Tiny houses and more: some exciting (and less-exciting) zoning changes in DC’s near future

Zoning isn’t sexy. It’s complex, mundane, and (for the most part) inaccessible to the average citizen. But it affects us all, good and bad, by shaping the urban environment we live in each and every day. And here in DC, we’re in the midst of perhaps the most exciting time for zoning this century (at least, as exciting as it gets). Bear with us, because creating a more progressive District requires your help:

The District of Columbia has been rewriting its very-outdated zoning regulations (last updated when Eisenhower was president) over the past few years, and we at Boneyard Studios have been ardent supporters of the project since our founding. In tours and testimony, to press and patrons, we’ve spoken of the need for our cities to do more to support affordable, reasonable residences. And for the most part, it’s been working.

What will the rewrite do? The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a great write-up here. For one, it’ll loosen up unnecessary and expensive and space-inefficient parking minimums around new developments. It’ll also relax the ban on corner stores, allowing for more walkable, community-minded neighborhoods throughout the District. And most closely to our hearts, it’ll take one (small) step forward in permitting more affordable and space-conscious dwellings like accessory dwelling units, carriage houses, and habitable basements.

What will it do for even tinier houses? Little, if anything. Tiny houses aren’t illegal in the District of Columbia, and though those choosing to reside in them aren’t given the same rights as those living in larger-footprint homes (like tax benefits or a certificate of occupancy), neither DC’s current code nor the rewrite would criminalize where one chooses to spend their days or evenings with permission of the landowner. It would establish and protect, as a matter or right, “camping” of an alley lot owner in a structure on her own land, yet prohibit open fires or camping for more than one month per year—odd, as these are already protected as a matter of right for any landowner in the District (pursuant to the fire code, of course). It would also grant, as a matter of right, the construction of code-compliant foundation-built small houses in alleyways (ignoring tiny houses on wheels, as they’re considered travel trailers under zoning regulations).

But it’s not all perfect. Deeper in, Subtitle U/601.1(a) vaguely criminalizes homelessness by prohibiting sleeping or loitering on vacant property (yet still allows camping as a matter of right when the property owner is in the loop). And /601.1(c) sets some oddly specific parameters around truly residential use in alley lots—not a problem for Boneyard Studios’ more mobile tiny houses on wheels (both of which are currently on private non-alley property with the owners’ permission), but still a tad restrictive for our liking. Certainly the changes are better than the initial rewrite revisions, but for others looking to cultivate creative urban infill in our great city, they may be a bit too cumbersome. In other words: this doesn’t directly impact Boneyard Studios, but it may directly impact you.

And truth be told, it’ll indirectly impact us all. DC’s alleyways are its hidden gem, its flowing capillaries, and we at Boneyard Studios want to see more of them put to good use. We’re for safe, sustainable development, and we’re happy to see some really great changes to DC’s zoning taking place. If you’re a DC resident, we don’t want to tell you what to think, but we do want to urge you what to think about. Take a look for yourself at Subtitle U and whatever other bits of the regulations review is dearest to your heart, and drop a comment in the sidebar wherever you agree or disagree. But do it soon, because the comment period ends September 25th!

Want to see a tiny house for yourself? Come on out to the DC State Fair this Saturday (September 12th), where we’ll be giving tours of the Matchbox every hour on the hour from 1PM to 6PM. That’s a lot of tours for a little house.

Keeping alley lots open for creative use means keeping laws smart and simple

Keeping alley lots open for creative use means keeping laws smart and simple

Tiny house tours are back: Another move for the Matchbox

It’s been a long year—three lovely locations, two messy moves, one little house just looking for home. And last week, the Matchbox moved yet again, available for tours and visits and concerts and much, much more very soon.

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Boneyard Studios has always been about local architecture, local arts, and local agriculture, and so we’re thrilled to be teaming up with the awesome folks at Old City Farm & Guild, the coolest urban garden center in the District. It’s a place where plants and people come together right in the center of the city (Shaw, to be exact), and this fall the Matchbox will be in the center of it all, adding some great tiny house events to Old City’s already wonderful set of community gatherings. It’s going to be a great autumn, and you’re welcome to join us in kicking things off right at the DC State Fair, hosted by Old City on Saturday, September 12 from 12PM to 8PM (more information here).

Our fall calendar is still in the works, so if you can’t make it to the fair, no worries—there will be many more opportunities to see the Matchbox coming up. Until then, here’s a little footage of the little house out on the big road:

Tiny House Community: Reflections on the Tiny House Jamboree

I often start off my introductions by stating that I never wanted to build a tiny house.  People chuckle and, a bit incredulously, ask “What do you mean you didn’t want to build one?  I can hear the confusion in their voice, and I understand.  After all I spent the last three years of my life building a tiny house and a tiny house community. 

