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By Erica Sweeney
December 19, 2016
Americans’ homes are getting bigger and bigger, now averaging about 2,500 square feet. But, researchers at Kansas State University say going small may be better.
Affordable housing, sustainability, and the impact of tiny house communities are a few of the areas that professor Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology, and Julia Day, assistant professor of interior design, are addressing in their study “Tiny Houses, Titan Impact: An Ecological Approach to Impacting Public Health Through Affordable Housing.”
“We knew that housing was pretty closely tied to human health,” Irwin explains. “It seems plausible that there might even be more health-promoting or health-protective qualities. With all these questions in our heads, we decided to launch a research project.”
The idea for the project came in June 2016 after Irwin decided to build his own tiny house, which Day helped to design. The research includes the pair traveling the country to visit tiny house villages, talk to tiny house residents and manufacturers, and research local building and planning codes.
They have visited tiny house communities in Colorado Springs and Walsenburg, Colorado, and Eugene and Portland, Oregon, where city officials are using tiny houses to address homelessness. A trip is planned to Fresno, California, which Irwin says is a “hotbed for tiny houses,” especially when it comes to policy issues.
“Travel is key so we can be in these populaces and document what these tiny houses and villages look and feel like, and get a context for how tiny houses came about,” he says. “We’re really trying to be comprehensive in our research so we can come to a full understanding of the phenomenon.”
Most tiny houses are 400 square feet or less, said Dan Louche, founder of Tiny Home Builders. However, there is no generally recognized standard.
Tiny houses can be built on a foundation, like full-size homes, or on a trailer, making them mobile. And, this is where the biggest challenge lies — zoning.
“If you want to live in one on a foundation, it’s OK just about everywhere,” Irwin explained. “But, if you want to live in one on wheels, you introduce a whole new issue.”
Louche says that’s because tiny houses built on trailers, which is the focus of his business, are considered recreational vehicles.
“Understandably, from the perspective of government, it’s a harder problem to solve because a lot of decisions are still to be made,” he explains. “They take into account the population of an entire area and the infrastructure that’s appropriate.”
The purpose of code and zoning laws, Irwin says, is to ensure that people are living in safe structures and “the right kind of structure is next to the right kind of structure.” He says some communities have figured out planning issues, and the study strives to educate other communities about these regulations.
Because tiny houses are such a new type of structure, Irwin says many are unsure of which building codes to apply. Louche explains that most are built according to the same codes as full-size houses, just on a smaller scale.
A major step in overcoming this hurdle came at the International Code Council meeting this fall. An appendix specific to tiny house construction was submitted for approval in the 2018 International Residential Code, which could help streamline the permitting process for tiny houses.
“This is a big step for the tiny house industry,” Irwin explains, because many municipalities have been hesitant to establish their own tiny house codes until a national or international organization established standards.
Much of the tiny house industry appeals to the do-it-yourself builder. Louche says DIY accounts for 80 percent of his business.
Tiny Home Builders sells trailers and blueprints, and the company offers recommendations for building materials and tools on its website. Since launching in 2009, they have sold 800 tiny home trailers nationwide.
No special skills or knowledge is needed to build a tiny house, Louche says, but amateur builders will likely learn a lot along the way.
“Building a tiny house is a manageable job, and a huge sense of accomplishment,” he says.
The DIY aspect means future residents can build essentially whatever they want.
“Residents end up with a house that’s specifically tailored to their desires and needs,” Irwin explains. For example, older people may build with mobility in mind.
It’s these individual characteristics, along with location and the materials used that can enhance quality of life and sustainability, he says.
“In my mind, sustainability is a public health issue, because it challenges the viability of survival on planet Earth,” Irwin says. “If you think about all the materials that get used [in construction] and the carbon footprint that was created, it’s all tied to sustainability, and the impact is real.”
Location and the creation of tiny house villages offer huge potential for enhancing a sense of community and building a social-supports network, the lack of which, Irwin suggests, is a risk factor for early mortality.
“Our big-picture goal is to create healthy, sustainable communities,” he says of the study.
What’s been most interesting in the research is how different cities use tiny houses to address affordable housing, whether it’s for homeless, elderly, or student populations, Irwin says. The researchers hope to create a model for other communities to follow to tackle local housing issues.
Irwin says affordability and not wanting to take on a 30-year mortgage was his primary motivator for building a tiny house, which he plans to move into by the end of 2016 and will be featured on HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” in early 2017. Plus, he says if he ever moves, he can take his house with him.
Living a more minimalist lifestyle is also what compels many people to choose tiny houses.
“It’s about simplification and getting out of the consumer mindset,” Louche says. “The burden of stuff is this invisible burden on people that they don’t realize. Once they get rid of it, they realize the impact it’s had on them.”
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