There comes a time when anyone who dreams of living in a small house has to ask the question, “Where will I put my tiny house?” When choosing to site build a little house, this becomes an ever bigger question since zoning codes and neighborhood association rules are often at odds with small house goals. As a result, many tiny house people look to rural areas where restrictions may be less stringent. However, not everyone prefers country living, and site development costs for utilities can be prohibitive on undeveloped land.
For those that would rather live within more established areas, close to walkable stores and with sociable neighbors, older and historic neighborhoods may be a good choice for building a new small home. The average size of an American single-family home has grown exponentially over the years, but most of our ancestors managed to live in much less square footage, often with much larger families. Therefore, there are many established neighborhoods with precedent for small homes. Historically laid out with small lots (for example, much of the historic core of Lake Worth, FL was platted with 25′ wide lots), local zoning in designated historic districts is often tailored so that new construction within the district remains in scale with the historically smaller homes in the neighborhood. In addition, many historic neighborhoods also allow accessory structures behind the main home that can be even tinier than the main home.
Some historic neighborhoods have few available empty lots, while others have many vacant lots available due to fires, demolitions, or never having been fully developed. It may take some diligence on your part to find the right spot, but with careful consideration you will likely find an affordable lot in an up-and-coming older neighborhood that suits you perfectly.
Benefits of building a small house within a historic district:
Site utilities are already in place, saving on development costs
Established neighborhoods have sidewalks and mature trees
Zoning laws are commonly adapted to lot sizes and the scale of surrounding properties, allowing for smaller footprints
Historic neighborhoods are often within walking distance to stores and restaurants reducing or eliminating the need for a car
Neighbors to look out for you and socialize with; many historic preservation proponents have similar mindsets to tiny house people
Historic District design standards direct the area’s future development which often helps to maintain economic stability
Many historic districts allow for accessory dwellings behind the main residence that can be even smaller than the main house, allowing for rental income or a co-op living arrangement
Property values are based on livability, aesthetics and historic character rather than a “bigger is better” mentality
When looking for a lot for your small house, you may find the perfect little house already in existence waiting for your loving touch – historic preservation is the ultimate recycling project
When looking for an appropriate historic neighborhood to build in consider the following:
Look for a neighborhood of predominantly smaller homes; neighborhoods with shotgun style or bungalows are generally suitable
Neighborhoods platted from the 1890s to 1930s developed for working class residents often have small lots suited for smaller homes
Irregular or previously subdivided lots, often called “non-conforming” by zoning standards, may be perfect for construction of a small house and very affordable
Look for an “up and coming” neighborhood, preferably with an activeneighborhood association for more affordable property
Avoid neighborhoods where the trend has been to demolish the older small homes and replace them with “McMansions”
Avoid neighborhoods where new additions to existing homes are equal to or bigger than the original historic home
Look at the architectural style of surrounding homes; you will likely be required to build a home with similar scale and shape (i.e. if most of the homes have gable roofs, yours will more likely meet design requirements if it also has a gable roof)
Talk to local Zoning officials to find out minimum and maximum lot coverage, setbacks, parking requirements and other site development regulations before you buy
Talk to the local Historic Preservation office to learn about design guidelines for infill construction within the neighborhood before you design your small home
Consider buying a lot with an existing home and build a tiny house behind to provide rental income if zoning allows
For those interested in living more economically in a smaller footprint without having to build from scratch, looking for a house in a historic district may be a great opportunity to both live in an attractive home and neighborhood and to recycle an entire house. If the perfect house doesn’t already exist, or is not within budget, building a new small house within a historic district may be just the right combination.
Greg Johnson of the Small House Society published a video on how city housing codes influence tiny house living. In a 4 minute video he covers a viewers question, “where can you legally put a tiny house on wheels?” Greg does a great job of explaining the problems we face in addition to different ways you can get around them. He also briefly discusses cities that are beginning to allow this type of housing as completely legal accessory dwelling units. Greg talks about the challenges faced by code enforcement to catch folks sleeping in recreational vehicles, campers, and tiny houses.
I’ll let him do the talking, Hope you enjoy and be sure to visit the Small House Society for more information related to the tiny house movement.
If you want to listen to Greg’s tips on how to get around building codes and city zoning, I encourage you to watch his 4-minute video below:
Alex Pino promotes tiny houses and other small spaces through Tiny House Talk. He currently lives in a 600 square foot apartment and has been downsizing since 2007. In the summer of 2012, he’s going to be traveling through the United States after paring down to what fits in a backpack
I left for Brazil just as everything started happening on the lot. I promised I wouldn’t disappear for a month but try and stay engaged in the project while here. Thus, I write this from a hammock in rural Northeast Brazil where we’re staying with an amazing community leader and learning about the Xukuru’s fight to regain their territory here in Brazil. While feeling grateful for the opportunity to be here, I’m also sad that I’m missing out on all the work that is being done on the lot. Fortunately, Tony and Brian have been keeping me updated via photos, email and Skype.
Here’s a recent update I received from Tony about the past week:
What a week! We took delivery of the shipping container on Monday, we’ve set most of the fence posts and Brian and Jay picked up their trailers on Friday. We should have the fencing up by the end of next week and, hopefully, we’ll have your house on the lot in about a week. You’re not gonna recognize the place when you get back!
It took some doing to get the trailers on the lot, but everything went well and we learned a lot about the logistics of moving and siting them. Once they are built up, it’s going to be even trickier to move them around. There’s not enough room in the alley to back them all the way into place with a truck. We ended up situating them by hand. We’re going to look into getting some type of hand dolly for future use. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up renting a small tractor to move them on and off the lot. One nice thing about the lot is that the yard slopes down perfectly to meet the back of the trailer. You’ll probably be able to step out of your back door directly onto the grass without stairs.
Brian and I have spoken to a lot of people passing through the alley and the feedback we’re getting is very positive. People are excited about the garden beds and curious about tiny houses. I know you feel like you’re missing out, but a lot of what we’ve been doing is dirty, sweaty grunt work. The good news is that we should be ready for the fun part of designing and building out the interior of yours when you get back.
Check out the photos below – they’ve really made progress, and I’m excited to get back and start working on this project again!
One of the most common questions we are asked is how did we set up the electricity in our tiny house. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not that familiar with all the technical aspects of our system so here is what we said about it on our blog:
“We designed the solar for our cabin by first minimizing our needs - energy hogs like electric stoves, fridges, washer / dryer, air conditioning, water heaters, microwaves and such were ruled out. Our system provides lights, small fans, and plugs for small appliances. When we need to run construction tools or other items with large power needs, we use a portable generator. The generator can also recharge the batteries if we need it to.”
We both work from our tiny house. I use a laptop computer which probably draws the most power. Matt is able to do most of his work from a tablet which uses a lot less energy to run.
We don’t have a traditional refrigeration system. We did find a great invention called the Coleman Stirling Engine Cooler that was used by long haul truckers and boaters. Coleman doesn’t make them any more. Even at its coldest setting it draws very little power. We don’t use it as our primary cooling source, however. We set it on freeze and put ice packs inside which we then transfer to a regular cooler. We also changed the way we buy and eat food. We bought into a CSA and we make frequent trips to the farmer’s market to get fresher ingredients that we use faster.
We also didn’t install the recommended propane fueled boat heater in our tiny house. We live in the southern Appalachian Mountains and during the summer it will never get cold enough to need it. For now, we don’t plan to live in our tiny house over the winter months because we’ll take that time to travel and see family in other parts of the country.
Next time, I’ll share our water systems and how we have a pressurized shower without any indoor plumbing.