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. 


Brian Levy and the Boneyard Studios communityBoneyard camput2

Boneyard campout1

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.



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: .  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.

Saying goodbye to the Lusby

About a year ago, we welcomed Elaine Walker‘s red-and-white Tumbleweed Lusby to Boneyard Studios—the fourth house in our tiny house showcase.

It’s been a pleasure having Elaine’s house on the lot for so long, allowing us to show yet another tiny house design to the many folks who have toured the site during our regular open houses. But last week, the Lusby hit the road once again for a new adventure, leaving our tiny house showcase with the remaining three models: the Pera House, the Matchbox, and Minim House.

Lusby (Elaine)

More change is coming to the lot soon, of course—we recently announced our plans for a communal studio shed to replace our rented shipping container, and we’re currently exploring options to put the space between the Matchbox and the Pera House to good, creative use (suggestions welcome—or if you think you could personally use the space, get in touch with us with your ideas). More to come soon! In the meantime, farewell to the Lusby, and many thanks to Elaine for her wonderful contribution to the Boneyard Studios project this past year.

The Lusby hitched up

The Lusby hitched up

Lusby being driven away down the alley

Lusby being driven away down the alley

Empty space on the Boneyard Studios lot

Empty space on the Boneyard Studios lot

fruit, flowers, herbs & veges

2013 is the first real season for the garden, which was planned and started in through the summer and fall of 2012.  Like the tiny houses, the garden has to be designed to maximize use of limited space- in this case a 1/11 acre plot, partially shaded, with half the area occupied with the houses/container/parking, and a sizable area remaining open green space.  Previously limited by a postage stamp backyard and 15 years of gardening one 5×10 community garden plot, for me (Brian) the garden work has been a real joy, as exciting as constructing the small house.  Below is a catalog of what has been planted to date, with more pictures/updates to come as the season progresses.

Fruit:  Currently planted are 15 fruit trees including: 2 apples (Honeycrisp, Fuji), 3 cherries (Montmorencey sour, 4/1 combo sweet), 2 pear (D’Anjou, Seckel), 2 fig (Paradiso, Negronne), 1 kumquat, 1 apricot (Blenheim), 2 plum (Santa Rosa, Green Gage), 1 serviceberry, 1 pomegranate (Angel Red). Many of the trees are dwarf or semi-dwarfs that will be judiciously pruned. There’s also a blackberry bush, 3 raspberry, 3 rhubarb (Victoria), 1 grape (Concord), and 2 blueberries (Reka and 3/1 combo).  While many of these trees will take a while to reach full production, we’ll certainly have apples, figs, cherries and berries this season.  Special thanks to Casey Trees in DC for subsidizing purchase of the fruit trees, and the great folks at Snell Nursery in MD.

Herbs:  Around 23 types of herbs are in now, including garlic chives,  traditional chives, Kentucky mint, bronze fennel, borage, red veined and French sorrel, French thyme, green lemon thyme, purple sage, pineapple sage, sweet marjoram, French tarragon, green fringed lavender, sweet lavender, Italian oregano, hot/spicy oregano, dill, Salem rosemary, Tuscan rosemary, lemon verbena and several types of basil.  Thanks to Debaggio’s in Chantilly, VA for perhaps the best selection of culinary herbs on the East Coast (as well as tomatoes and peppers).

Flowers: Sunny areas include a wisteria vine and Carolina creeper vine, rose bushes (x4), zinnias, sunflowers, hollyhock, speedwell, salvia, coneflowers, bee balm, verbena, anise hyssop, marigolds, beard tongue, coreopsis, and 75 tulip bulbs.  The small shaded flower garden includes asters, bleeding heart, geraniums, and a lonely but lovely peony.

Veges: There are 10 4×8 garden boxes for vegetable planting, where all sorts of things are now growing. Harvested already this season: kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, endive, turnips, carrots, snap peas, snow peas. And coming up soon: fava beans, beets, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, summer squash, cucumbers.

tiny house open house: visiting boneyard studios

We started Boneyard Studios for a number of reasons, but one of the simplest was that, well, we like tiny houses. Reimagining space is a fun adventure, and it’s been so encouraging to see the support we’ve received over the past year, letting us know that we’re not alone in our passion for simpler living. Beyond getting nationwide coverage in the Washington PostCBS NewsThe Daily, and more, and receiving local acclaim in the Washington City Paper’s “Best of 2013″ edition, we’ve had a tremendous number of visitors actually come out to see our lot since construction kicked off last July.

