Is Your Tiny House Really a Tiny House?

What does or does not count as a tiny house has as much to do with class as it does with the structure itself.

The tiny house movement, arguably born in its current iteration out of the post-2008 Great Recession, has a pornographic quality to it, in that you know a tiny house when you see one. But this means that there are many structures which are not quite tiny houses. Most apartments—studios, railroads, tenements, shotgun houses, trinity houses—are not really tiny houses. Accessory Dwelling Units—back houses, pool houses, in-law suites—are only sometimes tiny houses. RVs, camper trailers, and other motorhomes are also not exactly tiny houses, although the reason why often has more to do with socioeconomic class than architecture.

The rules

The International Code Council, a nonprofit standards group that most notably maintains the basic safety codes for American housing, literally uses a flowchart to direct those curious about tiny housing to the correct building code. The only firm rule is that a tiny house must be under 400 square feet, excluding a loft. (That’s generally how Dwell qualifies something as a Tiny House: when it’s 400 square feet or less, and rests on a trailer.) But that doesn’t mean that there are no regulations; it’s more that the square peg of a tiny house, whether it’s movable or not, has to be applied to the round hole of various regulations that often weren’t really designed for them. Tiny houses on wheels are generally governed by local, state, and/or federal RV regulations, which can vary from place to place. Other tiny houses may be subject to the HUD Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards or various parts of American National Standards Institute or International Residential Code documents. One of the trickiest parts of building a tiny house is figuring out which laws you’ll have to follow.

Essentially, the designation of a tiny house is legally bound by different rules depending on a couple of key points, most importantly location. For a single-family, standalone new home built on a foundation, the minimum square footage requirements vary not just by state but often by municipality. They can range from no requirement at all to at least 600 square feet (or more). At first, this led to many tiny house builders working without a foundation, on a wheeled chassis. The rules for such a construction are more forgiving in minimum size, though they come with other restrictions. More recently, there have been some tiny house corollaries written into some housing codes, though they are widely varied and often confusing even now.

What even is a "home"?

One important category to know here is "manufactured home," which means, basically, a single-wide, double-wide, or triple-wide trailer-type home. ("Mobile home" is now considered, legally, an outdated term that only applies to structures built before 1976. "Trailer home" or any variants are considered descriptive at best.) The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a whole mess of codes for these, most notably for our purposes requiring that the structure be a minimum of 320 square feet, built on a permanent chassis, not self-propelled (like an RV), and with the capability to be permanently installed on a foundation. Houses that comply with all of these (and many more) regulations are eligible for FHA loans, homeowners insurance, and all kinds of other stuff. There are pretty specific guidelines for building and buying these.

So at its core, a tiny house is the result of a process of elimination.

A tiny house, on the other hand, doesn’t really need to hit any of those marks, and if it hits all of them, it’s really just a manufactured home that happens to be quite small. (Manufactured homes, or prefabs, can reach thousands of square feet!) Whether there’s a house that’s somehow too tiny to be a tiny house, well, there’s a category under the International Building Code that’s called an "Efficiency Dwelling Unit," or EDU, which seems to be about as small a complete dwelling as the IBC things can or should exist. EDUs must have, in addition to a toilet, shower or tub, ventilation, natural light, kitchen sink, refrigerator, and "cooking appliance," a minimum of 190 square feet. This is all kind of nebulous and to a certain extent if someone calls it a "tiny house" it’s a tiny house, but the idea seems to be that if a structure doesn’t include the basics of a house, it’s not really a house; it might be a shed, or an ADU, or a van, something like that.

There are no federal guidelines for tiny houses that don’t fulfill the manufactured home guidelines; a given municipality may or may not have some of their own, or may demand that existing rules for other types of structures (RVs, campers, ADUs, whatever) be followed. Because of this, a tiny house may be uninsurable, or not qualified for a loan, or may not legally be allowed to be a primary dwelling, or all kinds of other weird opaque problems. Many of these houses are built by owners, not licensed professionals, and it could be very hard to convince a bank to give out a loan for a plan to turn a retired ice cream truck into a house.

