Tiny houses must overcome big obstacles in Nashville

Friday, April 7, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 14
By Whitney Clay

Sarah Murphy, advocate for tiny homes.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The tiny home movement has gained momentum across the country. Sadly, advocates lament, zoning and building codes in most cities haven’t caught up.

“Tiny homes are a brand new concept,” says Bill Herbert, zoning administrator for Nashville. “The problem from our codes perspective is that our codes don’t contemplate tiny homes.”

It is possible to live legally in a tiny home in Nashville, but it’s not easy.

First, the homeowners have to comply with zoning. If the property is zoned for a single-family dwelling and the plan is to put the tiny house in the backyard behind an existing home, that wouldn’t be permitted. However, if the property is zoned to allow a duplex, then the tiny home could be considered a second unit, Herbert points out.

“You satisfy zoning, the next thing you have to satisfy is all the relevant building codes,” he says. “That has been the major challenge.”

One sticking point for some tiny home advocates is that the house has to be on a foundation, not wheels. It then has to comply with the electrical codes, the plumbing codes, the gas mechanical codes, the residential code, the fire codes and the general building codes.

In Nashville, it’s possible to comply with all the codes in about 180 square feet, Herbert explains.

But then, does it work for the homeowners?

Sarah Murphy, who heads up the state chapter of the American Tiny House Association, says it’s critical for tiny homes to be customized.

“If it’s 180 square feet and it’s compliant, it means there are exactly one or maybe two footprints that can comply with all the codes. The problem with that is that everybody lives a little bit differently … If people are going to live successfully in small spaces, it absolutely has to be customized for the way they live. Do they have children? Do they have disabilities?”

While Murphy understands that codes are designed primarily for safety reasons, it makes it difficult for those who want to embrace the philosophy behind tiny homes.

“We’re overregulated in this country,” says Danny Schallenberg, a tiny home developer and builder in Spur, Texas, which declared itself in 2014, the first tiny house friendly town in America.

“Our grandparents lived in smaller houses with front porches, and they lived within their means and they had a good life and there are millions of people across the country who want to get back to that.

“Our cities are not keeping up with the tiny house movement. It’s a sad thing. What’s happening across the country is millions of people are in the movement and they are forcing change,” says Schallenberg, who is developing the first tiny home subdivision in Spur, a town with a population of just under 1,000.

The issue, Murphy notes, is most cities adopt the International Building Code, but it takes years to catch up with the latest version.

For example, Nashville is still following the 2012 IBC, although the 2015 version does accommodate for tiny homes and the 2018 was just passed.

“That delay allows technology to catch up with what the codes are contemplating,” Herbert explains. The codes are repeatedly vetted through various committees with safety as the driving force.

“When we say the word regulation in Texas,’’ Schallenberg says, “they kind of look at things different down here.

“The word regulation is a hindrance to these people and they’re not on board … They’re more relaxed here. Not that you don’t have to build to the International Building Code, you do, and you have to be a good builder. They do watch you. They keep their thumb on you. If you’re a bad builder, they’re going to run your butt out of town faster than a horse.”

Some tiny home owners took that Wild West mentality a little far for Spur’s city officials, and last March, an ordinance was passed requiring designs to be approved and for all tiny homes to be on foundations and connected to the electrical grid, water supply and sewer system. Those who want to live off the grid or on wheels have to move out of the city limits.

Whether living on wheels, on a foundation or off the grid so as to be self-sustaining, the various factions of the tiny home movement agree. It’s here to stay.

Schallenberg, who has been advocating for tiny homes since 2004 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, says it’s rewarding to see the movement gain ground.

“I’ve been laughed at, joked at, cussed at, screamed at,” he says. “Now some of the exact same cities I did presentations for are calling back going, ‘Hey Danny, let’s take a second look at this.”