Home Designing Service, Ltd

Residential Design Specialists serving Connecticut and beyond

Tiny Homes: Part 3

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No, no, come back! It’s ok, I promise. And, yeah, I know I promised the second part would be good times and it wasn’t, not entirely, but this one is totally a barefoot walk through soft grass and sweet-smelling wildflowers. Or whatever personal equivalent makes your day. When you get through all the flaming circus hoops (these aren’t in a field of flowers, that would be a fire hazard), the rest is a blast. It’s picking out just that right shade of [insert specific thing you want here] and being really, really picky about the kind of message your home says about you.

You see, maybe you don’t have the money for an authentic Tudor-revival filled with handcrafted everything and tile specially imported from Italy. Maybe you have the artistic sensibilities of Warhol or Frank Lloyd Wright, but the budget of your friends the Schmermans with only one income and three kids. You want unique, but you’d like to keep your family and not gain a bankruptcy. In this story, it also helps if you absolutely refuse to settle for anything less than the best materials available.
Best, in this case, is absolutely dependent on what you want, but green tends to be the way to go with tiny homes. Green can mean anything from reclaimed to new-age materials. People automatically think solar panels, experimental structural components and super great insulation, and, yeah, solar energy is pretty ubiquitous, but there’s a lot of play in the other two.
If you can imagine a benign waste product, they probably make bricks out of it. Hemp, sawdust, the ash from smoke stacks, straw, steel dust. All bricks now. All green. But my personal favorite is a thing called Mycelium. It’s a fungus, or, more specifically, the material that makes up the tough stalk of mushrooms. It can be persuaded to grow around cores of straw and then air dried. The resulting bricks are fire, water and, oddly enough, mold resistant. It’s a better insulation than fiberglass and it’s stronger than concrete. Mushroom houses. What a time to be alive, right? A new but trending material is rammed earth. It is exactly what it sounds like. They take wet earth and then they use these machines that look like a forced union between a jackhammer and an immersion blender to tamp or “ram” it down as hard as it will go. The frame holding it up is then taken away and it leaves behind this hard, incredibly insulating wall with a cool, ripply, sedimentary rock appearance. There’s even a company called Dwell that makes, you guessed it, bricks of the stuff.
And then there’s always reclaimed material. It’s often not possible or affordable to make an entire house from eclectic stuff you find in scrap yards or antique shops. But a tiny home? Definitely. Walls in those old windows that used to be above doors in schools, the siding of barns that have gone silver with time and decades of rain and wind, pre-rusted corrugated metal, an entire train car, floorboards of sanded and polished train ties. Anything. And because it’s reclaimed, it’s green. There are all sorts of grants, government and otherwise, you can look into before you start building your tiny, green home. I’m not going to go into the specifics, because there are A LOT of them, but a simple Google search will put you on the right track. Just this year in Quebec, a cabin was made by Canadian firm Architecture Casa that was rated LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold. They used reclaimed materials, flawless insulation, a design that minimized its impact on the surrounding environment (it was built to allow a natural stream to run under it), passive solar panels, radiant heating concrete floors and windows placed to capture the most sunlight possible. It’s a touch bigger than a normal tiny home (small or below average, maybe), but the point is it was built intelligently and now has an energy consumption approaching 0. It only uses what it produces itself.
Now, a lot of this hinges on the fact that you want to have a tiny home and not a mobile tiny home. A lot of these materials aren’t meant to move. Or are too heavy to be cheap on travel costs. But there are things you can do for the kind of tiny home with get-up-and-go. Recycled cotton insulation, there’s always the solar panels, you basically want to go as light as possible to reduce the gas cost. And you should still find a way to use those Mycelium blocks, because those are really cool. And honestly, if you can’t say you live in a house made of mushroom, why even do it? I appreciate you sticking with me in the ups and downs of this tiny house series. Home Designing Service is more than qualified to put together the plans of your next dream, tiny or otherwise. Next up, we’re going to be looking at the opposite end of the housing spectrum. Mansions, castles big enough to be sovereign nations unto themselves, and the like. Can’t wait to see you there.

Tiny Homes: Part 2

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So you’re back. You traversed the abyss of “Deciding Whether or Not You Really Want a Tiny House” and came out the other side, scarred but stronger. I salute you, weary traveler. Now pull up a chair, make yourself a cup of coffee and get comfortable. We’re going to tackle the Sisyphean challenge of zoning, permits and loans.

No, honestly, it’s not nearly that impossible. It’s more like… what was that Greek myth where the bird came around and pecked out the guy’s liver, which regenerated so the bird could do it again the next day? The labyrinth of legal craziness is more like that. Annoying, painful maybe, but ultimately not deadly.

The problem almost entirely lies in the fact that the whole tiny house “thing” is relatively new and exploded with such speed that the legal and banking systems hasn’t been able to keep up. So while some people try to tell you that you can slap wheels on your tiny home and call it an RV and others will say it works just like a regular home, the truth is that neither is true. It’s something in-between both.

Given the quickly shifting nature of all the rules, regulations, procedures, guidelines, ordinances, (just going down this list of words in the Thesaurus), edicts, laws, etc, the suggestions in this post are going to be more starting points than a bullet-list of steps to follow.

First off, there’s a reason I used that whole “if it has wheels, it’s an RV” thing above. It’s the biggest misconception and quite a few of the shadier builders will try to quash your worries by telling you you’re fine if you have wheels. To even be classified as an RV, you need it constructed by a certified RV manufacturer. And for those who think they’re gonna build it themselves, that certification costs thousands of dollars, requires business licenses and then the structures has to pass a 500+ point test. All very doable, but not quickly or easily.

