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.

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brainerd, minnesota voted yes

This year, Brainerd City Council members began addressing their vacant city lot problem. With 465 properties legally blocked from development, members proposed lower minimum house sizes — and finally voted yes!

This 1920s Brainerd home contains four bedrooms and two baths. It just sold for $84,000, a decades-ago price in any large U.S. metro area. (Realtor.com)

This 1920s Brainerd home contains four bedrooms and two baths. It just sold for $84,000, a decades-ago price in any large U.S. metro area. (Realtor.com)

Brainerd took its first downsizing step, lowering minimum house sizes from 750 to 500 square feet on all empty lots. While a 400 sq. ft. minimum was first proposed, it changed due to existing home value concerns.

Why is Brainerd, MN unusual? It’s a small city of 13,590 citizens, and a vacation place with modest home prices. Typically large metros, with high real estate prices, have been first-movers in lowering minimum sizes of homes.

The Star-Tribune reports that Minneapolis set a good precedent, with 500 sq. ft. minimums for standalone houses and 350 sq. ft. minimums for secondary, efficiency apartments.

P.S. Are Brainerd residents thinking about buying property yet? A quick search uncovers Minnesota companies which design and build small, beautiful places. We like these weeHouses and cabins.

backyard cottage, a budget primer

Your custom-designed, backyard cottage is a terrific idea that costs more than a high end auto. To shed light, let’s review key budget areas and some choices together.

Susan's cottage has a 247 sq. ft. first floor and 176 sq. ft. loft. It's built in her San Francisco area backyard. (New Avenue)

Susan’s cottage has a 247 sq. ft. first floor and 176 sq. ft. loft. It’s built in her San Francisco area backyard. (New Avenue)

According to New Avenue Homes, a custom one-bedroom, 360 sq. ft. cottage will cost $147,000 including its design and permitting ($26k), construction ($106k) and project management ($15k). Yet we noticed a few places to save costs:

  • Buy existing house plans, making minor changes – $15k
  • Use pilings instead of a concrete foundation – $5k or more
  • Take over your bidding, oversight & administration – $15k
  • If willing, run your own project in lieu of a manager – $15k

Excluding project management, there are 13 different building steps and plenty of details to consider in your budget. Make sure you have plenty of room to make changes as well.

Build preparations

  • Design & permits – $25k, with $18k for architect/engineer hours, $6.5k for municipal permits and $2.5k for a site survey.
  • Bidding, oversight & admin – $6k for billing, change orders, meetings.
  • General contractor mobilization – $4k for site, toilets, cleanups.
  • Demolition and remediation – $0.6k demolition if needed.
  • Site work & earthwork – $7k for digging foundation, utility trenches.
  • Foundation & concrete – $12k for foundation construction.

Materials and installation

  • Framing & carpentry – $22k for all framing, interior work, cabinets.
  • Insulation & moisture protection – $13k for siding, roofing, insulation.
  • Windows & doors – $6k for four doors, four windows, one skylight.
  • Finishes – $11k for painting, walls, floors (appliances extra, by owner).
  • Plumbing – $16k for gas, sewer, water, all bathroom, sinks.
  • Heating, ventilation & air conditioning – $4k for gas unit, ducts, vents.
  • Electrical – $5k for wiring, panels (fixtures extra, by owner).

help me with municipal approvals

One of the gotcha steps of building a tiny or small house is reviewing building plans with your county and city officials — and getting those plans approved before construction begins.

If you aren’t a professional, then maybe it’s time to seek help. Here are four options which rely on external suppliers.

1. Architect: Arrange for an architect to handle plans, hire reliable builders, obtain approvals and permits, and make sure you are happy. You are paying for all the professional advice and have an advocate to make changes required by municipalities. It’s a sweet and pricey option.

ARCHITECT: Imagine living somewhere special and getting this modern home approved. It's an exposed concrete cube tucked naturally into the mountainside. From architect Lischer Partner Architekten Planer. (Ferienhaus Vitznau)

ARCHITECT: Imagine living somewhere special and getting this modern home approved. It’s an exposed concrete cube tucked naturally into the mountainside. From architect Lischer Partner Architekten Planer. (Ferienhaus Vitznau)

2. Builder: Buy existing plans from an architect directly or third party like Houseplans, with a materials list included. When you hire a builder/general contractor, they are supposed to get approvals and permits. If you need to make plan changes, then seek out an architect, designer or plan provider.

