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The District of Columbia has been rewriting its very-outdated zoning regulations (last updated when Eisenhower was president) over the past few years, and we at Boneyard Studios have been ardent supporters of the project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

Are tiny houses legal? Yes.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to smaller living is the misconception that tiny houses are illegal. They’re not. Here’s why.

But first, a disclaimer on what I am and what I am not. I am an individual who lives (yes, full-time), in a tiny house in the District of Columbia. I am someone who has spent more time than I’d ever hoped trudging through DC zoning and planning and coding regulations. I am someone employed by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development who spends a lot of hours each day talking to—and learning from—housing lawyers and the very people who set federal housing policy. I have a penchant for taking risks, an insatiable urge to disrupt stale systems, and a graduate degree in government and public policy.

Here’s what I am not. I am not a lawyer, urban planner, or zoning expert. I am not someone who knows all that much about these regulations outside of DC (though I’ve picked up a little). I am not someone who can speak to tiny houses affixed to foundations, and I am not someone to be trusted exclusively and unquestioningly before you spend tens of thousands of dollars building or buying a small house and dropping it onto a piece of land. That’s important.

But I am somebody who has spoken to thousands of people about living in tiny houses, and hundreds of people earnestly looking to take that leap, and too often I see someone who reconsiders their dream at the mention of legal grey area. Too often I see journalists cover the movement or Boneyard Studios or my little house and mistakenly mention that it’s “illegal” for someone to live in a small house. In my less informed days, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated this myth myself. But it’s not, and it’s a mistruth that’s damaging to what we strive for. It’s a myth that needs to be corrected. So let’s correct it.

[ 1 ] WHAT WHEELS DO

The “tiny houses are illegal” story always starts the same way, and the first part is totally true. The District of Columbia and most other American (and international) cities follow international residential building and plumbing codes, designed in theory to make homes “safe.” They definitely do—mandated maximum spans for rafters, minimum widths for studs, and other key standards to keep homes from caving in—but often the codes overreach, focusing more on comfort than caution. For instance, a code-compliant sink must be plumbed to receive both cold and hot water, even though hot water is an electricity-intensive convenience that (unless it’s at a skin-scalding 140 degrees) can’t actually kill germs. Rooms have a required number of “convenience outlets,” designed to keep residents from overloading power strips (though a surge protector or working circuit breaker would do just fine), without much consideration of those who just don’t have that many things to plug in.

Off-grid systems are unacceptable according to plumbing code: a house must be hooked up to city water, even if rain catchment is sufficient, and a house must have a toilet capable of flushing waste into the Potomac River, even if the owner has found a way to safely manage waste onsite. In some sustainability-minded foundation-built houses, I’ve seen bathrooms with two toilets: a plumbed one to meet code, and a composting one to actually use. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury of space. There’s more: minimum bedroom ceiling heights (incompatible with tiny house lofts), a minimum square footage for the bedroom and kitchen and living room. Small spaces inherently can’t meet code, and because code is enforceable by the city, a foundation-built house can be condemned and bulldozed (and its owner fined and imprisoned) for repeatedly failing to meet the law of the land, or perhaps the law of the landed.

And so, we put them on wheels. And just like that, international and national and local building and plumbing codes don’t apply. The house becomes a vehicle, and though the houses are largely built to code (and often, because these houses will travel on highways at sixty miles per hour, are built above code), some of the insurmountable elements are rejected.

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The utility trailer the Matchbox was built on.

[ 2 ] WHAT WHEELS DO NOT DO

And here’s where the story gets a little muddled. Tiny house on wheels are considered travel trailers, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV has no idea what to do with these, but agrees it’s probably a good idea to get them tagged and registered (in DC they would also have to be taken to the DMV for inspection every other year, but by using power-of-attorney allowances, a utility trailer anywhere in the country can be registered in Maine and exempted from inspection). And once that’s taken care of, the tiny house is completely, 100%, absolutely legal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, the owner of a house-looking thing on a utility trailer is entitled to the same parking rights as any other non-house-looking thing on a utility trailer or vehicle. They can be parked on private property (with permission to park there, obviously) and parked on the street (as long as they’re attached to a lead vehicle and meet local parking rules) and driven on the road (as long as they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ and no longer than about 40′ and driven by someone with a commercial driver’s license if the trailer has more than a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating).

