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!

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:

 

 

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.

the joy of limits (pt.1: grounded)

‘our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning’  Wendell Berry

Limits are a curious thing. We commonly sense there is a clear line of trespass for a range of goods: food intake, staring at the TV, resource extraction, suburban growth, car speed.  Then there fortunately exist things where generally no constraint is needed: creation of art, appreciation of nature, love, among others.  Yet a third category of things lives in the shadows- those things we often don’t think to limit (often in the name of personal freedom and liberty), but might be better off individually and collectively were some boundaries observed: plane travel, ambition and wealth, our number of offspring, time texting on the iPhone. And yes, perhaps even the size of our homes.  Here I wish to consider this last category, as there may be some unexpected riches laying unobserved in embracing constraint, some added creativity unleashed by a box we willingly place ourselves in.

Certainly many in the micro house movement sense a joy in inhabiting a limited space- a simplicity of existence, the elegant economy of form of a well designed small structure, an added freedom once unshackled from unneeded rooms and unwelcome mortgages. Could this joy found in limited space be a footnote to a larger realm?  It seems a relevant question for this site. To start, I would consider the benefits to limitations on movement, of geographic constraint.

At Carleton College every fall, students living on campus with cars were once required to sign them into ‘dead storage’, a muddy dark parking lot back in the woods. To drive cars during the school year required special permission from college security.  While some suddenly discovered new religions to allow off campus car use to attend ‘services’, most stayed put in this rural Minnesota college town, staying together after class on evenings and weekends. There was drinking, but also a blossoming of creative activity on campus as students found ways to entertain.  At the time, an unpopular policy, and seemingly un-American. Yet years later, few question the fact that this limitation was crucial in forging the surest of bonds among us, and to a small patch of campus in the middle of a cornfield.

There are other periods many of us have been willingly confined in time and place: summer camp, graduate school, long cabin weekends– all of which often lead to a harvest of meaningful memories.  Contained geographically, many find there is a certain freedom that only comes from stability, a blossoming of creativity and friendships, a deepened understanding of the place inhabited.  Xavier de Maistre, sentenced to house arrest after a duel, famously wrote a travelogue titled ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’ that explored the richness of every object and memory in his chamber.  For de Maistre, as for Proust, “the voyage of discovery lay not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes’.  For most, such constraint can be torturous if conditions are forced or unwelcome.  Yet when not, geographic boxes frequently come to be experienced far more as a comfort than as a cell.  And when the box fades, the potential to be able to go anywhere, anytime may become momentarily vertiginous.

Apart from deepened understanding and relationship, geographic constraints may promote efficiency of use, as it often does in tiny dwellings.  Urban garden plots are an apt example.  With DC’s urban gardens oversubscribed, most gardeners make do for years with single 10’x6’ plots. Initially frustrated by the limited area, necessity becomes the mother, and some gardeners come to value every inch, happen upon a long list of more intensive and efficient gardening techniques. These plots easily outproduce plots 2-3x that are less well attended.  In comparison to rural gardeners and farmers, some of these urban gardens are the highest yielding plots around.  For those that start with great amounts of land, like unused extra rooms in suburban mcmansions, a wealth of options leads to inefficiency of use.

There are perhaps more subtle lessons as well from the garden. As I planted, I found it tempting to constantly uproot and rearrange plants to gain just a few more inches of growing space.  But transplanting plants over and over was never good for their health. It was far better to plan carefully, plant deliberately, and keep them put. Certainly for the garden to stay healthy, we gardeners needed to stay in place, steadily, to water and weed. There was no app for that.

We humans are not so much like the vegetable. But after a career in international development, I found the continual movement across time zones presented a challenge to social life, good brain functioning, and a sense of place. There were many good people in this professional world, but it seemed few of us ever were ’grounded’ except on a plane.  I became envious of my tomatoes, which got to stay rooted in one place all season.  It seemed plausible that after generations of tribal living, humans might not be terribly well adapted to constant movement among places and cultures, and perhaps prone to jet set melancholia.  It may not be the case that just staying put directly leads to psychological well being, but constant movement impacts other conditions- a sense of community and personal connections, that certainly do.

So as many of us build and use our tiny houses on wheels, most of the time these wheels do not turn, and perhaps for the better.

(c) 2013 Brian Levy

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