December 07, 2019
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National tiny house building code could make tiny living safer, easier in Maine

Courtesy of Sonya Connelly
Courtesy of Sonya Connelly
Living in a small space forces one to ask a lot of questions before acquiring more possessions, according to Sonya Connelly. Connelly is among a group of people who have taken to tiny house living and hope to establish a tiny house village in southern Maine.

Fans of tiny houses in Maine have the chance this week to be part of a movement to establish national standards governing the construction of the popular minimalist residential dwellings.

There is no unified building code or legal definition of a “tiny house,” but a residential structure under 500 square feet is generally accepted to be a tiny home, according to various online groups advocating the simplified lifestyle.

Currently, according to Alan Plummer, the Maine representative to the American Tiny House Association, towns in Maine have the options of denying or granting building permits for tiny houses based on existing local codes, which were not developed with tiny houses in mind. “All cities and towns in the country have to create building codes [and] many use the [existing] ‘International Residential Codes,’” Plummer said. “But there is as yet no provision in the IRC for tiny houses.”

According to Plummer, that means not only can it be impossible to obtain a tiny house building permit, in some communities it is illegal to even live in a tiny house.

“I just learned the city of Lewiston is not zoned for tiny houses,” he said. “So that is an example of a community that is not currently tiny-house friendly.

Plummer, who has plans to create a tiny-house community, hopes creating national standards will help promote tiny-house living in Maine. Last month, a group of tiny-house advocates met in Kansas City to discuss an appendix to the IRC language to include standardized codes for tiny houses that could then be adopted by local municipalities.

Municipalities have the right to use all, any or none of the IRC standards, but Plummer said the national codes are often the basis for local building codes and right now there is nothing covering tiny houses.

The proposed appendix includes tiny-house building code specific items including square footage, lofts, ladders and means of egress.

“Like any building in the city, zoning [and codes] are designed to make sure the structure is appropriate within the community,” said Jeff Levine, director of planning and urban development for the city of Portland. “This is especially true for a building where someone is living on a permanent basis.”

Safety is also important, he said.

“We need to look at the buildings meeting safety standards not just now,” he said. “The person living [in the tiny house] now may be fine with a ladder up to a loft, but we need to make sure it is a safe residence for someone 50 years down the road.”

The proposed appendix should help, Plummer said.

“In essence, what this does for tiny-house people is make tiny houses legal,” Plummer said. “If the appendix is accepted [by the IRC] and if a municipality adopts the IRC code, then as long as a person builds to that code and conforms to the zoning ordinance, they can live in a tiny house legally.”

While no one from Maine was part of that Kansas City contingent, Plummer said residents can be a part of the effort by contacting their local building and code officials and encourage them to get in touch with the state’s representatives of the IRC, who will be voting on the proposed appendix Nov. 8-15.

“We would like to see tiny house supporters talking to building code officials as eloquently as possible about tiny houses and why there is a need for standard building codes,” Plummer said. “It will still be up to the local municipalities to a large degree if they will allow tiny houses, but at least there will be a standard to follow to safely live tiny.”


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