But, at the end of the day, a vehicle is not a house. Unless the tiny house is RVIA-certified or large enough to meet manufactured housing code, it’s more or less considered a car. Cars are not entitled to some things: namely a certificate of occupancy and the ability to declare a car as a primary residence. A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, not the house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys. And this, finally, is where the myth of “illegal” tiny houses comes from. It’s not that you can’t live there, even full-time; you just can’t legally declare that your “full-time” “primary” “residence.”

And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else. Think 2006. No one is legally preventing you from living where you want to live (though nasty comments, gross misunderstanding, and bureaucrats not comprehending their own laws might persist), but no one is giving you the benefits your living situation really deserves, either. Your negative rights are protected, but your positive rights haven’t (yet) been granted.

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Lee’s Pera House, toured by the Deputy Mayor in 2014.

[ 3 ] IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON’T COME

So, what do cities have to say? Not much. Tiny houses have sprouted up across the United States, and as long as they’re on wheels there haven’t really been run-ins with city officials. I know of a case or two where an individual has been asked to move their house because it “doesn’t comply” with city laws, but the owners of those homes didn’t seem to push the issue; likely, the city was exercising authority it didn’t really have.

There’s an important distinction to make between cities that criminalize homelessness and those that don’t. A city that criminalizes homelessness is one that can legally fine an individual for loitering or sleeping in public—when a person has no place to go, they’re essentially being prosecuted for existing at all. In some municipalities, sleeping in a vehicle on a public street is illegal, but on private property, it’s just camping.

Here in the District, we’ve had an interesting relationship with city officials. They’ve been overwhelmingly awesome: the Deputy Mayor and her staff came for a tour of Boneyard Studios to explore tiny houses as a potential solution to chronic homelessness, and our friends in the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing & Community Development have offered us advice, support, and even land for a new community (the last of which we didn’t accept for other reasons). Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs has occasionally overstepped its authority, imposing conditions on our old lot that weren’t supported by law. And the Zoning Commission, charged with coordinating a fair and transparent rewrite of DC’s archaic zoning, managed to slip in an unsolicited provision banning “camping” in tiny-house-like structures in alleyways. The good news is that the ban is vague and both practically and (I’m told) legally unenforceable, and at the moment neither of the Boneyard Studios houses are in alleyways. I’m also not camping in my house; I’m living there full-time. Just not Full-Time.

If you build it, they won’t come. I’ve been in the Matchbox for three years, and I’ve never received so much as a warning letter. No fiscally-responsible city is going to send an officer to stake out your tiny house and record your comings and goings for fourteen days, or 185 days, or whatever threshold your municipality sets for “camping” or “primary residence.” No marshal is going to knock on your door and tell you to leave your tiny house on wheels any more than one would knock on your car window and tell you to leave the car you’ve parked in your driveway. Assuming you’re not doing anything else wrong, like improperly disposing of waste or otherwise endangering those around you, you’re safe.

Cities and towns typically aren’t to blame: journalists are. Take a recent piece about tiny houses in DC:

There’s nothing in the city’s current zoning regulations related to “tiny houses,” Edward Giefer, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email. But structures that would qualify as “accessory dwelling units” — like living in a house-on-wheels behind a friend’s rowhouse — are not permitted in the city.

— Whitney Pipkin, Elevation DC

Accessory dwelling units—which I haven’t gotten into because this is already wordy and complex enough—are usually about four hundred square feet, built on a foundation, and accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Tiny houses on wheels are not accessory dwelling units, because tiny houses on wheels are not (usually) four hundred square feet, are not built on foundations, and (sometimes) don’t accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Our friend Ed tells Whitney that the city doesn’t have a stance on tiny houses, but notes that structures that would qualify as accessory dwelling units are not permitted, and Whitney just squishes the two together. This happens a lot—it’s not just Whitney—and it’s an honest but damaging mistake.