So at its core, a tiny house is the result of a process of elimination. If a tiny house is self-propelled, meaning it’s built on the back of a truck, bus, or van, it’s an RV. If it’s above 400 square feet, it’s no longer tiny. If it’s built to be compatible with manufactured home regulations, it’s a manufactured home. If it’s an apartment, it’s not a house at all and therefore cannot be a tiny house.

But what about vibes?

Where this gets very interesting, I think, is when the label of "tiny house" is more an aesthetic or cultural definition than a legal or size-based one. Looking through the videos of popular YouTube account Living Big in a Tiny House, I see many homes which are not (by American legal definitions; the account is from New Zealand) tiny houses at all. Some are ADUs, which may need to be built on land that already hosts a primary dwelling. Some are camper trailers or RVs. Many are prefabricated in ways largely similar to any manufactured home.

What separates a "tiny house" from other kinds of small dwellings is primarily based on design, branding, and privilege. A "tiny house community" does not differ dramatically from a "trailer park" in practical terms, except that a trailer park is compliant with certain regulations around amenities, utilities, and safety. A vanlife YouTuber is more similar to a person many states would declare unhoused than they might be comfortable with.

What separates a "tiny house" is often in demographics, in financial stability, in design choices, and in the privilege of choice. Are tiny houses often cheaper than manufactured homes or apartments? Well, kind of: you can get a loan or a mortgage on manufactured homes, and you can rent an apartment. A tiny home requires an up-front investment of money, time, and flexibility (in that you have to have somewhere else to live!). It often requires some land, which today is usually more expensive than the home; many of those featured in Living Big in a Tiny House live on a family member’s plot of land, or land they inherited, something like that. This is not available to most people! It may be cheaper in the long run (though not necessarily), but that up-front cost is the most important delineator from other, older forms of small dwellings. Choosing to live in this kind of home is a choice only some people have the luxury of making: downsizing without sharing walls with a neighbor, mobile living without fear of arrest, a custom home that doesn’t look exactly like anyone else’s.

What makes a (tiny) home?

There is of course a design element as well. There’s no strict definition—who would even make one?—but Living Big in a Tiny House showcases a couple of strands of tiny house aesthetic that mark those dwellings as distinct from manufactured homes or RVs. There’s the industrial look, complete with steel, maybe oxidized, maybe made out of shipping containers. There’s the twee cottage look, with weathered wood shingles and incongruously large farmhouse sinks. There are the masculine minimalist houses: boxy, uncompromising, an interior of pale wood and white paint. And there are the hippie houses, which can be made of traditional materials like wattle-and-daub or more modern reclamations like an old school bus or a yurt. There is a pride, in all of these, in clever quirks and features: a bed that folds up into a dining room table, a secret closet underneath some floorboards, a loft accessed by a sliding ladder, that kind of thing. Manufactured homes are of course clever in many other ways—have you seen a pop-out? But mass production is anathema in this aesthetic.

There is often also a gesture towards them being a more environmentally sustainable way of living than other housing options, which I find a little absurd. It’s well-understood that the best housing choice for energy use and environmental protection is dense apartment living. Even reclaimed shipping containers still have to be moved inland, via a big belching truck, and modified so that one, maybe two people can live in them. A tiny house made from a retired school bus is still going to get single-digit miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency. A manufactured tiny house placed on an uncle’s farmland is going to require an awful lot of construction energy and probably a car.

So I’d argue that what makes a tiny house a tiny house is much less about any real rules involving size, permanence, or legality. It’s about the luxury of choice. And nice sinks.

Top photo courtesy of Madeiguincho  and originally found in These Made-From-Scratch Tiny Homes Start at $58K. And They’re Coming to the U.S.

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