Code Concerns: How Safe is Safe Enough?

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Dee Williams touring a PAD Tiny House Workshop

Dee Williams teaching a PAD Tiny House Workshop the ins and outs of safe construction

Many tiny housers are freaked out by the idea of having to deal with a city or county inspector, and they can’t fathom the courage it would take to walk into a planning office to discuss codes. So they build their little house as best they can: reading several books and talking to the guys at Home Depot, sometimes struggling to use tools for the first time, and sweating to figure out how to stick wood together to make a house. When they’re done, they imagine parking their little house somewhere out of sight and under the radar so they’ll never have to wrangle with code enforcement.

But all that independent, covert action is stressful! Sometimes its more stressful than simply taking time to exchange information with the city, learn about their concerns and how (or if) it is possible to resolve those concerns together. Codes can feel like a bunch of invented hassle, but it’s worth remembering that the spirit of them is intended to keep you and your house safe.

In my experience, the three most serious concerns for Code Enforcement are fire safety, structural stability and sanitation. Tiny housers might be able to address those concerns with the following:

  • Plans – These will not only guide your building but will help communicate what’s-what with the city. Your plans should show the location of studs, joists, rafters, tension ties, hurricane clips, bolts and the like. Plans should clearly address how the structure is secured to the trailer or foundation, and how the floors, walls and roof are framed and sheathed. Plans should include an illustration of a floor, wall and roof section showing the building members, insulation, vapor barrier, moisture barrier, sheathing, siding, roofing, etc.
  • Structural Inspection – Think about having the structure inspected by a licensed carpenter, home inspector or other building professional who is familiar with the code.  I recommend that they inspect the house to see if it meets the IBC for residential structures in hurricane zones and earthquake Zone 4.  Their inspection should be documented along with their credentials.
  • DMV Approval – Think about having the little house inspected by the Department of Motor Vehicles (if possible, since not all states do this), so they can see that the trailer is properly built with lights, brakes and vehicle weight, and that the ‘load’, aka your house, is properly secured. Their inspection should be documented.
  • Electrical and Plumbing Inspection – If the little house has electricity or plumbing, have a professional do the work to code.  I recommend the IBC for electrical and plumbing in stick structures, and the RVIA code should also be addressed with regard to the risk of pipe vibration, leaks and testing. It would be beneficial to have the electrical and plumbing systems inspected by third party (just like the structural inspection), where they ‘sign-off’ on the installations.
  • Electrical and Plumbing Diagrams (Plus) – It would also be beneficial to have a formal electrical and plumbing diagram drawn up, and to photo document the systems in a way that city/county inspectors could understand. You might even want to install a “truth window” around the breaker box and at certain critical plumbing junctions to show how the systems were installed.
  • Waste Connections – If the little house has a toilet or shower, have the systems plumbed into holding tanks that can be emptied at an appropriate RV or marine pump-out station, or plumbed into a sanitary sewer or septic system.  I would not recommend a composting system unless it has a built-in sanitizer, and I would not recommend any sort of gray water disposal on-site. If you’re determined to use a gray water or composting system, then determine what the local codes require and dedicate yourself to meeting those requirements.
  • Fire Safety – Recognize that most little houses are about the same size as and composition of a Yule log. With that in mind, the house should be built with a door/window at least 32-inches wide so a firefighter can break in and save your life, or so you can grab your dog and jump to safety. Consider how you’ll escape a fire while sleeping in the loft, cooking dinner or lounging in your Jacuzzi tub. Dedicate yourself to fire prevention by following the building code for wood structures with a focus on electrical connections, possible gas leaks, and the placement of heaters, stoves, ovens, fuse boxes and the like. Consider contacting a local fire marshal or to see if he/she would be willing to take a look at your plans with regard to fire safety, and document the results of their review.
  • Moisture Control – Recognize that a small house has unique moisture issues. Build the house with proper moisture barrier, vapor barrier, insulation, fans and vents. Document how the house is built to minimize condensation, unlike an RV, so this concern can be addressed with an inspector.

Of course, it would be expensive and time consuming to do all this stuff. And even if you did, most municipalities balk at the idea of having people live in “RVs, mobile homes or campers.” So even if you do everything perfectly to code with regard to safety, it still may not be legal to live in your house. But you should still consider checking to see what their concerns might be, because they may have some points you haven’t thought about, and want to address. Collaboration is a great way to go.

Over the years, I’ve had a chance to network with building experts to unravel certain technical issues and code conundrums, and I’m still learning every day. I encourage any would-be builder, self-taught or professional, to take on the learning curve with gusto! Go for it and have fun with it, and consider networking with your local code officials for help.

Viva la Teeny Tiny,

Dee Williams

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