[ 4 ] TL;DR

And that’s all there is to it. With a few caveats, tiny houses on wheels are perfectly legal. They’re built on wheels to escape unnecessary code requirements, and thereby escape even the peskiest zoning official. By existing in the vehicle realm, though, they forfeit some of the great advantages of being a homeowner: tax benefits, homeowner’s insurance, full recognition by the city. They may not call you a Homeowner, but hey, you are a “homeowner.”

The city won’t give you a problem, and if it does, just remind its enforcers that if they don’t consider your house a home, that means you’re probably considered homeless and should probably go cash in on some of the pricey homelessness subsidies you haven’t been using. Or question their legal grounds, seek some pro bono help, and fight for your rights. But more than likely, you’ll never need to. Because tiny houses are legal.

So cities, thanks for your continued support.
Members of the media, please fact-check.
And people, let’s get building.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Like everything at Boneyard Studios, this information is made freely available under a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, remix, and repost as you’d like (that’s what it’s here for!).

Adventures in insuring a tiny house (or trying to)

This is not an authoritative post on how to insure a (non-RV-certified) tiny house, because I am not an authoritative expert on how to insure a tiny house. This is just the story of one very long call to one very big insurance company to try to do so.

As a preface: the Matchbox got solar power this spring! Or at least, it got solar batteries and solar panels and a solar inverter currently stashed by the fireplace and not yet installed (more on that soon). Those were some pricey bits, and coupled with my bicycle, camera gear, odds and ends, and the house it’s all squeezed into, I thought it might be time to get some insurance on all my worldly possessions.

It seems our good friends on the West Coast have figured that all out, but here in DC my options for tiny-house-specific insurance were limited. So, I called GEICO. They’ve been insuring my scooter for years, and it seemed like a good place to start.

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The automated menu played, and for some reason I thought renter’s insurance was the most appropriate path to follow. Which is weird, ’cause I’m not a renter, nor do I have a place that even qualifies as a legal home. Still, I pressed 4.

A woman picked up, and she asked me where I was located and what I’d like insured. “Well,” I said, “I’m over in Ivy City in Northeast DC, and I’d like my house insured.”

“Cool; we can do that. And you rent this house?”

“No.”

“Oh, do you own it?”

“Yes, I own it.”

She paused. “Okay, then let’s get you over to someone who can talk to you about homeowner’s insurance.”

“Well, the thing is,” I interjected, “it’s not technically considered a home. It’s, like, a trailer. A little house built on a utility trailer.”

She punched a few keys and asked a few more questions and then found a solution: GEICO had a motor home insurance division. She transferred me over, and wished me luck.

I found no luck. After explaining my situation to the man who works with motor homes, it became clear GEICO’s definition of motor home was something self-propelled. I was bumped to the other side of the office, manufactured housing, and—as expected—told I didn’t belong there either: anything under 320 square feet wasn’t considered manufactured housing.

Like a hot potato no one wanted to be stuck with, I was sent to auto insurance. The house was on a trailer, I was told, so the trailer and it’s live load could be insured, right?

Wrong. The folks at auto insurance couldn’t insure anything that couldn’t move itself, unless it was longer than 30′ and used for long-haul trucking. The Matchbox was not built for long-haul trucking. Exasperated, I asked the friendly woman on the other end of the line what I should do. How do I just, like, insure a thing based on its dollar value?

Personal property insurance, I was told. Another transfer, another hold, another five minutes spent explaining what exactly the personal property was, and another five minutes being told that, for something that could be physically entered, personal property insurance wouldn’t cover me. Try renter’s insurance, they said.

And so, an hour later, I was back where I started: renter’s insurance. Full circle. “Okay,” I said, “here’s the deal. I am not a renter, and I do not have a legally-certified house. I have this thing that is in someone else’s backyard and I want that thing and its things within insured. Can you please, pretty please, help me?”