BUILDER: This single-level deck house received Fine Homebuilding Magazine's Small Home of 2013 Award for "its shared spaces and connections to the outdoors." Building plans for the 800 sq. ft. home are available for sale. (Houseplans.com)

BUILDER: This single-level deck house received Fine Homebuilding Magazine’s Small Home of 2013 Award for “its shared spaces and connections to the outdoors.” Building plans for the 800 sq. ft. home are available for sale. (Houseplans.com)

3. Prefab Supplier: You may order a prefab house “kit” and hire a builder. Yet many suppliers offer construction services which alleviate stress. Kanga Systems builds your house, ships it, places it on your site and finishes set-up. For about $10k, they will obtain approvals and permits beforehand.

PRE-FAB SUPPLIER: A welcoming, country style is seen in this tiny house. It features well proportioned windows, doors and an open front porch. The board and batten siding makes it feel authentic. Kanga's house measures 168 sq. ft. (Kanga Studio)

PRE-FAB SUPPLIER: A welcoming, country style is seen in this tiny house. It features well proportioned windows, doors and an open front porch. The board and batten siding makes it feel authentic. Kanga’s house measures 168 sq. ft. (Kanga Studio)

4. Shed Supplier: Backyard sheds provide simple, extra space. As tiny structures without major plumbing, you shouldn’t run into permit issues. There are six ways to buy them, from architects to near-DIY projects. One long-standing supplier is Modern-Shed, which delivers and installs modern escapes on site.

SHED SUPPLIER: In Seattle, a felt artisan was fed up with working in her family kitchen and ordered this craft shed which fits perfectly. she selected the nice red color and added the deck. (Modern-Shed)

SHED SUPPLIER: In Seattle, a felt artisan was fed up with working in her family kitchen and ordered this craft shed which fits perfectly. She selected the nice red color and added the deck. (Modern-Shed)

Changes afoot on the tiny and small house front

Be prepared for some house rejections from your municipality, even with help. Your dream place may not be large enough, have the right proportions for space use, or exclude appropriate egress. It’s possible that your foundation or materials aren’t up to snuff. Perhaps the power, water and sewage hook-ups won’t be approved yet. We can’t predict the objections, and sigh with you.

It’s okay if your first plans don’t fly. If you aim to build under 400 sq. ft., then upsize a little bit. We do need to share how a woman moved to Hawaii, bought land and received approvals to build a garage and main home. So far, she has built on the garage pad and lives in that sweet tiny house. Her main house will be constructed and rented out — though she isn’t in a hurry.

Or follow the wheels of tiny housers who have preceded you. If you need and want a full house with comforts and will be using it part-time, then consider buying a trailer-based beauty from 100-200 square feet. In this case, you go to the DMV and get a license instead.

By getting approvals for and living legally in YOUR tiny or small house, you are contributing to the greater good too. Municipalities have opened up their requirements, especially for secondary dwelling units and for trailer house uses. It’s only a matter of time for changes to spread from Portland (OR) and Austin (TX) to other U.S. cities.

video touring the tiniest houses

The smallest tiny houses are on wheels, built for longevity and licensed as RVs. With increasing demand for part-time or full-time living, we think it’s useful to see the tinies. Some full-timers have open their doors and you may watch videos below. Afterwards, also take a look at two tiny house documentaries.

Art Cormier:  House behind his business

Art is a Louisiana lifer, who brought building skills and reclaimed cypress, oak and pine to make a special home. He used SIPs rather than traditional stick (wood frame) built walls here, which is unusual. The best decision by far? Art lives right next to his business, a large climbing gym.

For a high-speed version of Art’s morning rituals and commute, watch this video that features a non-explicit shower scene. Also read more about his home and southern heritage here. And check out Art’s climbing prowess in a chair traverse video.

Ella Jenkins:  Time for art and music pursuits

Ella graduated from college, knowing that she wanted to take control of her life and pursue her artistic muses. She built her home, called Little Yellow, with a country cottage appeal. Inside are branches for jewelry and copper touches everywhere. Her harp also sits in a separate back room.

Since this video, Ella moved her home to the Northern California coast and lives well with her boyfriend, dog, harp, banjo and guitar. See glamor shots from a Sierra Club article, an updated video tour, and Ella’s music video that’s not to be missed.

Dee Williams:  Pioneer triggered by health scare

Ten years ago, Dee lived in a cute Portland (OR) home that took all her time and money. She thought she was happy until having congestive heart failure at age 40. After visiting Guatemala and learning about tiny living, she built her own home and currently lives in an Olympia (WA) backyard.

Tiny houses have become Dee’s life, and she helps others via Portland Alternative Dwellings (PAD). Watch Dee’s “day in the life” video and profound TedX talk. She also wrote The Big Tiny, which shares insights about time, nature and more community.

Tiny Houses: Two Documentaries

We The Tiny House People documents people living in tiny houses and small apartments, while sharing pros and cons. Filmmaker Kirsten Dirksen meets them in Northern California, New York City, Hawaii, Idaho and Europe. She’s hopeful about paring excess living space, though leaves the future uncertain.