Then there’s the “I’ll just say I’m camping” or “It’s small enough to not need a permit.” And, yeah, both of those will work. Good job. But neither will hold for very long. The camping one is a solid excuse, and provided you’re on land that’s already ok to have campers, you’ll be fine. But most states only allow that kind of thing for a certain amount of time, sometimes 30 days, sometimes only a few. You’d have to pick up and move regularly. And that “small enough” one is only true of sheds. Once you switch the lawnmower out for a couch, or start sleeping in it, it’s a house.

There’s also a lot of laws in place to protect people from slum lords. Unfortunately, a lot of those codes also work against tiny homes, which gives them the right to deny you utilities, condemn the house and arrest you when you enter, or just fine the pants off you until you go away.

Loans are also an issue. Because banks don’t see tiny houses as having much in the way of resale value, they often don’t see them as worth the collateral of the loan. If you have an extra child or kidney, depending on the bank, sometimes you can trade it for the loan, but it doesn’t always work and you didn’t hear it from me.

But fret not, my concerned readers. Day by day, with the realization that tiny homes are not just a quick fad, everything’s getting easier. Many states have designated areas where a tiny home can be built, outright zoning clauses for them, or make it very easy to get a variance on an existing zone. Sometimes it boils down to them letting you do whatever you want, as long as you’re not a bother to anyone else, but that’s not exactly a guarantee for anything. And if American television has taught me anything, it’s that if government officials get something over you, they’ll make you sell State secrets to Russia. So better to go the legal route.

Again, this seems like a lot of scare tactics on my part, but it isn’t. These are all problems, but they’re problems with solutions. Chances are, provided you’re not paying your uncle’s best-friend’s son’s old juvie buddy to build your tiny home, they’re going to have a lot of this stuff either taken care of or will at least know where you can go or call for specific help. If that’s not the case, then call your local planning and zoning office for yourself. It’s literally their job to help you.

Banks, too, are starting to catch on. A few have specialized loans just for tiny houses. Call them. Ask. Don’t assume. Honestly, decent life advice, not limited to tiny houses.

Next time, we get to talk about all the fun stuff. Building materials, fancy power options, weird toilets. You know, the classics. Till then…

Tiny Homes: Part 1

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They say good things come in small packages. And, barring vulgar humor, that tends to be the way of things. Everything seems to be getting smaller and smaller as we advance technologically. The computer I’m writing this on is an entire warehouse smaller than the first one designed. Next to me, there’s a phone the size of my hand and about as thick as a travel brochure. There isn’t much I can’t do on that phone. In fact, if it wasn’t for these occasional blogs and my need for a keyboard, I could probably get rid of the laptop and be just fine. Perhaps not as convenient, but cheaper. Simpler.

Did you see my clever segue? Did you?

I suppose, in a way, tiny houses have been around since the beginning. Except, in the beginning, before greed, pride, wealth or whatever engendered the desire or ability to create mansions and palaces, tiny houses were just called houses. That’s all there was. But then the people who could make money did and those capable of building such structures started using words like “convenience” and “quality of life” and “property value” and, well… I’m sure you’ve been to Greenwich.

And that really is the crux of the whole tiny house thing, or movement, as they’re calling it. Of all the hoops someone who intends to own/live in/what have you in a tiny house, and thereare hoops, whether you can or can’t live without a certain level of convenience is what everything boils down to. Which isn’t to say tiny houses aren’t comfortable, or modern, or even downright fancy, because not only can they be, they usually are.

We’ll get to the more technical hoops (read: permits) later. This first entry covers the issue I talked about in the paragraph above. And to do that, we’re gonna play a little game of “C.I.B.H.W.M.T.S.I.M.H.” Or, Could I Be Happy Without Most of the Stuff In My House. The title’s a work in progress.

Look around the room you’re in. Now add a mini-fridge, a small dresser, a sink and a toilet. Remove the rest of your house. Imagine living in what amounts to a single room. You can hear when your spouse or kids go to the bathroom because it’s close enough to hit with a couch pillow, not that you’ll have a couch, in the traditional sense. Imagine heading to the grocery maybe a few times a week because there’s no room for a full size refrigerator or a freezer chest. Imagine never going to an antique store, because there’s literally no room in your house for a knick-knack, let alone a Victorian armoire. Can you be happy without a collection of items to call your own? Do you require a library of every book you’ve owned or hope to read? Do you quantify success by the accumulation of things, like the rings of a tree or the strata of a mountain? You have to go through all these questions and before you look at a single legal document or talk to a loved one, or try to pawn off your rather extensive collection of porcelain cats, they need answers.

And they seem harsh, I imagine. It might seem like I’m trying to talk you out of even thinking about the notion of a tiny house. But on the flip side of all those rough questions, you can ask yourself the following as well. Do you like to be creative with the design of your home? Does the thought of paying little to nothing on electricity excite you? Do artisanal things make you happy? Does the thought of having more time for other things in your life make you happy?

Tiny homes tend to focus your life down to what’s important. Not just the possessions or the space, but what you do, how you do it. Nearly every religion talks at least one time or another about the simplification of life. Living only within your means. Not collecting debt or treasures or whatever. For those who already have all that, they usually suggest to give it away and follow on the path of whichever religion’s doing the talking. And that’s not to say you have to be religious to have a tiny house, only that without the distractions of debt and treasures, you’ll have more time to pursue whatever path your feet are on.

The next parts of this are way more technical. Design options, permits, regulations, etc. I promise the existentialism stays here in part one. So take a breather, answer these questions and think about your life. I’ll see you next time.

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