There was a solution (finally!). All I had to do was sign up as a renter for the yard the Matchbox was in, using the address of the physical foundation-built house on the property. It was a good short-term fix, but the Matchbox won’t be there long, and it’s next spot may very well not have a permanent home and friendly homeowner from which to rent (or borrow!) space.

We were at an impasse. I asked the representative what sort of proof of rent was needed. She said nothing. I asked her what sort of proof of address was needed. She said nothing. She said GEICO didn’t really worry about those things, and if I wanted to put down a partner’s or a friend’s or a coworker’s or an acquaintance’s house, that’d be just fine—and 100% of the $500-deductible, $25,000 coverage could extend offsite (at least in DC). And that, an hour and a half after embarking on this little insurance journey, is what I did.

Except, it’s a half-measure. The rental insurance will cover the solar equipment and the bicycle and the electronics and the stovetops and everything else in the house (or that I take outside of the house to anywhere in the world), along with liability if anyone injures themselves inside it, but not the house itself. I was told what’s part of the house is determined by the “fall rule”—if the house were to tip over, whatever wouldn’t fall down was part of the house. In a space built to travel on the road and not have things fall down, that’s not necessarily good. But at $250 per year, getting some stuff inside insured is, well, maybe kinda-sorta worth it.

Is the journey over? No. That’s where you come in. Do you have tiny house insurance experience? Have you cracked the code of East Coast tiny house fiscal security? We have a comments section—let us know about your own adventures, and we’ll be sure to add any tips and tricks others have shared to this post.

But for now, I can sleep semi-soundly knowing that my small home is a small bit insured.

The Matchbox, accompanied by bike escort (photo courtesy offloadlabs.com)

UPDATE: It sounds like the folks from insuremytinyhome.com are making progress on providing tiny house insurance nationwide. Head over to get involved.

No one builds a house: what we dreamers and procrastinators need to learn

“Small is Beautiful” revolves around the anger, the frustration, the doubt, the defeat, the hopelessness, the heartbreak and the raw emotion that they all experience during their unique journeys. It would be unfair to call “Small is Beautiful” a cautionary tale but it shows that tiny house building isn’t the proverbial walk in the park that it’s often made out to be. It’s hard…One goes as far to state that: “I feel like I have a lot in common with Captain Ahab. It’s like me versus my tiny house — and I’m trying to build this thing and this thing is trying everything it can to not get built.”

I enjoyed reading this review of Jeremy Beasley’s new documentary Small is Beautiful as it realistically portrays the challenges of building a tiny house. As someone who has written openly about my struggles with building my house, I appreciate reading pieces that don’t simplify the process. As my house nears completion (finally…photos to come soon), I am reposting a piece I wrote last year for a tiny house magazine about the importance of project planning in the tiny house construction process – something I think many DIYers like myself are not as prepared for as we could be.

“No one “builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”

Through the process of building my tiny house I have had to learn to transition from that visionary, big-picture person (who procrastinates and fantasizes way too much) to the gritty construction worker. It’s been a constant challenge, and I have resisted laying those bricks more times than I care to count, but I’ve also come to appreciate how structure and constraints in a creative process lead to better design and easier, more efficient work. Like many tiny house enthusiasts, the images online and the marketing that told me I could build a tiny house with just 14 tools and my time on the weekends sucked me in to thinking that because it’s a very small house, the effort and planning involved would be a smaller commitment as well. Not true at all. As a woman with no building experience prior to this project, I was expecting a physical challenge. What I wasn’t expecting was how mentally exhausting building can be with all the decision making involved and figuring out how those decisions impact one another (often through trial and error).

Planning the cabinets

Planning the cabinets

I’m a person who likes to research all options and loath making decisions for fear that I will have missed out on an option that would be better. But this is no way to build a house. Being a novice, I often wanted the right answer for a problem and was afraid of making a wrong decision. Even the times I was good at making decisions, I didn’t realize where in the process those decisions needed to be made or how they might impact other decisions or designs later in the build. This meant I had to redo or reconfigure various aspects of my build and spent way more time and money than I needed to simply because I hadn’t planned out the steps or made decisions in a timely manner.