Filmmakers Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller crowd-funded TINY and it became a film festival darling. This documentary not only follows Christopher’s build but also seeks out tiny house influencers. The film trailer is shown above, and a complete DVD or stream may be purchased here.

small builds: five key things to do

Let’s say you selected a small bungalow house, have building plans in hand and want professionals to build your dream. Why not stack the deck in favor of a joyful outcome?

Whether you plan a primary or secondary dwelling, you will need time to make decisions, seek approvals and course-correct. With these caveats, we delve into five key things to do.

Maybe you selected the B-53 bungalow for your house build, which ranges from 777 to 884 sq. ft. (Tumbleweed Houses)

Maybe you selected the B-53 bungalow for your house build, which ranges from 777 to 884 sq. ft. (Tumbleweed Houses)

1. Finish planning — Have you checked local zoning and building codes online or with city hall officials? Even with an initial thumbs-down, please don’t fret. You may adjust house plans, get another set and/or seek professional design help to comply.

Bring those B-53 or other building plans along, to confirm code compliance with City Hall. (Tumbleweed Houses)

Bring those B-53 or other building plans along, to confirm code compliance with City Hall. (Tumbleweed Houses)

2. Set a budget, add 30 percent — Are you creating a materials and labor budget? As a time saver, both Lowe’s and Home Depot will price out your full materials list. Some house plan sellers also offer build-costs, including local materials and labor estimates (see Houseplans).

Make sure you have budgeted well. Otherwise you may be forced to downgrade to a play kitchen! (Hayneedle.com)

Make sure you have budgeted well. Otherwise you may be forced to downgrade to a play kitchen! (Hayneedle.com)

3. Figure out financing needs — How much have you saved up? Do you have a decent credit score? Determine if you want to apply for a construction or home equity (asset) line/loan. It’s not too soon to start checking terms online, visiting banks and pre-qualifying for short or long-term financing.

Why not pursue a construction loan? It might work for your specific circumstances. (Let's Just Build A House)

Why not pursue a construction loan? It might work for your specific circumstances. (Let’s Just Build A House)

4. Start downsizing — If you are moving into a smaller primary residence, are you ready to downsize? Work incrementally and over time through all your possessions and sell, donate, recycle or toss stuff out. Remember to keep only what you’ll actively use or truly cherish.

This garage sale aimed to sell furniture and kitchen items. They sold within a couple hours! (The Comforts of Home)

This garage sale aimed to sell furniture and kitchen items. They sold within a couple hours! (The Comforts of Home)

5. Select contractors — How are you going to select contractors? Have you gotten references, met contractors and checked their licenses? Do you understand the risks of owner-builders? Please visit your state’s contractor licensing board website, for consumer and contractor requirements.

Here's the California website where you may check contractor licenses and consumer info. (Contractor State Licensing Board)

Here’s the California website where you may check contractor licenses and consumer info. (Contractor State Licensing Board)

voting for lower house sizes

When you think of trend-changing places, does the middle of Minnesota come to mind? The Brainerd City Council, representing its 13,590 citizens, will vote on June 2nd about lowering their minimum house sizes from 750 to 400 sq. ft.

Planning Commission member Sarah Hayden says there are 465 vacant lots which “can’t be built on while meeting current city codes, or would leave a small yard.”  Adjusting minimum builds could help solve this problem.

Brainerd, MN began when Northern Pacific Railroad selected its location fora Mississippi River crossing. By 1871, the undeveloped land had been platted. (City of Brainerd)

Brainerd, MN began when Northern Pacific Railroad Company selected its location for a Mississippi River Crossing. By 1871, the undeveloped land had been platted. (City of Brainerd)

Changing the code for primary dwelling units is no slam dunk. City Council member Gary Scheeler declared, “I would like to see this tried somewhere else and see what it does to the community.” Several officials voiced concerns about the impact of smaller homes on other property values.

Will home values in Brainerd decline if new smaller houses are built? This 1940 built home is one of the larger listings for sale, at $124,900. (Realtor.com)

Will home values in Brainerd decline if smaller houses can be built? This 1940 built home is one of the larger listings for sale, at $124,900. (Realtor.com)

The Brainerd Dispatch posted an online poll asking if the city should approve houses as small as 400 sq. ft., to be built. With 1,170 votes cast, 55 percent said yes, 39 percent said no, and five percent were undecided.

It’s something that municipal leaders with unoccupied lots should consider, so we’ll give kudos to these Minnesotans. Stay tuned for the City Council vote next month, to see if they ended up permitting 400+ sq. ft houses.