Open letter to DC Zoning/Planning on Proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) and ADU Rules

Boneyard campout3This letter is in response to new proposed rules developed by the Office of Planning that will impact microhousing options and appears to target Boneyard Studios and other alley owners.  If you are a DC RESIDENT please consider SUBMITTING TESTIMONY to let these good folks know how you feel. (it’s easy!)   

DC Zoning Commission: Anthony J. Hood, Chairman; Marcie Cohen, Vice-Chairman; Robert Miller, District Resident; Michael G. Turnbull, Architect of the Capitol Designee; Peter G. May, National Park Service Designee.

DC Office of Planning: Ms. McCarthy, Director.

Ms. McCarthy and the DC Zoning Commission,

I would like to thank Ms. McCarthy for her recent comments praising Boneyard’s “high-quality” construction and “environmental stewardship.”  We have been working tirelessly, with our own savings, for over two years to make Boneyard Studios a beautiful showcase of micro housing, building a wide community of tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters in DC and across America, and developing one AIA award winning design.  We also recently hosted 17 representatives from multiple DC agencies to discuss how microhousing can play a role in expanding affordable housing options in the city, and potentially be applied to assist the homeless population.

I would also like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. This is a critical and often thankless job that could help make our city more sustainable and affordable.  I and many Boneyard Studios supporters contributed specific comments on making ADU’s more accessible, and appreciate that OP’s recent revisions took into account many of the recommendations on easing regulations on minimum lot sizes and house areas.  However we strongly wish that the ADU rules kept 1602.2, and would allow accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process.  We feel expanding ADU’s is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents. 

I also write today to clarify a few issues that have arisen out of the recent discussion of micro houses, alleys and the latest zoning language, particularly the ‘Camping in Alleys’ (CIA) language under 1609.2/1005/2 which was just recently proposed:  

No camp or any temporary place of abode in any tent, wagon, van, automobile, truck, or trailer of any description shall be permitted on an alley lot unless approved as a special exception subject to the following conditions: 
(1) The use shall be located so that it is not likely to become objectionable to adjoining and nearby property because of noise, traffic, parking, lighting, sanitation, or otherwise objectionable conditions.  
(2) Open fires shall not be permitted. 
(3) The use shall not be approved for more than two consecutive weeks and no more than one month per calendar year.
  • Transparency: In the 1100+ comments recently submitted to the Office of Planning regarding the zoning rewrite, we couldn’t find a single one that pertained to residential structures, tiny houses, wagons, trailers, tents or otherwise in alleys.  Yet on June 16 OP just added the new proposed text above explicitly prohibiting “alley camping” to the latest round of recommended zoning language.  It is unclear where the demand for such language is coming from, but it does not appear to be from the DC public commenting on the zoning rules.  Thus it is unclear who we should engage further on this issue, and would be obliged if you could inform us. 
  • Justification: Ms. McCarthy recently stated that “we need some level of controls so people aren’t setting up squatter camps in alleys”.  We are great fans of DC’s alleys, and are unaware of any squatting activity in any alley in DC, but would be interested to learn more about the cases you have found.  I would note that squatting is typically defined as “to settle on our occupy property, especially otherwise unoccupied property, without any title, right or payment of rent”.  I would like to clarify that I own my private property at Boneyard Studios outright, have full and clear title to it, pay all required property taxes to the District, and permit friends and the community to make use of it on a case by case basis.  We support controls on squatting in alleys, if there is justification for it.  But we find justification lacking, and the current language imprecise and overexpansive. 
  • Fairness: We quite enjoy having an overnight campout with friends on my private property once in a while (some pictures attached), and personally don’t see any need to apply for a special exception permit from DCRA for this.  However, if OP can make a compelling case to prohibit alley camping on private property, then we recommend that OP explicitly extend the proposed zoning rules fairly, to limit camping to all privately owned DC land — alleys as well as the countless empty DC lots with street frontage, residential front yards and back yards and side yards, rooftops and porches.  However, like us, I would expect that many DC residents may take umbrage at having to get a ‘special exception’ DCRA permit to pitch a tent, or have their kids take part in the annual Great American Backyard Campout sponsored by National Wildlife Foundation. Such a permit could take weeks, at considerable expense.
  • Consistency: Under DC code 604.1, open fires are already prohibited in DC, but under 604.2 are allowed for “Recreational purposes, including the cooking of food for human consumption on other than commercial premises”.  This would remain the case on alley lots, unless (under the draft regs proposed by OP) the lot was temporarily approved ‘by special exception’ for camping, in which case open fires are then prohibited. This does not seem consistent with existing rules under 604.  