Through seeing me struggle with this process of decision making and planning, the architect involved in my project decided to make a critical path project plan for constructing a tiny house. He developed this plan to use in our workshops, but I wish I had created one when I first began my project to plug in all the major decisions and tasks and have them shift around accordingly when things got off schedule. The creative side of me, and the person who wants the ability to change her mind hates sticking to a project plan, but I now see the utility of it and the benefit of taking the time before beginning a build to thoroughly plan out all the pieces. While it may seem laborious to do that when you just want to begin building, the time spent to organize and structure your process will save you much time and money later. You will have all the nails you need and won’t have to run to Home Depot as often (of course you will still forget things, just not as often!). When your door doesn’t arrive on time you will know what other tasks will be affected because you will have scheduled in your dependent tasks in your plan and those will change automatically when you change the delivery date for your door. You will have a much more efficient process which not only saves you time and money but frees up your mental energy to be applied elsewhere.

Planning the design of a tiny house

Planning the design of a tiny house

While I’m sure I will still wing many projects in my life, I have a new appreciation for structure and planning. They simplify a huge project like building a tiny house into manageable components so that a novice like me doesn’t get overwhelmed and give up out of frustration. My only regret is not having embraced structure and planning earlier in the process. It’s so easy to stay in the visioning and fantasizing stage because it’s fun and creative, but my hope is that future tiny house builders take the time at the beginning of your project to design a critical path project plan and then begin the work of laying those bricks as soon as possible so that your vision of a tiny house transforms to an actual structure in the most efficient way possible.

‘Tiny House Plays’ arrive at Boneyard Studios

"Big Bread" in the Pera House.

“Big Bread” in the Pera House. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Last weekend, Pinky Swear Productions kicked off the first performance(s) of their Tiny House Plays, five one-act “playlets” staged in the tiny houses and outdoor spaces of Boneyard Studios. Explains the Washington Post:

The bright minds at Pinky Swear Productions thought it would be fun to stage a cycle of brief new plays in the wee homes. Each show is short — 15 minutes or so — and set in one of the often ingeniously efficient little units, several of which are actually being lived in part time. The audience is split into small groups and shepherded from station to station to see playlets about love, death, aging and coping.

On Friday, we had the privilege of joining the actors, playwrights, production crew, and the friends and family of Pinky Swear for a lovely dress rehearsal, hopping from set to set for a wonderfully diverse collection of plays, all developed by local female writers. I can’t really offer an impartial review, of course—how could I not absolutely love seeing the Matchbox transformed into the lovers’ cabin of “Josie, June, and Death,” or be more-than-a-little moved by the break-up taking place in the Minim House’s “For Emma” as we come to terms with a tiny house break-up of our own?

"For Emma" in the Minim House.

“For Emma” in the Minim House. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Impartial or not, the quirky, clever plays—”sweet, funny, and sad”—were a treat to witness, and totally worth a three-weekend displacement from my home as the show runs its course. Of course, they’re also a living, breathing example of what we’re all about at Boneyard Studios: awesome events, free space for artists, big silly dreams that always seem to work out.

Oh, and you can check ’em out yourself for much less than a three-week displacement from your house—just $20, every cent of which goes straight to Pinky Swear and its army of hard-working (and really lovely) actors, playwrights, and the dozens of other people, props, and port-a-pottys they need to make these Tiny House Plays run. Remaining showtimes Saturday & Sunday, 10/4, 10/5, 10/11, and 10/12, 1PM, 3PM, 6PM, and 8PM. Tickets here.

"Josie, June, and Death" in the Matchbox.

“Josie, June, and Death” in the Matchbox. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Autumn events!

As the weather (maybe) cools and autumn quickly approaches, here’s a quick roundup of what’s going on at DC’s tiny house community over the next few months—

Near Northeast playing at a recent tiny house concert.

Near Northeast playing at a recent tiny house concert.

NOTE: While all Boneyard Studios events are (as always) free—though donations to support our featured local artists are greatly appreciated—the tiny house workshop and tiny house plays, facilitated by friends of the community, are charging admission to cover production costs.
 
