james madison’s dwelling units

At the turn of the 19th century, not-yet-president James Madison and his wife Dolley moved into their dream estate called Montpelier. They ran a tobacco plantation, worked by slaves living in tiny houses.

Welcome to Montpelier, the Virginian estate of our founding father and fourth President James Madison. Once there were many tiny houses on the property, to house slaves supporting the mansion, grounds and farming. (Montpelier.org)

Welcome to Montpelier, the Virginian estate of our founding father and fourth President James Madison. Once there were many tiny houses on the property, to house slaves supporting the mansion, grounds and farming. (Montpelier.org)

Supporting the mansion

Modern-day archeologists have identified four areas where slaves lived in Montpelier. Notably the South Yard village was built in full view of the mansion, enabling slaves to service the Madisons as needed.

Here's the 3D rendering of the South Yard buildings. Archeologists discovered stone and brick foundations of duplex homes, measuring 16x32 feet total. (Montpelier.org)

Here’s the 3D rendering of the South Yard buildings. Archeologists discovered stone and brick foundations of duplex homes, measuring 16’x32′ total. (Montpelier.org)

Montpelier preservationists decided to build a ghost or framed-only version of the South Yard village, to represent the Madisons’ time. These structures were considered nice enough to get insured back in the early 1800s.

The South Yard framed structures are shown above. They outline duplex homes, one small smokehouse and a large kitchen closest to the mansion itself. (Montpelier.org)

The South Yard framed structures are shown above. They outline duplex homes, one small smokehouse and a large kitchen closest to the mansion itself. (Montpelier.org)

Supporting the plantation

Living conditions were rougher for other Montpelier slaves. Most lived in small, crowded, unstable and ephemeral log cabins. Based on imprints and remains, archeologists have uncovered an example within the Stable Quarters yard.

Slave log cabins were typically built with clay floors, stick and mud chimneys, and pits to store root crops. In the Stable Quarters yard, one home measured 16'x20' total. (Montpelier.org)

Slave log cabins were built with clay floors, stick and mud chimneys, and pits to store root crops. In the Stable Quarters yard, one home measured 16’x20′ total. (Montpelier.org)

Through Montpelier volunteer efforts, a ghost structure was built in 2014 (see video) on the site of Granny Miller’s old cabin. A slave who lived into her 100’s, Granny had descendants who knew about this Stable Quarters yard home!

Here's a framed version of a slave cabin constructed in the Stable Quarters area. Don't be fooled, as this log structure was not built to last. (Montpelier.org)

Here’s a framed version of a slave cabin constructed in the Stable Quarters area. Don’t be fooled, as this log structure was not built to last. (Montpelier.org)

What are the takeaways?

We should eat some humble pie when reflecting on how slaves survived, in homes filled with health-hazards. They had neither options or choices in life. It’s easy to live in safe spaces and places we choose (most of the time).

The radical difference in freedom and house size is fascinating. Today we think about simplification and downsizing to smaller or tiny abodes as a way to gain freedom. How things change, no?

insulation for unrelenting winters

Is your winter filled with cold snaps or unrelenting below-zero temperatures? To live comfortably and economically in a smaller house, we suggest paying attention to insulation quality in your walls, attic/roof and foundation underfoot.

Designed by Go Logic, this 1,000 square foot Maine home cost around $160k to build. When kept at 70 degrees all winter, energy bills ran only $1,000 annually. (Fine Homebuilding PDF)

Designed by Go Logic, this 1,000 square foot Maine home cost around $160k to build. When kept at 70 degrees all winter, energy bills ran only $1,000 annually. (Fine Homebuilding PDF)

Insulation with R-values

Insulation is measured through “the resistance of an insulating or building material to heat flow, expressed as R-11, R-20, and so on; the higher the number, the greater the resistance to heat flow.”

One well-insulated example is the Go Logic home, which achieves extremely high R-values in an affordable, smaller-size residence. Architect Matthew O’Malia reports three specific R-values:

  • 24″ cellulose fills the attic floor (R-84)
  • 8″ EPS-filled SIPs, 2×4 bearing wall with dense-pack cellulose (R-50)
  • 12″ EPS rigid insulation below the slab foundation (R-60)

Right R-values for you

Back in 2012, the International Code Council (ICC) established R-values and other standards for new home builds. Today they are still getting adopted by local municipalities across the country.

By achieving these ICC insulation standards, however, your energy bills should be lower than typical homes. We recommend achieving (or surpassing) them in any upcoming home build.

