Towards a better tinyhouse

Inventing to freedom?

Trying to figure out the political/legal issues relating to tinyhouses in your area

with one comment

Why, it must have been in June or thereabouts when I first became interested in tinyhouses. I actually searched for the sort of thing that I was looking for, a small dwelling of sorts, having noticed that the cost of construction materials was minuscule compared to the long term cost an apartment.

Then I found out about tinyhouses and saw Jay Shafer’s video, and after some time coming to terms with the idea, decided that I was going to look seriously into doing this. and designing my own. I was merrily making my plans when I found out it’s Not Allowed.

But naturally I want to know WHY not. It’s just amazing how the people at the other end of the phone line seem to have never heard this question before, so it’s clearly something we all need to ask a lot more often (and of course a lot of the time the answer is not a reasonable one, rather just reveals how bad a job the government is doing). Both the specific laws or other documents that say so, and of course the real-world reasons. Most likely the bureaucrats are useless for the second one, as they will just cough up some rationalization they were told, or assume.

Anyway, you can also find a lot of stuff on tinyhouse blogs about minimum square footage (also called minimum floor area) requirements, how you’re supposedly able to get around them with wheels and so on, but unfortunately it is not that straightforward. The government gets in the way at many stages.

Anyway, the specific laws vary substantially between different locales, but trying to generalize so you might have an easier time finding out in your area, it seems to go like this (and there’s some stuff that I still need to find out more about):

1. Building codes

The 120 sq foot figure is thrown around quite a bit, with the factoid that if you build a stationary house smaller than this the building codes no longer apply, which means you’re all clear to build.

Certainly in my area, and most others, this is not quite how it goes. I have not been able to find anything for my province (the building codes are usually province or state wide) that says buildings under a certain size do not fall under the building code. It’s just that if it is under 10 sq meters of footprint (not habitable area), and there are not other sub-10 sq meter buildings within 20 meters you don’t need a building permit before building, which means it does not need to meet code (because your planned building normally has to meet code before you can get a permit). But you might still need something else, before you can hook up water or something. Also, zoning still applies. Also you are not allowed to live in such a structure. See “examples of people living in tinyhouses full time ” post for more info.

If a commercial builder sells a house to you that does not meet code, you can sue them, but the government does not do anything to them for instance (unless maybe what they did was dangerous or something) (although they may inspect the house before allowing it on the market or something). If you build something in your backyard that does not meet code, I gather it doesn’t really matter, the government does not *necessarily* care, the building code is a guideline for builders, plumbers, etc. to follow and which is used for various purposes like deciding whether to issue a building permit for a proposed building, or certificate of habitability after construction (which you in turn need for some other reason, like before you are allowed to hook up water).

Also, even if it doesn’t need a building permit, does it require an electrical wiring permit or something? I don’t know. If so do they charge an absurd amount of money for the permit or something? That would be something else to look into. Do they demand dedicated electrical service lines be installed or something?

Also, it says in the building code that a “dwelling” must have a certain habitable area, like 400 sq ft. (or in some cases 2400) before it meets code. Which means once you go above 10 sq meters you need a permit to build which means your dwelling has to balloon to 400 sq ft, to meet code to get a permit.

2. Zoning
Zoning throws up several barriers. You won’t find the section that says “oh, and no tinyhouses allowed” because instead of banning certain things, these people only *allow* certain things, and ban everything else by default. There’s a list “a)single family detached dwelling b)low rise multi unit dwelling” etc., with definitions elsewhere in the document. Seems at first pretty much like a dead end, unless it can be changed or the tinyhouse shimmied into one of the definitions. Even then it might say no more than one dwelling per lot, for instance.

One thing I was wondering about is this: You leave some pylons in the yard. Is it violating the zoning code? Presumably not. Now you leave a trailer in the yard. Violating? There is a section of the zoning code here that is different form the rest, which is regarding parking and vehicles, and it says you can have 2 trailers at a time on the property.

What about a plywood box just resting on the ground? An insulated one? How big would it have to be before it was violating the zoning code, and which part says it would be? As far as I can tell, there is nothing explicit that says someone could not use this as a place to sleep at night, work in the day, etc., add a microwave and a sink and a composting toilet… But there might be something that says nothing except a dwelling is allowed to be “occupied” or something. Would have to check that.

But let’s face it, that’s getting further and further from the promise tinyhouses have in the first place. Sure it’s cheap, but it’s not as nice a place to live. Also there might be some sort of health code that says if something is occupied it has to have a normal bathroom.

You can sometimes get a zoning “amendment”, to change the zoning in a particular area or something, because you want it (which is what commercial builders do all the time). Then there is another thing which is a bit different, a “variance” which allows you an exception because of unusual circumstances, *which are specific to the property of concern* and needed to make reasonable use of the property (so they are sort of useless for us, I think).

You can read up about the amendment process, I assume it’s different for different jurisdictions, but basically there is the panel of bureaucrats, and people from the community can comment and stuff, and they allow or deny it, I should look into the other requested amendments and go to one of the meetings… you can apply for one before you buy the property, though, I checked that.

Another idea I had was to make more than one separate building, one for the kitchen, one for the bathroom, but this wouldn’t work because you’re not allowed to have more than 2 of the small buildings closer than 20 meters to each other… unless you could get a permit to do so.

Anyway, the zoning law is the main problem, I think, and it pretty much ruins everything for me, as far as I can tell right now, though there seems to be a few avenues still to look down here, they will probably lead to dead ends.

Also, checking the definitions might be fruitful, tinyhouses might be x but ALSO something else which is allowed, or if X is not allowed maybe it could be argued that it is not exactly x….

Anyway, you can usually find the zoning code for a city on a website somewhere under “bylaws”, and the “Ontario/ (insert state/province here) building code”, too. I do not know what documents the permitting requirements stem from.


Written by gregor

April 25, 2011 at 16:42

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. this is a really good topic to be covering…it is difficult, sometimes very, sometimes impossible, to get through all the hoops…

    another thing i thought of when classifying mine, was “guest house” as if to imply the structures future intended use, and that a main structure is being planed for in the meantime…i don’t know how long you could ride that out though…but possibly long enough to figure another way, or long enough to see changes applied to minimum sq.footage regulations…



    April 25, 2011 at 21:42

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