Featuring Boy on the Wall, Takunda Matose, and Just Enough Education to DJ.
Show begins at 7PM. BYOB.
 
Weekend workshop hosted by architects, builders, and designers intimately involved in the creation of Boneyard Studios.
Workshop begins 8:30AM Saturday and takes place at Trinity University (with a visit to Boneyard Studios that afternoon)Limited to 30 participants.
 
Show begins at 6:30PM; BYOB.
 
Six local playwrights, five community-inspired plays, three tiny house stages.
Running 1PM, 3PM, 6PM, and 8PM every Saturday and Sunday. Tickets not yet on sale.
 
Our most popular and long-running event (over 5,000 served). Come tour the tiny houses in person, see the interiors, and chat with the designers and owners.
Houses open at 11AM.
 
Discuss simplicity in an enclave of tiny houses with the new Boneyard Studios book club. First reading: Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness, available for free online or for Kindle.
Discussion begins at 3PM.
 
Featuring Catriona Sturton.
Show begins at 6PM; BYOB.
 
(All events are also posted to the Boneyard Studios Facebook and Google Calendar.)
 
Like what we’re offering and want to see more? Consider making a (much-appreciated!) donation to support Boneyard Studio’s expansion to bring even more local and creative and arts, architecture, and agriculture to the District. Or, bring your own creativity to Boneyard Studios: let us know if you’d like your art featured amongst the tiny houses, or are looking to use the space for a book reading, concert, poetry recital, seminar, or whatever else you can think of … it’s there for you to enjoy.
 
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Dee Williams discussing her ‘The Big Tiny’ memoir at a springtime book reading.

Tiny House Plays: coming Fall 2014 to a tiny house community near you

A few weeks back, we hinted at a big surprise coming to Boneyard Studios this fall. Here’s a little peek at what we have in store (be sure to follow Pinky Swear Productions to get the latest):

Six Playwrights. Five Plays. Three Tiny Houses. One Community. Pinky Swear Productions takes over Boneyard Studios this fall with Tiny House Plays.

Pinky Swear Productions is excited to announce a partnership with Boneyard Studios to produce Tiny House Plays, a series of short plays by six talented local playwrights.

Pinky Swear has long discussed the idea of producing site-​specific theatre in an alternative space. So when company member and veteran Pinky Swear director Jessica Aimone read an article about Boneyard Studios, she reached out to the tiny home owners. To our delight, they have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to turn their tiny houses into tiny stages—and come fall 2014, audience members will join us on a journey from tiny house to tiny house, watching life unfold inside (and sometimes outside) each space.

For Tiny House Plays, Pinky Swear reached out to several local women playwrights and one brother/​sister team to pen short pieces on the theme of community, inspired by Boneyard Studios and the surrounding neighborhood. We are excited and proud to now announce our playwrights for Tiny House Plays: Thembi Duncan, Ann and Shawn Fraistat, Danielle Mohlman, Donna Reinhold, and Laura Zam. Together, they will create a shared world in which the characters’ stories are revealed simultaneously in each space.

Learn more at pinkyswear-productions.com. Tickets not available just yet, but stay tuned!

(As always, Boneyard Studios isn’t making any money from this partnership; we’re just looking to do what we can to promote local arts. To support our mission and our plans to expand to a new location where we can do even wilder and crazier things than bringing five plays to three tiny houses for twenty-five plus performances next month, consider donating here. Thanks!)

Boneyard Studios is moving (and needs your help!)

Two years ago, three tiny house enthusiasts got together on a crumbling alley lot in Northeast DC and built the first intentional tiny house community in America. Since its humble beginnings in early 2012, Boneyard Studios has grown to more than just a few tiny homes: it has become a showcase, a music venue, a garden, a bike-in movie theater, and much more. Over the past two years, we’ve welcomed nearly 6,000 visitors to our lot for tiny house tours, tiny house concerts, tiny house book readings, and community work days, and we’ve kept them always—and forever—free. We want to keep fostering that community, to keep providing a free place for people to create and share, a place for more tiny houses, a place for local art, agriculture, and architecture.  We’re going to need more space.