Insulation Requirements - ICC

Not sure about your climate zone? For reference, here is a color version of the USA climate zone map, from Florida (zone 1) to the upper Midwest (zone 7).

USA Climate Zones - NAIMA

High insulation, low fenestration

Stepping back, your energy savings come from living within a smaller square foot home that also sports high R-value insulation. But wait for the rest of the story.

Fenestration is a fancy word for air flow leaks, which aren’t ideal when trying to maximize indoor warmth. Culprits include fireplace flues, windows, skylights, sliding glass doors, and other holes – and the ICC addresses them too.

For an overview that’s in plain English, we encourage you to download “Build Like This.” Here’s to your small house and its thermal envelope!

minimum sizes for tiny houses

If you want to build a tiny house on the ground, then it’s a good idea to start with the International Residential Code’s (IRC) minimum size requirement: 120 square feet measured from interior faces of exterior walls.

Please buckle your seat belt to learn more about IRC habitable space, minimum areas and ceiling heights. These codes are revised and reviewed by the International Code Committee (ICC), and are known throughout the U.S.

Here's a new yet classic cottage based on the Whidbey design from Tumbleweed Houses. Sporting 960 square feet, the Great Barrington (MA) riverside home is now for re-sale. (realtor.com)

Here’s a new yet classic cottage based on the Whidbey design from Tumbleweed Houses. Sporting 960 square feet, the Great Barrington riverside home is now for re-sale. (realtor.com)

Welcome to minimum codes

Let’s begin with a confusing but true statement: while all the minimums apply to habitable spaces, habitable spaces are defined by meeting minimums too.

In typical houses, all living, sleeping, eating or cooking areas qualify as habitable spaces. Bathrooms, toilet rooms, closets, halls, storage or utility spaces aren’t defined as habitable, for any dwelling. Here are minimum room sizes:

  • Minimum area. One habitable room that’s at least 120 square feet.
  • Other rooms. At least 70 square feet.
  • Minimum dimensions. At least 7 feet in any horizontal dimension.
  • Height effect on room area. At least 7 feet high. If sloped, also over 5 feet.

Tom Meyers, past chairman of ICC’s residential code committee, explains height requirements for a habitable room:

“The IRC requires 7 feet vertical clearance except when the ceiling is sloped. When the ceiling is sloped, only one half of the required room area must be provided with the 7 foot headroom clearance. If the room is required to be 70 sf in area, then 35 sf of the room must have 7 feet of clearance. Additionally, all the remaining required area must have a minimum of 5 feet of clearance.”

There are some exclusions and exceptions. Notably, kitchens are excluded from the other room, dimensions and height effect codes. Also bathrooms only need to be 6 feet, 8 inches tall, to accommodate fixtures.

Sleeping lofts are not “habitable” areas

In a tiny or small house, an upstairs loft typically won’t qualify as a habitable bedroom, so you may access it with a ladder or non-compliant egress. Tom Meyers offers clear advice:

“If you are ever challenged on the use of a ladder for non-habitable loft, be assured that the code allows it by default. Intentionally, there are no requirements for non-habitable loft access. I know this as I am the one that wrote this code section.”

“The code official is unlikely to allow you to use your non-habitable loft for compliance with permanent provision for sleeping. Best to figure out a way to put a bed (fold out or otherwise) on the lower level.”

Rural, suburban and urban code approvals

When living in a more populated area, you should expect larger and different minimum sizes in your local building and zoning codes. Please check with your City Hall while planning a single home or secondary dwelling unit build on your property. Otherwise your house could be unusable!

Are all these codes necessary? Suburban and urban people live with many codes because they’re not contemplating “daily survival,” muses Tom Meyers. By contrast, rural areas are more lax and may not even have codes because “they don’t need to be told what they already know.”

More Information: Please check out exact wording of the International Code Council (ICC) minimums below, covering Minimum Room Areas, Ceiling Height, Sanitation, and Toilet, Bath and Shower Spaces.

Continue reading

store it, revisit it, donate it

“Find freedom in temporary storage,” advises Finding Minimalism’s Joshua Becker. If you are decluttering and stymied by beloved collections or other possessions, then put them aside.

For these hard-to-removes, Becker recommends “an intermediate step of packing a box, labeling it with a date, and storing it out of sight. It will be easier emotionally. Six months later, revisit the box. You may be surprised how much easier it is to part with these items after not seeing them for six months.”