Yet I wasn’t like many of the tiny house DIY builders that I know.  Sure, I got excited about the design, but I wasn’t all that interested in learning how to build: I had never even held or operated a drill and driver before starting this project, and I certainly didn’t know what a rainscreen was or what PEX meant.  What excited me more than building the house was doing something creative in an urban area to challenge us to think more intentionally about the way we live our lives and about what we can do with unused and vacant spaces.

So no, I didn’t really want to build my own house, but I ended up having to because when I started this project there were no fully-built tiny houses to buy and there were very few plans available.  Fast forward three years and more than three network TV shows, and it seems everyone has caught tiny house fever.  I no longer have to explain to people what a tiny house on wheels is, I can’t keep up with all the different builders, groups, blogs, and shows out there, and what was once seen as a fringe (and tiny) movement has grown into an (almost) mainstream industry.

Given the numbers at the Tiny House Jamboree last weekend you could argue that tiny houses are already a mainstream industry.  40,000 people came pouring into the grounds outside of Colorado Springs to tour more than 25 houses, to learn about different technologies for off-grid living, and to listen to many of us who have already taken this tiny house journey speak about our experiences.

I must admit I was a bit suspicious at first. I think anyone who has been part of a small community or movement feels a bit excited but also protective when it enters the mainstream. I wondered about the integrity of people who are now tiny house TV celebrities. I didn’t fully trust the motivations of businesses who were springing up nationwide to build tiny houses.  Were these folks really passionate about the reasons we build tiny houses? Challenging people to address overconsumption, take control of their finances, live intentionally, learn to communicate and be present without distraction?  Were they committed to changing an industry that builds bigger because it’s cheaper?  Or were they just jumping into this movement because it would increase their ratings and profits?

After a weekend spent with builders, both DIY and professional, I am humbled.  I didn’t meet anyone who was purely in this for the money or the popularity of it.  I shared a panel with Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation and he started off asking the audience to please not ask him questions about the TV show and then proceeded to give some of the most eloquent answers on sustainability, intentional living, and responsible design of the whole event.  Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins, whose company hosted the event, was passionate about making sure DIY builders knew about code and zoning and the challenges they posed.  And, upon meeting other tiny house builders who I had only before corresponded with online, any lingering fears I still had about small living and never quite being understood by others quickly vanished.  I hadn’t realized how much energy I expend explaining my choice to build a tiny house to people until I didn’t have to explain it anymore.  They just got it – they too had all built their own houses before tiny houses gained popularity. They too had to justify to their friends, family and colleagues why this lifestyle was important to them.  Not having to explain myself and my decisions after three years of so much explaining was perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the whole weekend.

Saturday night panel: Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation, Lina Menard of Niche Design and Consulting, Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build, Lee Pera of Boneyard Studios and Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins

Drinking beer on the Saturday night panel: Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation, Lina Menard of Niche Design and Consulting, Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build, Lee Pera of Boneyard Studios and Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins.  Photo credit: Gabriella Morrison of TinyHouseBuild

What I most enjoyed after the new connections with other tiny house builders was getting to talk to others about building tiny house communities and creative urban infill – my real passion.   Lina Menard and I presented a very-well received talk on tiny house communities that included 5 models for setting them up and 5 pieces of advice.  After our presentation I talked with a city councilmember, a county planner, developers, and members of community groups who are starting tiny house communities.  I was impressed by the amount of work going on around the country regarding tiny houses and tiny house communities in cities.  Stay tuned for more information regarding those initiatives soon. In the meantime, check out some of the photos from the Jamboree.

The Small Space Directory – tiny houses, mobile studios, and small spaces

The tiny house world is scattered, and sometimes it’s difficult to get a good sense of how many of us there are, where we are, and the different technologies we’re using in our homes and studios (art, office, etc). This community-owned directory is here to change that: it’s free and viewable by anyone. Connect with others by viewing the directory here (http://bit.ly/1TruEOo) and add your own tiny home project via the form below.

NOTE: THIS DIRECTORY IS ONLY FOR PROJECTS THAT HAVE BEGUN (OR COMPLETED) PHYSICAL BUILDING OF THE HOUSE OR STUDIO. If you’re looking to start a build, for builders, or for other tiny house enthusiasts, there’s a great listing of others over at tinyhousemap.com.

WHY THIS DIRECTORY?