Boneyard Studios, September 2014.

Boneyard Studios, September 2014.

So this year, the Pera House and the Matchbox (and any other tiny houses interested in coming along for the ride) are hitching up and traveling to lands unknown (somewhere in DC; we’re just not yet sure where) to repurpose another unused urban space, and to make it available for everyone to enjoy. But to make that happen (and to keep things free), we could really use your help. Here’s how:

Donate. Here’s a link. Please—if you’ve ever made it out to Boneyard Studios or if you haven’t and just want to support what we’re doing—consider clicking it and donating whatever you can to help us out. As a token of our appreciation, we’re offering the following to supporters:

  • Any amount: tons and tons of love and gratitude
  • $25: a personal thank-you card from Lee and Jay
  • $50: your name (or message) forever enshrined at our new space
  • $100: a personal tour of the houses for you and your friends or family (or both!)
  • $200: a night in one of our world-famous tiny houses (the Pera House or the Matchbox)

Help us find land. We’re looking for land within DC to lease or buy under a cooperative or land trust model—community land owned by the community. So please, keep an eye out for empty, unsightly lots that could use a little creative energy, or if you already have one in mind (or if you just so happen to own one), let us know.

Help us find people. If you can’t give money or land or tips about space in the city, maybe you know someone who can. We’d love to borrow your social network—if you wouldn’t mind facebooking, tweeting, or whatever-ing this page to your friends, that’d be awesome. Or if you know someone who might want to be more closely involved in our Boneyard Studios expansion, please put us in touch.

Expect much more in the coming months, and many thanks for two great years of support thus far.

<3,
Lee and Jay
Boneyard Studios

Fine print: Every dollar donated will be spent toward furtherance of DC’s tiny house community, and not a cent will be spent on the tiny houses themselves or kept by the tiny house owners. Instead, we’ll be using the money for things like community-accessible furniture, firepits, tool workshops, art installations, city permits, and—depending on the land we settle on—cooperative land leasing or ownership. For questions about donating, let us know.

CALLING ALL ARTISTS: Free exhibition time and space at Boneyard Studios

Boneyard Studios isn’t just about tiny houses; it’s about bringing together community, a space for builders and artists to create and construct. We do a bit of that through our popular concert series—featuring local musicians playing sets in, on, or outside of the tiny housesand a bit more with our budding film series (oh, and we also have a big surprise coming this fall). But between these events, we’d like to give youthe artists among or within youanother way to have your work seen and heard.

Roughly once a month, we host a free open house to show folks the tiny house community, and between 10AM and 1PM on those monthly Sundays, over two hundred enthusiasts from DC and beyond descend on the little lot with excitement and curiosity: a (semi-)captive audience. That’s where you come in.

Musician looking to share your songs? Come on by with a tip jar and do your thing while hundreds wander about the lot. Painter? Pull up an easel and get to work, and see if you can’t find someone amongst the visitors who likes your style and wants a commissioned canvas. Sculptor with some outdoor pieces? We’d be more than happy to display your art at the Boneyard during the tour, or leave it around for those who pass by outside of open house hours for however long you’d like. Local coffee, beer, kombucha brewer? People love free samples, and our guests are all yours.

We’re not asking anything in return for a little corner of the lot; just a heads up as early as possible beforehand so we know whom and what to expect. We just, y’know, want to support good art, local ventures, and you.

Click here for upcoming tour dates, and here to let us know if you’d like us to feature you or your work during the next open house.

Fine print: Boneyard Studios is residentially zoned, so we can’t have any open selling of goods or services on the lot. But donations are just fine, as is exchanging contact information with visitors for business later on.

A beginner’s guide to downsizing, part 3: Oh, the utility

“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things … Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods 

We’ve already discussed two kinds of junk—just-in-case junk and component junk—that we keep around because we think we’ll use it in the future. But what about junk you simply know you’ll never use, yet keep around anyway?