Do you have a large collection, like this Depression Era glass?  Store it "out of sight" for a few months, and it will be easier to sell or donate then. (Calder Clark)

Do you have a large collection, like this Depression Era glass? Store it “out of sight” for a few months, and it will be easier to sell or donate then. (Calder Clark, event planner)

We like having the time to mentally prepare for giving away memory-laden stuff. Putting items away enables you to live without and maybe forget about them, on a trial basis. Also don’t forget to take pictures too, to look back after items are truly gone!

Finding Minimalism’s 7 Tips to Speed Up the De-cluttering Process

Below are uncommon yet practical tips that should help you begin decluttering because the process will feel a bit less overwhelming. Click here to read all the details.

  1. Start easy with a clean sweep.
  2. Find motivation with built-in deadlines.
  3. Donate more.
  4. Include some help.
  5. Find freedom in temporary storage.
  6. Tell a friend and invite them over.
  7. Don’t confuse intent with action.

can’t argue about stuff

“Too much stuff” is a rallying cry among so many Americans, regardless of where they live. It’s easy to get knowing responses when complaining about and dealing with stuff.

Joshua Becker, who writes Becoming Minimalist, advocates for the least amount of things as achievable and ideal. His quote about stuff, below, almost sounds like a commonly-held belief to us.

Stuff - Becoming Minimalist

Sarah Susanka, architect and supporter of The Not So Big Life, comments on our impulsive need to collect things: “If we don’t let ourselves slow down and stop accumulating for a while, we will never see what is hidden below.”

Many folks (we are guilty) opt for the quick fix of external storage. Out of sight, out of mind, right? We’re not sure whether it counts when you store things and just feel better.

"I think that it's time for a confession," says cookbook author Julie Hasson. "Well I am crazy for dishes." She would have to part with her store-sized stash, in a small place.

“I think that it’s time for a confession,” says cookbook author Julie Hasson. “Well I am crazy for dishes.” She would have to part with her store-sized stash, in a small place.

Time for a little stress

Stuff becomes sensitive when when changes are afoot like job relocations, other moves, family additions, empty nests, elderly parents arrangements and more. The stress occurs whether changes happen quickly or are long-planned.

When watching people move into smaller places, you’ll see emotions running high. It takes time to pare down, give away, sell, donate or throw out stuff. Unless you are a certified hoarder, it’s possible to make progress.

This sofa bench functions for day and night-time use. It's ready for overnight guests, including storage filled with all bedding. Specific storage is essential in a tiny house. (Sol Haus)

This sofa bench functions for day and night-time use. It’s ready for overnight guests, including storage filled with all bedding. Specific storage is essential in a tiny house. (Sol Haus)

Design for display and storage

As people relocate to small or tiny homes, storage become core critical. One THJ reader opined that “designers of tiny houses and recreational vehicles do a much better job at designing storage and kitchen spaces” than apartment designers. Let’s add boat designers to the list.

Presumably there’s a place for everything, whether design creates order or people who live smaller are drawn to orderly living. Tumbleweed’s lead designer, Meg Stephens, explains “when designed well, tiny dwellers gain a sense of ‘fitting’ in their downsized surroundings.”

We do know that whatever size place you choose, you will need to take steps to get rid of stuff AND to focus on what display/storage works — as a bibliophile, gourmet cook, artist, skier or your unique self.

yes, to automated washer-dryer

This past week, we conducted a poll with Tiny House Joy readers which asked, “In a tiny house, how would you wash clothes?”

You want a home machine. Some 43% of respondents chose an automated washer/dryer combo. Another 13% sought a regular washer, and 11% picked a standard or spinner dryer. Only 18% preferred any manual, off-grid options.

While living in tiny house, over half of you want to fit a machine. Some plan to head elsewhere to use machines. And a few stalwarts would do hand-washing and air drying. (Tiny House Joy poll, 2014)

While living in a tiny house, over half of you want to fit a machine. Some plan to head elsewhere to use machines. And a few stalwarts would do hand-washing and air drying. (Tiny House Joy poll, 2014)

So here’s to our love of washing and drying machines, even if the drying cycle takes longer with the ventless models. The good news is these combo machines already get installed, as seen in these examples below — and they run fine with (lots of) electricity.

At Tumbleweed's Boulder workshop, participants toured a brand-new home. You can see the automated washer-dryer unit tucked under the kitchen galley. (Tumbleweed Houses)

At Tumbleweed’s Boulder workshop, participants toured a brand-new home. You can see the automated washer-dryer unit tucked under the kitchen galley. (Tumbleweed Houses)

Take a close look at this Minim house in Upstate NY, to spot the washer-dryer unit under the shelving and before the bathroom. It fits just fine here. (Minim NY)

Take a close look at this Minim house in Upstate NY, to spot the washer-dryer unit under the shelving and before the bathroom. It fits just fine here. (Minim NY)

apartment and tiny house siblings

“A tiny house is sort of the suburban or maybe even rural version of a small apartment,” explained tiny houser Ryan Mitchell, to Salon magazine.

