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.

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-Alt 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:

 

 

A beginner’s guide to downsizing, part 4: Books and the rest

We keep most junk around for economic reasons: because we think we’ll use itbecause we think we’ll need itbecause we can’t accept a sunk cost or because we can afford to buy knick-knacks of no value. The last breed of junk, however, isn’t economic; it’s emotional.

#5: Books (stuff that you’ve [maybe] read once and will [probably] never read again)

I should begin by noting that I am nothing if not a bibliophile, a lover of literature and the limitless knowledge and entertainment books contain. But loving literature is not the same as loving books.

I have great friends with lovely libraries, cabinets and cases of texts and tomes, paperbacks and publications, hundreds and hundreds of bindings containing thousands and thousands of pages. It’s beautiful wall art.

But is it functional? Hardly. Think of all the books you’ve ever read. If you have a library, think of how many books you own. Now think of how many of those books you’ve read a second time. Some? A third time. A few? A fourth time. Maybe two, one, zero? Practically, personal libraries are overwhelmingly underused: a book purchased, read, and then shelved, never to be opened again. With over 130 million different titles in existence, the reader rarely returns to her collection. Rather, she adds to it—buy, read, shelf, repeat—and the library grows.

Many books, lots of space.


So what’s the harm? Space, for one—libraries take up a lot of room and are a pain to move. Finances—buying books costs money. And then there’s the environmental cost: books are, well, made from trees, and every new copy of a book requires new pages, new trees. My simple back-of-the-napkin estimate of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, for instance (200 million copies at an average of 500 pages each, with a single sixty-foot pine tree yielding about 80,000 pages), has required nearly 1.3 million trees to produce over its long print-cycle—about 3% of the Amazon’s (the forest, not the retailer) present inventory. And remember, that’s just the impact of one (very high-selling) book.

But space and money and planet aside, perhaps the best argument for ditching the library is sharing. As with just-in-case junk (for what is a library but just-in-case-I-want-to-read-this-later junk?), everything we have is something someone else can’t have. When we hoard five hundred books just in case we want to reread five, we’re keeping 495 books from our community, 495 books that can be read not later, but now—right now. And let’s face it: if we care about a book enough to keep it, isn’t it inherently something we think others deserve to experience as well?

But how do we go about reading without amassing a library? Simple. We begin by donating our books—all those but the few we really, really, really believe we’ll read again—to real libraries, public libraries, libraries with free and open access to all. Or we build a little free library in our neighborhood and stock it with our best. Or we pass on our collection to a used books store, perhaps even sell them on Amazon (the retailer, not the forest) for a fair price. We keep the revolving door revolving.

Then, we get a library card. We check books out and check them back in, or we buy new books and sell them back when we’re done. Maybe we get an e-reader. Me, I’m partial to the Kindle Paperwhite (though I trust they’re all very good), finding it to offer quite a few benefits over the paper book:

  • It’s light. At under 8 ounces, an e-reader weighs half of an average paperback, and that weight doesn’t change for the epic novels. Infinite Jest and Cannery Row not only weigh the same, they weigh the same together—8 ounces on a Kindle, 2 pounds in hand. For travelers, e-readers are phenomenal; one can easily pack 100 books for a multi-month excursion, and stuff the whole collection right into their back pocket.
  • It’s … light. Speaking just for the Paperwhite here, it’s an absolute pleasure to read in the dark. With a soft, adjustable backlight that’s easy on the eyes, reading lamps, flashlights, and strained lenses are a thing of the past.
  • Books are affordable and available for all. With thousands of titles in the public domain—and many more free to download if you know where to look—e-readers have the potential to truly close the literary gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Growing up with neither the money for books nor someone to take me to the library regularly, it’s heartening to see such open access to literature growing and evolving, but it depends on the support of all of us to continue doing so.


Of course, I’ve heard the arguments against them—but I love the feel of a book!, they smell so good!, or the entitled and illogical ramblings of Jonathan Franzen—and for a while, I believed them too (maybe not the Franzen bit). But the truth is, first you try an e-reader, then you get used to an e-reader, and then you prefer an e-reader, and the bookworm inside of you thanks you for it. The minimalist in you does too.

Many books, little space.

#6: Sentimental junk (stuff that we may or may not hold dear)

I won’t ridicule sentimental junk as I have junk’s other five forms, for our sentimental items are often those we’re most sensitive about. We give them value that transcends currency; often, we consider them irreplaceable. These treasured bits of ​our very selves adorn our home and warm our hearts—the very type of thing I’ve advocated for keeping around in the past—so I want to be clear that what I’m talking about here is not the urn or the photo album, nor the old rocking chair passed down through the generations. Sure, these are sentimental, but they are not sentimental junk.

Sentimental junk are those items we keep because we feel they should have value. Old holiday cards with more matter than message, ticket stubs we plan to scrapbook one day but never do, letters from lovers long gone, a final draft of a senior thesis or a diploma itself. In my own downsizing journey, these were the most difficult items to part with. But after the hesitance, recycling my diplomas and burning old correspondence felt cathartic, freeing, leaving my past alive in the only place it really exists and the only place it can be truly treasured: my memories.

And then, of course, there’s digitization. Yes, we can burn our letters and toss our photo albums and discard our physical encumbrances, but that needn’t be our only option. For we live in the digital age, an age of uploading and archiving, an age when the contents of a shoebox or a trunk can be preserved on a chip smaller than a fingernail. Perhaps flipping through digital albums isn’t quite the same as passing an afternoon in the attic perusing old photobooks, but hey: at least you don’t need an attic.

This post is the fourth of a series on living simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.

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