectangles to wider rectangles so that the double and triple car garage plus larger house could fit on the lot.  Spearfish is similar to other mountainous western towns where the housing inventory reflects a lot of choices at the upper end of the market and not as many in the lower end.  The more affordable single family housing in Spearfish is mostly supplied by the older and smaller homes in the downtown core, subdivisions built in the 1980’s, manufactured homes, and a handful of homes built by Dakota Land Trust, a non-profit housing trust. 

Nothing in the current housing discussion has created the same stir like the tiny house movement and Spearfish has wrestled with trying to understand where this option fits into the menu of choices for housing in the city.  This article will address the following key topics:

  • Defining the tiny house by how it’s constructed – either on wheels or on a foundation
  • Zoning and related standards for an exclusively tiny house neighborhood
  • Aesthetic considerations of the tiny house
  • Who are tiny home owners?
  • Tiny homes as a community development strategy
Black Hills Tiny Cabins and Cottages prototype under construction.  Photo credit: Corey Aldrich.

Black Hills Tiny Cabins and Cottages prototype under construction.  Photo credit: Corey Aldrich.

DEFINING THE TINY HOUSE BY HOW IT’S CONSTRUCTED

To sort out the difference between a camping trailer, a tiny house on wheels, or tiny house as a permanent structure on a foundation, websites like http://americantinyhouseassociation.org/construction-guidelines helped us organize our thoughts and understand the various forms and versions of a tiny house in the context of what our building and zoning code requires.

“Bunkaboose” wheeled tiny home model by Ecocabins.  Photo Credit: Ecocabins.com

“Bunkaboose” wheeled tiny home model by Ecocabins.  Photo Credit: Ecocabins.com

The Tiny House on Wheels

There is not any single recognized authority for how a tiny house on wheels should be constructed; however, many helpful resources exist starting with the American Tiny House Association who has published a set of guidelines for building a tiny house on wheels. To some, a tiny home on wheels is simply the re-branding of the family camping trailer.  The difference between the two can be found in how they are built.  Camping trailers have lighter duty construction materials.  For example, the exterior wall framing system of a camping trailer is usually 2 x 2 wood or steel with metal siding in order to limit the weight of the trailer as much as possible.  By comparison, many commercial and do-it-yourself builders use 2 x 4 framing for the exterior walls and traditional residential siding which offers greater long term durability but does add more weight.  Both the tiny house on wheels and camping trailer have similar plumbing and electrical designs in how they connect to hard utility systems.  

The Tiny House on a Foundation

In Spearfish, for those wishing to build a tiny house on a permanent foundation, all construction must be done according to the International Residential Code (IRC), the plumbing, electrical, and fire code.  The 2015 IRC requires a minimum of 120 square feet for a room.  Adding in the requirements for a kitchen, bathroom and laundry room/closet, a tiny house that is compliant with the code is likely to be a minimum of 300 square feet and larger.  Loft spaces that are intended for occupancy require a standard stairway.  If they are used for storage, a ladder is permitted.  A local company in Spearfish, Black Hills Tiny Cabins and Cottages (BHTinyCC@gmail.com) has recently completed an IRC code compliant tiny home.  A recent visit with co-owner Corey Aldrich revealed his greatest concern is not about construction methods and building codes, but for finding sites and neighborhoods where the zoning regulations allow them, which leads to the next topic concerning how the zoning code views the tiny house.

ZONING AND RELATED STANDARDS FOR AN EXCLUSIVELY TINY HOUSE NEIGHBORHOOD

From the www.americantinyhouseassociation.org website, the following statement appears: “Our mission is to promote the tiny house as a viable, formally acceptable dwelling option for a wide variety of people.”  The words “formally acceptable” mean that a community has pursued deliberate methods and means by which this kind of housing can exist.   Many zoning standards are designed around the traditional single family house and garage already mentioned.  For Spearfish, how a tiny home is constructed and placed on the site drives the zoning district it belongs in.

Permanent Placement

If the tiny home is placed on a foundation (and is building code compliant), they are permitted in all residential zoning districts in Spearfish.  The minimum lot size in most Spearfish zoning districts is 8,000 square feet which is much larger than what is actually required for a tiny home neighborhood.  For property owners that want to create lots that are smaller and more appropriately scaled to the tiny home, Spearfish has a special zoning district known as the Development Review District which is similar to a planned unit development.  Based on a tiny home of 400 +/- square feet plus space for off street parking, patio and/or deck space, trees and gardens, a minimum lot size around 2,000 square feet serves as the starting point for the lot size.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of figuring out appropriate lot sizes and setbacks, the site planning for a neighborhood made of tiny homes must address important livability issues associated a dense single family neighborhood.   A few ideas to incorporate are:

  • Provide common open spaces to reduce predictability and monotony of a long row of houses
  • Create lots that are extra deep or wide to allow more flexibility for home siting and variety in setback
  • Plant themed landscaped areas in different locations with linked sidewalks or trails
  • Create curvilinear street alignments with median plantings and traffic calming features
  • Overcome the temptation to fill every square inch of the property with home lots
  • Provide a common storage building that has either shared space or individually separated space for bikes, lawnmowers, etc.