We kind of agree. It’s easy to spot apartment and tiny house family resemblances in open, multifunctional and simple interior layouts.

Apartment Interiors

APARTMENT - With 9'-10" ceilings and Juliet balconies, these 250-370 sq. ft. studio apartments have been designed for a new Manhattan complex that's more affordable. (nArchitects)

APARTMENT – With 9′-10″ ceilings and Juliet balconies, these 250-370 sq. ft. studio apartments have been designed for a new Manhattan complex that’s more affordable. (nArchitects)

APARTMENT - This 425 sq. ft. space is 25 feet high. The kitchen, living room and bathroom are on the main floor, while the sleeping area gets cantilevered above. (Specht Harpman)

APARTMENT – This 425 sq. ft. space is 25 feet high. The kitchen, living room and bathroom are on the main floor, while the sleeping area gets cantilevered above. (Specht Harpman)

APARTMENT - Here's a standard unit, which might benefit from some added color or decor. The storage includes built-in cabinets and shelves, like other tinies. (Atlantic Monthly)

APARTMENT – Here’s a standard unit, which might benefit from some added color or decor. The storage includes built-in cabinets and shelves, like other tinies. (Atlantic Monthly)

Tiny House Interiors

HOUSE - This miniHome is a contemporary, modular pre-fab which get manufactured before arriving on site. Here's a shot of the great room area and galley kitchen. (Altius RSA)

HOUSE – This “miniHome” is a contemporary, modular pre-fab which gets manufactured before arriving on site. Here’s a shot of the great room and galley kitchen. (Altius RSA)

HOUSE - Notice the light and bright interior, looking towards the kitchen area and storage. The owner lives in this house on wheels with her beau, newborn and dog. (Minimotives.com)

HOUSE – Notice the light and bright interior, looking towards the kitchen area and storage. The owner lives in the house on wheels with her beau, newborn and dog. (Minimotives.com)

HOUSE - The Downtown Project, in Las Vegas, plans to rent tinies. They have created a modern look inside this house on wheels. (Sally Wilson photo, Tumbleweed Houses)

HOUSE – The Downtown Project, in Las Vegas, plans to rent tinies. They have created a modern look inside this house on wheels. (Sally Wilson photo, Tumbleweed Houses)

tiny vote: how to clean clothes

How do you clean clothes while living in a tiny house? There’s a surprising spectrum of conventional, powered or manual cleaning options. To quantify preferences, we cordially invite all readers to answer this question below.

Stay tuned for your washing selections. In the the meantime, let’s look at a handful of smaller washers, dryers and combos already used by some tiny housers.

Click and watch how this newer hand-cranked washer and spinner works. (The Laundry Pod)

Click and watch how this newer hand-cranked washer and spinner works. (The Laundry Pod)

The Wonder Wash is a hand-cranked washer that's popular with tiny dwellers. (Laundry Alternatives. Amazon)

The Wonder Wash is a hand-cranked washer that’s popular with tiny dwellers. (Laundry Alternatives)

This tiny electric dryer, called the Nina, receives kudos as a powered spinner. (Laundry Alternatives)

This tiny electric dryer, the Nina, receives kudos as a powered spinner. (Laundry Alternatives)

Among the 110 Volt washer-dryer units, the little Sonya gets good reviews. (Sonya, Amazon)

Among the 110 Volt washer-dryer units, the little Sonya gets very good reviews. (Sonya, Amazon)

similar city birds and tiny housers

Over the past three years, New York City artist/architect “XAM” has designed, built and installed extraordinary birdhouses for urban avian residents.

Here's a sweet home on a sign. The insulated roof features succulent green plantings. Notice its little DISH which provides TV service for lucky nesting viewers. (Huffington Post)

Here’s a sweet home on a sign. The insulated roof features succulent green plantings. Notice its little DISH which provides TV service for lucky nesting viewers. (Huffington Post)

Tiny houses and their features

XAM says “my dwelling units incorporate passive ventilation, solar panels, LED porch lights (to attract insects), green roofs (for insulation), a food storage area that I fill before hanging and a dwelling space. My feeding units are gravity fed and the feeding trough is refilled from a large food storage cavity.”