Folks at Boneyard Studios look forward to using the lot daily as we have been for the past two years: hosting hundreds of enthusiastic visitors each month at our micro house showcase events, growing a showcase garden and orchard, undertaking projects in the wood/metal workshop, holding community events, and working on other art/music/work in the micro houses during the day.  In the interest of expanding affordable housing in DC, we strongly encourage OP to support micro housing units of all forms, be it multifamily apartments, connected or detached ADU’s, or trailer based micro homes. 

Sincerely, 

Brian Levy and the Boneyard Studios communityBoneyard camput2

Boneyard campout1

Minim Houses across the land

Sustainafest campers building a Minim House

Sustainafest campers building a Minim House

Wanted to give a shout out to a few great organizations (and a lot of great folks) working on Minim House builds across the country this year:

Minim House was just featured on Episode 3 of Tiny House Nation this month. Tim and Shannon were the first to purchase Minim House plans when they became available last fall. Nice work! 

cityLAB in Pittsburg is a remarkable nonprofit that performs experiments with the city as their labo­ratory. Experiments are chosen to seed economic development, generate buzz, and effect positive change in the city, from inside and out. This year they will build a Minim House on a vacant lot they recently purchased. Check out their Tiny House Journal as they progress. 

Sustainafest is a unique partnership among the sustainability experts at Council Fire, a world class sustainability consultancy; Key School, a pre K-12 school located in Annapolis, MD and Living Classrooms Foundation, a regional education non-profit focused on experiential learning.  From July 7th – 28th this summer, 50+ middle and high school students from Annapolis, Baltimore and surrounding areas will join forces with military veterans, building experts, educators and the sustainability leaders from SustainaFest to take on the challenge of building the Minim House. Check out the Sustainafest Tiny House Blog, Facebook page, and ABC News story.

There are also 18 other folks across the U.S. and Canada that purchased plans and are starting on their Minim House builds.

In the far north: Montreal and Chateauguay in Quebec, and Grand Prarie in Alberta.

To the South: Dallas TX, Atlanta GA.

To the West: Seattle WA, Bend OR, Portland OR, Durango CO, and LA.

To the Midwest: Chicago and Marietta OK.

To the East: NY state (x2), Lenox MA, Wellesley MA, Cambridge MA, and Asheville NC (in addition to Pittsburg and Annapolis)

Good luck to all as these builds get underway!

Spring lot update

Since summer is here now, thought I’d review some updates on the lot from this rather cold but busy spring. Pictures below!

-I planted a medlar tree, a damson plum tree, comice pear tree, three varieties of currants, a strawberry bed, asparagus bed, and jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) bed to the garden. Also built an additional two new garden beds, and spread a small mountain of compost and woodchips, 11 yards in total.

-I ordered a lovely used wood fired oven (Fontana Forni Gusto), which has been happily baking anything you can throw at it (at up to 750 degrees)- pizzas, bread, pumpkin stuffed with fondue, roasted veges, yum.

- Jay and I dug a huge deep trench and planted a bunch of nearly full grown bamboo around the hot tub, to add some desired privacy.

- I salvaged a truck load of alley bricks (dating to the ’20’s) that DC was removing while repaving the alleys near the lot- destined for the landfill. A little cleaning and they got repurposed into a new garden patio.

- Tony and I have been working hard to put up the new 288ft2 Studio Shed on the lot.  Exterior is now completed and looking quite fine. Interior is fully insulated and drywalled, with just the final paint remaining.

- In the Studio Shed I put together a table- a custom milled 7’ slab of 2.5’’ hickory butcher block on a 1650 lb foot operated hydraulic lift- height adjustable for a coffee table, dining table, work table.

- To have a functional woodshop in the shed I found a great used Shopsmith (a classic American machine which must be one of the most versatile shop tools around).  Also put in a welding table for the new MIG welder that’s about to get fired up.

 

How to upload comments to DC Zoning

Thanks for your interest in submitting testimony on this important topic.

DC Zoning will only consider comments on ADU’s (accessory dwelling units), camping in alleys and other topics by submissions uploaded through their official channel. To do this:

a) The online IZIS system. In IZIS click on ‘Set up an account’, and register. Then login, and then click on “Submit Comments in a Case”.  Search for ‘08-06A‘. Click on ‘Select Case’. Type in text from the letter template below.  or

b) A PDF letter. At the IZIS site select “File Documents in an Existing Case” and upload your PDF letter, using text from template below.

cMail a letter to 441 4th Street, NW, Ste. 200-S, Washington, DC 20001.