For the last three years we’ve been answering questions from people wanting to find other tiny house or small space owners to learn about the technologies they use in their spaces and to find similarly – minded folks in a certain region.  While the tiny house map exists and is a great resource, it doesn’t have much information regarding the technologies used in small space projects. It’s also hard to query specific information about a project – for instance, show me all tiny houses that are on wheels and are less than 20 feet.  Or show me all tiny houses in California with off-grid water systems. This tiny house directory will feed an online interactive map which you will be able to query by project attribute: location, technology, design features, number of inhabitants, art studio, on foundation or on wheels, etc.

Because this directory is an open data project it also means any of you creative types will be able to use this data to create your own apps or maps for your site.  For instance, perhaps you take the data and create a map for your region or state or for your meetup group – symbolizing it however you’d like – there are many possibilities and the more folks who contribute to the directory the better data we all will have access to.

So, if you have a tiny house or small studio already (or are currently building one) – on a foundation or on a trailer – please fill out the directory form and come back in a few weeks to check out the map!

Any questions about this project or data, please email us at support@boneyardstudios.org.

Link to directory: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Mf2hrUSf6ymHEaZrzXjYLkE-QKY1_fUocki2hgbYjdE/viewform

NOTE: this is a community resource and open data project meaning anyone will be able to see the data and use it, so please only fill out information about your project that you feel comfortable sharing.

Join us (and our awesome panel) for ‘Small is Beautiful’ next Tuesday, 7/21

A few weeks ago, we announced the DC premiere of Small is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary, hosted by Boneyard Studios at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Just a reminder—it’s only one week away, and tickets are still available! We also promised a post-film Q&A with the DC area’s leading tiny house builders and owners, and are excited to announce our panel—

Moderated by Mary Fitch, AICP, Hon. AIA;  Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects DC
Robin Hayes; 
Tiny house builder and owner of Build Tiny
Amanda Stokes; Tiny house owner
Lee Pera; Tiny house owner and founder of Boneyard Studios
Jay Austin; Tiny house owner and co-founder of Boneyard Studios

So bring your questions, bring your loved ones, and bring your ticket—$15 now, $20 at the door (like all Boneyard Studios events, this one’s not-for-profit, and so we’re relying on your support to help us pay the space-and-screening bills). Can’t make it but still want to help us put on more events like this in the future? There’s a spot for donations, too.

WHEN: Tuesday, July 21, 2015, 8PM
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre (bike racks out front, street parking available, and just a short walk from any Metro line)

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Here’s one more look at the Small is Beautiful trailer:


Small is Beautiful is a revealing look into the tiny house movement, a grass roots response to the housing affordability crisis that traps people from across the developed world. In Portland, Oregon, we meet four characters, each of whom are at various stages of building and living in their own tiny homes. Ben is a 20-something single guy with an inheritance to spend and a design he drew, but an ambitious timeline and no building experience. Nikki and Mitchell are a young couple who, along with their two dogs, dream of bucking the strereotypical life style of buying a big house and spending the rest of their lives trying to pay it off. Karen, 50, has loved living in her tiny house for two years yet still struggles with the lack of permanency that comes with living in a house on wheels. Ultimately this story proves that it’s not what’s inside the walls of a tiny house that counts, but rather it is the strong community of like-minded people who support each other as they dare to be different. Runtime: 68 minutes.

FILM SCREENING: ‘Small is Beautiful’ and Boneyard Studios Q&A at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

We’re excited to announce DC’s first showing of Small is Beautiful, Jeremy Beasley’s new tiny house documentary. Join us on Tuesday, July 21st at 8PM at Woolly Mammoth theatre for a wonderful exploration of the physical and emotional challenges and rewards of building tiny, told through the eyes of four do-it-yourselfers building and living small in Portland, Oregon. And after the film, we and a few other tiny house enthusiasts and builders will host a Q&A about the tiny house movement and our own experiences building tiny houses, and a tiny house community, here in Washington, DC.

Seating is limited, and while our community events are usually free, for this we have to charge to cover the costs of rental space, screening licenses, and A/V support (of course, donations to keep these events going are always appreciated even if you can’t make it). And thanks to Woolly Mammoth for their support and helping us screen this film.  Go grab your ticket here! 

Small house solar: full details of the Matchbox system

Solar technology is awesome, but it’s also awesomely confusing. Between batteries and panels and chargers and inverters and controllers and more, figuring out a working solar system is a daunting task, especially when space is at a premium. A few weeks back, the Matchbox got solar, and so—in the hopes it’ll help someone looking to unplug a small house of their own—here’s the full scoop on my working solar set-up.