Similarly, tiny houses for people focus on insulation, ventilation, humidity control and waterproofing. Tinies naturally conserve energy, and often sport LED lights. Many off-grid homes also generate power through solar panels. And you will find dwelling space with a kitchen, rather than feeding trough.

Living well and in peace

It’s about the neighbors! During 2011, XAM began hanging birdhouses on Brooklyn street signs and they were quickly removed by humans. The houses last far longer when hung in different places, such as industrial sections of Los Angeles.

“I like the community to decide the longevity of my work. I guess I like playing with ‘grey areas’. Are we supposed to accept and/or appreciate the units because they are in a way trying to reverse our destructive effects on nature?,” asks XAM. “Or should we remove them because they are illegally placed? I like to provoke thought and challenge our belief system as well as expand definitions.”

When neighbors see tiny homes for people, they tend to appreciate them. Houses on wheels are technically RVs, which legally prevents full-time living. However, some cities allow caretakers to live in them. For permanent tiny houses, on foundations, other cities like Portland (OR) and Austin (TX) are adjusting secondary dwelling unit codes.

Perhaps we are like the birds, sharing their need for reliable tiny spaces. Birds are used to relocating seasonally and building nests. Yet it’s nice to have ready-made city houses they can simply decorate and use.

those solar decathlon homes

Have you heard about Solar Decathlons? College teams build energy-saving homes for a biennial competition, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. Afterwards, many houses become residences or are available for tours.

The 2013 Decathlon winner

Vienna University of Technology students built a beautiful and energy-surplus home. They plan to make this winning model commercially available to urban and rural customers, starting in Austria. Here’s a quick tour.

Known as LISI, or Living Inspired for Sustainable Innovation, the Austrian entry offers a calming, zen impact.

Known as LISI, or Living Inspired for Sustainable Innovation, the Austrian entry offers a calming, zen impact. (DOE 2013)

Vienna students created a Mad-Men type of great room, with areas for cooking, dining and hanging out.

Vienna students created a Mad-Men type of great room, with areas for cooking, dining and hanging out. (DOE 2013)

A sustainable, upscale looking bathroom has been installed in the Austrian prototype home. (DOE 2013)

A sustainable, upscale looking bathroom has been installed in the Austrian prototype home. (DOE 2013)

There is nothing flashy about the Decathlon winner's private and cozy pod space for sleeping. (DOE 2013)

There is nothing flashy about the Decathlon winner’s private and cozy pod space for sleeping. (DOE 2013)

Earlier Decathlon competitors

The U.S. Solar Decathlon has been held six times, first in Washington, DC and lately in Irvine, CA. Let’s take a look at special homes over the years, including their post-competition whereabouts.

Appalachian State students built home modules connected by a solar panel porch. Today a modified version is available through Deltec, a North Carolina homebuilder. (2011 DOE)

Appalachian State students built home modules connected by a solar panel porch. Today a modified version is available through Deltec, a North Carolina homebuilder. (2011 DOE)

Santa Clara University students created a tube-shaped home that won top awards for architecture and communications. Back on campus, it's used for research purposes. (2009 DOE)

Santa Clara University students created a tube-shaped home that won top awards for architecture and communications. Back on campus, it’s used for research purposes. (2009 DOE)

A Le Corbusier-style stunner was built by students from Spain, Central and South America. Madrid students continue making home improvements in their materials courses. (2007 DOE)

A Le Corbusier-style stunner was built by students from Spain, Central and South America. Madrid students continue making home improvements in their materials courses. (2007 DOE)

Virginia Tech students won the top architectural award for their energy-efficient marvel. Today the home resides at Richmond's Science Museum of Virginia. (2005 DOE)

Virginia Tech students won the top architectural award for their energy-efficient marvel. Today the home resides at Richmond’s Science Museum of Virginia. (2005 DOE)

Crowder College students received the People's Choice award for a not-so-small home. It's one of two Decathlon entries now displayed at the Missouri school. (2002 DOE)

Crowder College students received the People’s Choice award for a not-so-small home. It’s one of two Decathlon entries now displayed at the Missouri school. (2002 DOE)

More Decathlon details

Fortunately, Decathlon archives are open and accessible. To start, we suggest clicking on a year below. You might pick a college and read about its home, or else select one (of 10) contest categories and compare homes.

Summary | 2013 US | 2011 US | 2009 US | 2007 US | 2005 US | 2002 US
Results | 2013 US | 2011 US | 2009 US | 2007 US | 2005 US | 2002 US