NOTE: make sure when you submit comments you include the Case Number (08-06A – Alternative Text)

Letter template:

Office of Zoning, Case Number 08-06A-Alternative Text

I am a District resident in Ward __, and would like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. However, as the rules are finalized, I would ask you to please consider:

a) Eliminating the proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) zoning rule introduced by the Office of Planning. It appears this rule was made in an untransparent fashion, appears unjustified, unequally restricts private property in the District, and is inconsistent with existing code. More importantly, it eliminates a potential source of affordable micro housing in DC we should be working to develop further.

b) Supporting stronger language that allow the widespread development of ADU’s. Specifically, the latest zoning rules on ADU’s should keep 1602.2, so residents can develop accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process. I feel that expanding ADU (accessory dwelling units) is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents.

Sincerely, 

 

High carb, 0 carbon: bread making at Minim House

Fresh bread is for me one of the simple joys of life, and one that seemed important to be able to keep savoring in the micro house.  So the past 6 months I’ve found it comforting to bake bread each week while working during the day at the Minim House.  While it’s been fun to take the time to develop and cook artisinal style bread in the outdoor wood-fired oven, I’ve come to appreciate the ease of the breadmaker for daily sandwich bread, which is reliably produced, even with a challenging 100% whole wheat loaf.

During this time I’ve become rather amused by the idea of zero-carbon bread- from ingredients to baked loaf.  This basically means no wood, propane or grid electricity to cook a loaf of bread, a historic staple of western civilization. With just 15 min of prep time. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. The Minim solar array on the roof generates 3-4.5 kWh on a sunny day, with power stored in an on board 12 volt battery bank, then inverted to regular household power with an Outback inverter.
  2. With the inverter on, hard red winter wheat berries are milled into whole wheat flour with the electric stone KoMo grain mill.  The grain grinder uses around .1 kWh for grinding 5 cups of flour.  Freshly ground flour is generally more nutritious than store-bought- especially whole wheat flour, which starts to oxidize immediately upon grinding.
  3. Whole wheat flour, water, oil, wheat gluten, salt, honey, yeast, are mixed into the Zoji breadmaker. Conventional wisdom on small solar systems is to never run any heat/cooling appliances off of them, as these are heavy loads that eat up power quickly.  However I’ve found that it’s not a problem to run my a/c on a sunny day, or the electric water heater for the 10 min required to get hot water.  Add to the list the electric bread maker, which uses .41 kWh of power per 2 lb loaf of bread. So total power used for bread making is equivalent to a 500 watt light left on for 1 hour.
  4. The Zoji goes to work, and 3 hours later a perfect 2 lb 100% whole wheat walnut-wheat loaf emerges. I’ve found it’s superior to store bought (especially when still warm), with plenty of loft, and stays perfectly fresh sitting out for 4-5 days. Yum.

A few pictures of the process:

 

 

Studio Shed build starts

In January I started working with the great folks at Studio Shed to design and deliver a structure for Boneyard Studios. As described in a previous post, it will be a common space- part workshop space, part bike storage, part trailer park bingo hall.  Delivery of the shed came on Tuesday, and after a too-windy Wednesday we started construction Thursday and Friday morning on the lot.

So far its been:

1 hour to remove the shipping container

1 day to prep and pour the concrete

3 days to let concrete dry

3 hours to unload the Studio Shed materials (unfortunately, in driving snow)

1 full day and 3 hours the following morning to complete the 12×24’ Studio Shed shell (walls+windows+roofing)

So far we’ve been impressed with how easily the Studio Shed goes together, and how open it feels inside.  In the coming week(s) we’ll work on adding the galvanized roofing, siding, installing the doors and trim, and completing the interior.  A huge thanks to Tony, who is super talented and great to work with on site, and the folks at Studio Shed (Laura O’Connor, Mike Koenig, Jason Plumb and others) who have been so remarkably helpful during design and construction.

