03/21 What is a tiny house? Or, a rose by any other name…

tiny house on wheels between traditional small home and recreational vehicle

What is a Tiny House on Wheels – a home or a recreational vehicle?

One of the biggest barriers to acceptance of tiny houses on wheels is that they don’t fit precisely into a single category.

  • Are they really a home? If so, shouldn’t they meet local building codes, and why do they have wheels?
  • Or are they a recreational vehicle (RV)? Then don’t they belong in an RV park, and shouldn’t they just be used for vacations, not as a full time residence?

To increase the likelihood of communities accepting tiny houses as permanent homes and welcoming them into local neighborhoods, it may be helpful to have a definition of a tiny house that officials can understand, and standards of construction that can be upheld.

We tiny house folks have four main options to consider:

  1. Do nothing. Hope that tiny houses can stay under the radar and not be forced to comply with any standards. While this has worked for the past few years, it’s not likely to continue to work for much longer. Tiny houses have become so popular that zoning officials are trying to better understand and define them, and find application standards that ensure quality construction.
  2. Accept the RV designation. Accept a requirement that tiny houses be certified as having been built to the RV standards: NFPA 1192 for the typical 8.5 wide tiny house or A119.5 for a larger tiny house (aka park models). Some tiny house companies (especially members of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association or RVIA) would like to see tiny houses continue to be considered RVs and require that they be built to RV standards. If local governments adopt this approach and require that all tiny houses meet RV standards, then it will be very difficult for the non-professional to build his or her own tiny home and have it accepted where these standards apply. A person building one house would not be able to join the RVIA to receive a certification sticker. While it might be possible to have an outside company inspect and certify that your tiny house meets NFPA 1192 or A119.5, such companies are very rare and their service is expensive.
  3. Work toward changes in the International Residential building Code (IRC) to be more tiny house friendly. Andrew Morrison, designer of hOMe, suggests this in a post dated today on his website. He describes some of the more limiting aspects of the current building code (stairs, lofts, height requirements, trailer base versus foundation). Tiny houses on wheels would be inspected by a local building inspector, just like a traditional home. This approach would have a long timeline. Building codes are modified only every three years. The most recent code is 2015, and the period for suggesting changes to the 2018 code has passed, so the very earliest date that changes could be in effect would be 2021, five years from now. There are additional disadvantages to trying to change building codes:
    • Our recommendations for changes might be rejected.
    • If the International Code Council did accept our recommendations, local governments may take a very long time to adopt them. While there is now a 2015 version of the IRC, some states still use the 2009 version or 2012 version. Even if IRC changes are implemented in 2021, your local government doesn’t need to accept those changes.
    • There’s a lot of overhead and complexity in the IRC that might be justified for McMansions but could unnecessarily increase the size, weight, and cost of tiny homes. A larger tiny home, like the Morrisons’ hOMe, can be built to code without much modification, but an 18′ Tumbleweed Elm would have a harder time.
    • The mobility of the tiny house would be reduced. (Please read Andrew’s post for details.)
  4. Create a separate set of standards for tiny houses on wheels. Follow the processes specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)* so that the standards are well vetted. Allow new companies to inspect and certify that the tiny houses meet these new standards. Some say that we tiny house folks have no right to think we can come up with new standards, that they would be meaningless since no existing body already recognizes them. This stance is especially strong among folks in companies that are closely aligned with established groups like the RVIA and/or IRC. Yet, when the first RVs were built many years ago, who created standards for them – was it a housing authority that already existed or did the folks who built RVs write new standards for them?

*Note: ANSI is a non profit organization that “oversees the creation, promulgation and use of thousands of norms and guidelines that directly impact businesses in nearly every sector: from acoustical devices to construction equipment, from dairy and livestock production to energy distribution, and many more. ANSI is also actively engaged in accreditation – assessing the competence of organizations determining conformance to standards.” While an ANSI standard is available for RVs, writing a new standard for tiny houses on wheels in no way means that we would be defining a tiny house on wheels as another type of RV rather than a home.

The best approach may be to simultaneously work on the last three options: support adherence to RVIA standards by member “tiny house RV” companies, while also working toward changes in the IRC, and creating new ANSI standards.

I understand that many of us have already divided into opposing camps, but I strongly agree with Andrew, “We need to work with [governing agencies] to create tiny houses that fulfill our needs as individuals and provide the required safety standards that the governing bodies are looking for in our housing industry. This does not have to be a fight. It can be a collaboration.” Simultaneously supporting all three approaches would provide local governments several paths for accepting tiny houses.

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Elaine Walker