#3: Sunk-cost junk (stuff that hasn’t yet earned its value, and never will)

That sweater you bought that ended up looking better on the mannequin than it does on you. The Vitamix you splurged on when you were committing to a life of kale smoothies for breakfast, before you realized you don’t like kale—liquefied or not—and never leave yourself enough time for breakfast anyway. Or those heels that go so exceptionally well with your favorite summer dress, spare the minor detail that you physically cannot walk in them. Sunk-cost junk is a microeconomic quagmire we all find ourselves in at one point or another: we paid money (often a lot) for something we deemed worth it, before later realizing the purchase wasn’t worth it, and because we spent so much money to begin with, we refuse to give up the good and swallow the sunk cost.

I won’t talk about this variety of junk as much as the others because it’s less pervasive and often more obvious, both in its physical form and in its solution. It’s not difficult to find your sunk-cost goods: just check the closet for anything with a tag still on it, explore the drawers for any items still in their original packaging after way too long. Sunk-cost junk and just-in-case junk may manifest themselves in the very same form depending on the intentions of the owner. Whereas one person may view their untouched skis as just-in-case junk they haven’t yet put to use but hope they someday will, another may be stashing their own set of skis because they spent so very much on them and would hate for that money to go to waste—that they have sworn off snow and never want to hit the slopes again is besides the point.

As for the solution? Sunk-cost junk is just like sunk-cost anything: holding onto it, more often that not, will only increase the cost, whether in the form of fiscally-taxing storage space or mentally-taxing clutter. So swallow the cost once and for all and be done with it.

#4: Filler junk (stuff that is, frankly, entirely useless)

We acquire sunk-cost junk because we misjudge our intentions: we think we’ll use something we’ve decided to buy, and then things change. Yet sometimes, we buy things already knowing that we’ll never use them … because they’re inherently useless.

A ceramic bowl of wicker spheres. Anything non-edible in a bowl, really. A tabletop statue of Buddha purchased at a local Target, or a stack of old Washingtonians, or a little bubbling fountain of superglued pebbles. Filler junk often goes by another name—decor—which makes it sound cultured and necessary and regal, though it’s often anything but.

Because we generally live in dwellings larger than those we need, we inherently have surplus surface area: bare plateaus of oak and pine, an archipelago of coffee tables and endtables and accent tables and mantles, vacant corners and even vacant rooms, all which need “filling,” lest we look like squatters or fugitives.

And so we buy, not for function, but for fill. We need something to go on that table over there—doesn’t really matter what it is. Volume over value. We buy books we’ll never read (“coffee table books”), candles we’ll never light (“show candles”), and wicker balls we’ll never use for anything because, well, they’re wicker balls.

To be fair, decor does serve a function—decoration—these accessories, we think, make our homes look warm and inviting and full of cultured character. Here lies a copy of the latest New Yorker, look how learned I am! Oh, this chessboard with its pieces arranged in a mid-game configuration? Yes, our family is a chess family and we must have just left it just that way, midgame and all. Ah, these wicker balls: yes, I wickered them myself, because I like to work with my hands.

Decor that tells tales of who you really are is good: souvenirs from your travels, your adventures, your life. We keep these by the bedside not because they fill up space but because they fill up us. Decor doesn’t give our homes character, we give our homes character, and our homes are but a reflection of us, character and all. As such, purchased decor, mass-produced decor, is often—not always, but often—not a reflection of who we are, but a deception of what we hope to present to the world, to our house guests, to ourselves.

There’s a beauty in the bare surface, the unshelved wall, the clean hard lines of simplicity. Were your house burning to the ground, this filler junk is likely the last thing you’d think to save from the inferno, valueless as it is, so rather than spend money buying it, time dusting it, energy flipping through catalogs searching for just the perfect thing to go in-that-corner-over-there, let the filler come to you. Accumulate accidentally, possess passively, obtain unintentionally and you’ll find, in time, that those spaces will fill themselves: not with all the latest from Pottery Barn’s spring line, but with all the most cherished from your life’s fondest memories.

This post is the third of a series on living simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.