Rainwater collection for micro houses

Minim water system installed under benchPreviously I explored improvements to standard micro house water systems for water systems where there is no permanent pressurized water hookup or sewage line.   In many cases there may be no source of water but from the heavens.  So in this post I’d like to share a year of experience designing (and redesigning) rainwater collection and treatment systems- the water that feeds some of the micro houses at Boneyard Studios. The good news here is that in most climates it is entirely realistic to collect, treat, and use as much potable water as you will need for happy micro house living. (1)

Off-grid water collection systems typically consist of the following elements:

a) Rain catchment surface. Typically this is the micro house roof, but could equally be a different structure. While rainwater will be filtered, ideally a rainwater will not flow over petrochemical products that leach contaminants into the water- metal is perhaps the best choice.  Also be sure to avoid wood shingles, metal flashing or roof treatments that contain lead.  Calculate the amount of water the roof may harvest by getting your local monthly rainfall, and using the following formula:

Harvested water= catchment area (ft2) x rainfall depth (inches) x .623

For example, for a 11×22 micro house in Washington DC (avg 3” rain/month), collection could be up to approximately 500 gallons for an average month.

b) Rainwater transport. When rain falls on the roof, it should flow through gutters and piping that allow a high waterflow to the collection tank- I recommend at least 3-4” pipes for a 250 ft2 roof.  As we know when it rains it often really pours, but if the pipe system can’t handle the times the rain really lets loose, you’ll be losing a high % of your monthly water collection to spillage.  Also, ideally water should simply gravity fall through pipes directly into your cistern (collection tank), without the need for pumping, switches, or active maintenance- having tried an automatic rain-activated pumping system, I’ve found it is far simpler to have a direct gravity ‘roof-to-tank’ system.  Early settlers who built rain collection systems heartily agreed.

c) Collection tank/cistern. The tank is where the bulk of the rainwater is stored. In cold climates it must be insulated or placed underground to prevent water from freezing. In slightly more temperate climates, a bit of electric heat tape under the tank and around the pipes can keep enough water flowing during the coldest months.  Sizing should be based on both rainfall patterns and expected water use.  Just as for electricity, it is best to first minimize water use (rather than invest in larger collection/storage systems) through low flow faucets, shower heads, and foot pedal faucets.  Just as a rule of thumb, with efficient fixtures I estimate 30 gal/week/person with regular washing, showers, etc.  When the collection tank is full, there should be a basic overflow mechanism that gutters the water far away from the house/tires. Tanks can be rigid plastic or flexible- the key design trait being a large enough inlet to accept high water flow.  I personally favor the flexible water pillow tanks (far cheaper to ship than the large rigid tanks, easy to unroll and hide under a trailer). (2)

d) Water pumping.  From the collection tank water is then pressurized to move through a potable water hose to the garden, or through the same hose to an onboard holding tank and water filter.  A simple 12 or 120 volt Shurflo pump and switch will do the trick (I hide mine in the trailer hitch compartment, and make sure the pump is disconnected during freezing weather to avoid cracking- it could also live inside).  For potable water, water could be pumped directly from the collection tank through an on-board filter if freezing is never an issue.  I prefer an on-board RV water tank within the micro house that stays warm, then pump/filter from this tank with a secondary water pump. (3)

e) Water filtration. For potable shower and sink water, a quality water filter is essential. The filter takes water from the collection tank/cistern or on-board tank and makes it drinkable. There are many kinds available. The requirements here are water efficiency (no reverse-osmosis), energy efficiency (no UV filters that require electric UV lights on 24/7), maintenance simplicity, filtration efficacy (on bacteria/virus/chemicals), and cost.  After extensive research the ceramic Doulton RIF-10 with the additional sediment pre-filter was the tool of choice- I’ve used for over a year, with infrequent cleanings, and excellent water quality.  This model is originally designed for freshwater boaters, so taking water from your cistern ‘rainwater lake’ also works well. The ceramic filter has been proven for hundreds of years across the former British Empire, and is easily cleaned up to 50x with a scouring pad.  Note the filter is plumbed in after the second (on-board) water pump, so water is pushed through it. Once filtered, water flows to the plumbed micro house water system, very simple.(4)

So to recap a now thoroughly tested/proven off grid water collection and treatment system, version 3.0:

rooftop –> large gutters/pipes –> 250 gallon flexible cistern –> water pump #1 –> potable water hose –> garden or 40 gal onboard tank –> water pump #2 –> RIF-10 filter –> sinks/shower

(1) For foundation built houses, be sure to check local codes on rainwater harvesting for potable use.

(2) Note that rainwater collection experts will argue a pre-filter on the collection tank is necessary to filter out pollen, dust, etc from roof water. This is clearly ideal.  Though to me this seems more necessary when using under ground storage- above ground storage tanks can be more easily emptied of any sediments as needed.  I simply use a basic leaf screen in line in the gutter.

(3) Note that when filling an on-board sealed water tank, air must be exhausted as water rises. While there are a number of simple RV air release products, I settled on this Hayward air release valve plumbed at the top of the water tank. It has the benefit of releasing air, but sealing automatically to prevent water overflow when the tank is full.