Temporary Placement

For those who want more flexibility and freedom to move about with their home, Spearfish allows the tiny house on wheels to be located in any commercial campground.  Initially, we debated if the wheeled tiny homes could be placed in a manufactured home park.  However, we determined this was not possible because unlike manufactured homes that are built to manufactured housing industry standards and have been inspected, there is no similar type of recognized building standard or building safety inspection on a wheeled tiny home. In campgrounds, the home must be connected to water and sewer utilities.  No ‘dry’ (without any water or sewer hookup) parking of a tiny home is allowed.

Beautiful gardens are planted in front of the tiny homes at Quixote Village.  Photo Credit:  Panza. .

Beautiful gardens are planted in front of the tiny homes at Quixote Village.  Photo Credit:  Panza.

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AESTHETIC CONSIDERATIONS OF THE TINY HOUSE

Although a key ingredient of the tiny house is its low cost of construction, this should not translate into a collection of cheap and unattractive structures without any thought given to the importance of interior and exterior design and landscaped settings.  Like traditionally built homes, the amenities and upgrades within a tiny home can include everything from the latest in communication technology, to energy efficient windows, to exotic wood floors.    The same is true for the quality of the outdoor spaces surrounding the tiny home.  Whenever possible, small courtyards, porches, and decks can be added to enhance livability and visual quality.  Designed and built by Wheelhaus Inc., the cabins at the Fireside Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming are a larger version of the tiny house but illustrate the importance of exterior quality.    A visit to www.wheelhaus.com reveals the attention given to design materials that tie into the rugged and rustic qualities of the Jackson Hole area.   Mature vegetation, cozy decks, and patios surround the buildings at Fireside and further define a sense of permanence in this resort neighborhood.

WHO ARE TINY HOME OWNERS?

Quality interior finishes are a key selling point for EcoCabins’ “Morrison” home.  Photo Credit:  EcoCabins.

Quality interior finishes are a key selling point for EcoCabins’ “Morrison” home.  Photo Credit:  EcoCabins.

Whether by choice or by force, the tiny house concept has wide application to a number of people for permanent, year-round occupancy.  As one solution to homelessness, Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington emerged from being a parking lot tent camp into a neighborhood of 30 tiny homes with half baths and utilities on 2.17 acres.  This village is managed by the non-profit, Panza, which provides management support to the residents of the community as well as management of a community building that provides facilities such as showers, a laundry, a kitchen, and a community room.  The cottages of this tiny home community are built on permanent foundations and provide a stable living environment for those previously unable to stay housed on their own.
                   
Looking at the tiny house solution from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, people hoping to make their retirement funds stretch farther into the future are also attracted to the benefits of the tiny house which is nothing new to retirees that have enjoyed park model trailers that have populated retirement neighborhoods in the sunbelt for years.  College students, small families, and singles are all potential tiny home owners because of its affordability and flexibility for how the home can be used in the next stage of the homeowner’s life.   What serves as student housing today can work for senior housing tomorrow.

TINY HOMES AS A COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

Spur, Texas, dubs itself as the “The old west town that welcomes new pioneers,” according to its website, www.spurfreedom.org.  This west Texas community wishes to attract people wanting to escape the ills of big city living including high real estate costs, lack of community, and disconnection from society.  While this town of 1,000 is growing as a result of its acclaimed status as being tiny house friendly, all tiny houses must be set on a permanent foundation which is an indication of the town’s desire for people make Spur their home and not just a stop-over.  Spur’s website also provides a fittingly plainspoken-Texas-style admonishment that makes it clear that Spur wants to build a town of people who take care of their property, not neglect it:

“……. you have the ongoing cost of maintaining the property in that you must keep it clear, clean and always mowed. Once you own it, that is really your only responsibility but there are steep penalties if you don’t.  And, of course, paying your taxes.  So keep all of this in mind if you are just purchasing land purely for speculation.”

The bottom line is that although they are not for everyone, the people who seek the tiny house lifestyle need the same amount of help and assistance to realize their dream as those who are building traditionally constructed homes.  Setting up a reasonable and equitable path to allow tiny houses in our communities does not mean that every lot in town will have one.  Market forces will ultimately determine if tiny housing is just a fad or a permanent player in housing choice.


Jayna Watson, AICP is the City Planner for the City of Spearfish, South Dakota. She is the president of South Dakota Planners Association and serves on The Western Planner Editorial Board.


Published February 2017

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