To begin, this system was not cheap. Affordability was always a secondary concern for the Matchbox (trumped by reliability and livability), so at $8,400, these components may be out of the price range of some. It can be had for cheaper—indeed, I spent a little extra to order all the parts together, and a lot extra on a pre-wired FlexPower unit (which contains the charger, inverter, controller, and more), rather than risk death by electric trying to get those individual components wired together.

It also wasn’t easy. Even with a pre-wired unit, the installation was way complicated. I was fortunate to get a ton of help from a great and electrically-inclined friend, but getting everything hooked up took the two of us about four full days. For a novice, a professional installer may be necessary—and come at a higher price. (Despite the struggle, learning the ins and outs of the system was a ton of fun, so perhaps this would be a good week-long project for a persistent DIYer.)

Not cheap, not easy, but it does work. Well. Or at least, sort of. I’ve been running the system for a few weeks now and it does just great—even with my AC refrigerator and non-LED lighting, it drains less than 15% of the battery bank during an average day of use, and that’s without recharging. The thing is, the Matchbox currently rests under a pretty thick tree canopy, blocking all but the most indirect sun from touching the four panels on the roof. As such, it’s not really recharging—and won’t be able to until it moves to sunnier pastures—but once it can charge up, it should top the battery bank off fairly quickly.

So, those are the caveats. These are the details.

  1. The panels: 4 SolarWorld SunModule 315W/24V monocrystalline panelsYour basic 315W panels. The Matchbox roof (and most other roughly 8′ x 20′ flat or slightly pitched roofs) can fit four, for a total 1.3kW array.
  2. The batteries: 4 Trojan Reliant L16-AGM 6V 370AH sealed batteries ($499 each, $1,996 total). Safe for small interiors, compact, and capable of storing 1,480 amp-hours (roughly 9kWh). Note that these particular batteries are pending recall for a non-urgent sealing issue, so perhaps the Trojan Reliant’s aren’t, well, all that reliant.
  3. The unit: FlexPower ONE VFX3524 pre-wired system, including AC/DC boxes, inverter/charger, FLEXmax charge controller, and MATE3 hub ($4,035 total). Perhaps overkill for such a small home, but magic nonetheless. Capable of charging batteries from the sun, inverting DC to AC and AC to DC, charging batteries from a hook-up or generator, and keeping everything running and monitored and safe.
  4. The odds and ends: connector cables (2), connector key (1), combiner box (1), locknuts (2), breakers (2), rails (4), end-clamps (2) and mid-clamps (1), l-foots (2), battery connectors (3), and battery cables (1), all totaling $507. Another $520 for Massachusetts-to-DC shipping, and about $100 in tools (crimpers, wire strippers) and parts (wire, ring connectors) from the hardware store.

I got all this from the folks up at altE in Boxborough, MA, who were great in helping me figure out what I needed. They weren’t the cheapest, and this is in no way a paid referral, but feel free to use my sales order (SO-127929) as a starting point if it helps—or, y’know, comparing prices of the above links across the internet for the best deal.

So, those are the parts, but in such a small house, where do they go? Well the panels, obviously, go on the roof, and take up most of the seating space up there (though this amazingly entertaining strength-testing video suggests they’re more than sturdy enough to sit on). The FlexPower unit goes where the electric fireplace used to go, taking up about 33″ x 20″ of wall space and jutting out about 13″ from its mounting plate. The batteries sit on the floor underneath, occupying about four square feet in the corner. And the circuit breakers go in a back bumpout, though these could easily be installed right next to the FlexPower unit. Altogether, the interior solar bits and pieces take up about as much space as a small corner desk might (a really small corner desk).

It’s worth noting that the batteries and inverter/charger will give off heat, so best to keep them away from combustibles and be mindful of that heat during the warmer months. They’re also heavy. The main unit weighs 110 pounds, and each battery about 115, so assuming those are all tucked away in one corner of the house, that’s about 600 pounds shoved in one corner of a small, trailer-supported house. Considering another 200 pounds for the four panels (50 pounds each), a solar system of this size will add nearly 800 pounds to a tiny house—not an issue for those built on 14,000 GVWR trailers, but definitely a concern for a single-axle model.

And, finally, your mileage wattage may vary. The Matchbox system is a good system for the Matchbox—or at least, it’s been doing okay so far—but solar is a big investment. Let me know if you have questions in the comments below, and I’ll let you know how the system does as we move into the hotter (and then colder) months, but whatever you do, get a second opinion before dropping thousands of dollars on a tiny house solar system.

More pictures to come, but for now here's another look at the unit and batteries.

More pictures to come, but for now here’s another look at the unit and batteries.