(4) Note RV’ers may find it unpalatable to store ‘unfiltered’ water in an on board storage tank, but even potable water RV water tanks have to be sanitized regularly. I find it preferable to actively filter water at the time of use, though this does mean that water flow rates are a bit less than pumping directly from a clean water tank- the water filter slows the water flow rate down a bit (more if dirty).  For this reason I advise not attempting to use on-demand (‘tankless’) water heaters if actively filtering water (have tried and failed).  These water heaters just demand too high a water flow rate to remain activated.

(c) 2014 Brian Levy

take action: final comments on DC zoning changes

DC’s zoning has not been comprehensively updated since 1958. After 6 years of drafting and public input, the Office of Planning is about to finalize a new set of zoning regulations that could transform the city by allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s- carriage houses and microhomes behind an existing house, or basement apartments), as well as development of residential structures on alley lots.  If done correctly, this would be a huge boon for affordable housing in DC, and allow smaller housing units across town.

BUT! While the current draft is ok, it could be even better. There are conservative forces that would love to do away with any new affordable accessory dwelling units in the city, and the current rules are rather restrictive. So DC Residents, we need your help, this week! Once these final comments are in, the Zoning Commission will vote on the final package.  Please help by:

A: Signing the Petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
They have been on the forefront of advocating for progressive change.

B: Submitting written testimony to advocate for specific changes we need. Here is an easy testimony template with specific language changes we need (note these are my (Brian’s) views on ADU’s and alley lots).  Zoning Commission will only accept emailed comments in PDF format, which must include your signature. Email signed PDF to: zcsubmissions@dc.gov .  Subject line of email must include the case number (08-06A) and the subtitle or subtitles that your testimony refers to (Subtitle D).

C: Testify at the Wards 1-8 public meetings around town this coming week. It’s easy, and the Coalition folks can support you.

Thanks- zoning is the DNA of a city, and it’s a rare moment when we can act to positively affect the character of our city for years to come! With thousands of us connected through Boneyard Studios, we can really make a difference.

Showdown: $55K DC micro house vs $525K 1 bedroom DC apartment

It occurred to me as I’ve toured a number of 1 bedroom apartments around DC just how little additional functionality one gets for 4x the space (and 10x the price) of a decent micro house in this town.  Just for fun, I developed a matrix comparing the $55K, 210 ft2 Minim House to a fairly hum drum $525K, 923 ft2 Georgetown 1BR apartment.*  Just to check that I wasn’t cherry picking an exceptionally poor design, I also looked at similar floor plans in brand new ‘professionally designed and built’ apartments for rent at AvalonAvaGables, and Equity, all of which have 750-800ft2 one bedrooms (for $1700-3300/month), with roughly comparable floor plans.

I will let readers be the judge of the relative tradeoffs of both living spaces. In this case, functionally, it seems an additional 713ft2 (and $470K) buys two more oven burners, a dishwasher, a bathtub, and bit more closet space.  One might think professionally trained architects and builders could do a bit better with quadruple the space of a micro house.

Minim vs 1br apt

*the obvious caveats here are that the micro house price does not include land value or any building amenities, and that much of housing prices is reflected by location. This post is a basic comparison of functionality of a 210 ft2 space vs a 923 ft2 space.

Studio Shed coming to Boneyard Studios

garage-5B

The newest structure planned at the Boneyard Studios lot will be a 12’x24′ Studio Shed, coming in Spring 2013.

Conceptually, it made sense to have a larger common gathering area for folks at Boneyard Studios, and hopefully the wider neighborhood of which we are a part.  So the Studio Shed is planned to serve as a beautiful community and workshop space, with a bit of bike storage on the side.  It will replace the 8’x20′ shipping container, which has never been too much to look at, is quite narrow, and has no windows or insulation.  Unlike the micro houses on wheels currently here, the Studio Shed will be foundation built.

The Studio Shed will also be an important part of the Boneyard Studios showcase.  We think this company makes some of the most attractive storage and garage structures around, and they also have a finished ‘lifestyle‘ line that are perfect for foundation-built micro homes, backyard accessory dwelling units, art studios, guest rooms, etc.  The company also shares our values about re-envisioning what our space needs are.  So we’re very excited to be able to have one of these unique pre-fabricated buildings alongside the three tiny homes as another type of small, affordable, green, and quick-to-construct housing option.  Stay tuned for the foundation pour and wall raising- they come pre-built so with the foundation in the finished structure should be up in a week or two!

The shed will look very similar to the one above.

 

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