IMG_5514Recognizing that Boneyard Studios is a construction site—one that must balance busy building days with a desire to answer questions for the inquisitive passerby—we kicked off a (totally free) open house series back in December 2012 allowing us to give Boneyard Studios fans a  tour of the lot that is both safe and informative. To date, we’ve held six open houses with a total of over 450 people in attendance. Our hour-long open houses are generally held on the morning of the first Sunday of the month, and feature the following run-of-show:

  • Casual meet-and-greet: A few minutes upon arrival to chat with other guests and learn more about what draws others to tiny houses.
  • Welcome and Q&A: To kick things off, we generally talk briefly about the history of Boneyard Studios, introduce ourselves and our respective houses, and answer a handful of frequently-asked questions.
  • Tiny house tours: For the bulk of the hour, we retreat to our individual houses and encourage folks to visit each one. While inside, we answer questions about each house’s architectural, sustainable, and functional features, and anything else that may arise.

Beyond being a great way to tour the tiny house showcase, the open houses are a wonderful opportunity to network with other tiny house enthusiasts who may be able to support you in your own tiny house adventure. Interested in joining us for an upcoming open house (the next one is currently scheduled for Saturday, May 11 at 11am)? Register here!

Recent open house on the lot

Recent open house on the lot

attend a DC zoning public input meeting

The D.C. Office of Planning released the long-awaited first draft of the proposed zoning changes (see in particular subtitle C+D), but we need your support. From the good folks at Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth:

The DC Zoning Update will make DC’s zoning code more understandable, give people more freedom to rent out their garages and basements, have local neighborhood corner stores, and remove some onerous and unnecessary parking minimum requirements. 

Some people are absolutely dead set against any change, and have been trying to scuttle the zoning update since the first day they heard about it, no matter how times the Office of Planning has come to meetings with them or weakened proposals to placate the opposition. It’s time to move forward to make sure our city can grow without adding to traffic, add more housing that people can afford, and become a better place to live for everyone.

The Office of Planning is holding 8 public input sessions by ward in December and January to educate residents about the zoning update and get feedback. We need to turn out in force to these meetings to stand up for good changes and/or push OP to make the proposals even better. 

Please sign up here.

DC’s Office of Planning will be explaining everything in detail at the meetings, but you can also learn more at their blog,, and from posts on Greater Greater Washington like these:

We’re posting more information on how the zoning changes could affect tiny houses in DC under FAQ’s.

tiny + stacked: dc micro apartments

Kudos to DC’s Urban Turf for continuing to cover the state of play with DC microhousing.  From today’s article “Is DC Ready for 275-Square Foot Housing?“, it is clear that in some respects DC is far ahead of the country in terms of minimum size regulations. While other cities such as San Francisco contentiously debate lowering minimum residential limits from 290 to 220 ft2, and NYC must waive square footage regulations to test microhousing, the DC limit is already set at 220 ft2.  Go DC.

This follows an earlier Urban Turf article (DC Almost Had 275-Square Foot Apartments) that chronicles how close DC was to having micro apartments in Chinatown, which would have put DC ahead of the rest of the country in developing these units.  For now, we cede leadership to NYC, where Bloomberg has championed microunits, and where a 60-unit micro-studio building will be going up next summer.

It would seem that an informal poll (Would DC Residents Live in a Micro-Studio?) shows great support for these small housing options. And as one responder noted, “As a landlord in DC, I know I could fill micro-apartments all day.”  The article concludes that “Someone needs to take the first step and figure it out…then you’ll see buildings getting carved up into smaller and smaller units.”

Bottom line: though it is far from what is needed, current zoning regulations are being debated to formally allow small housing in backyards and basements (as accessory dwelling units) and empty lots.  But when it comes to apartment buildings, there’s less policy work to do.  So we hope enlightened DC developers may see the logic (and demand) for micro apartments, and make DC a leader of this urban affordable housing movement.

UPDATE: DC Mud reports on Oct 15 that 330-380 square foot micro apartments are being planned as part of the “Parcel 2″ development in The Wharf complex in SW DC.

tiny house appliances: water and sanitation

*Updated Feb 2014*

Currently the majority of tiny homes are built to accept pressurized water hookup from a hose. Simple, but also quite limiting if the house is ever moved for a few days (or longer) to somewhere where there is no pressurized water hookup- a music festival, or, say, a vacant alley lot.  The Tumbleweed Fencl we had here at Boneyard Studios was unusable on the lot for months simply because we have no permanent pressurized water connection. Standard micro houses also require water for toilets, and then a sewage hookup to dispose of it- most inconvenient, and always a little gross.

So, for not much more $, we are building houses with rainwater collection systems, and on-board water that we fill up and remain off any water connection for up to a week at a time.  One can do this either by a) building houses with elevated water tanks and gravity fed water, or b) building tiny homes with RV-like tanks and water systems.  In the latter case, we can also design the system to allow hook ups to pressurized water if/when that is available. The essential components of this modified RV system include:

  • 40 gallon RV fresh water tank (available in many sizes from places such as the tank-depot). This should ideally be mounted within the building envelope (insulated area) to keep water from freezing- as should all piping. If this is not possible, there are a variety of electric RV water tank heaters available. It should also be mounted securely, as it will weigh over 320 lbs when full.
  • A greywater tank to store used shower and sink water.
  • A fresh water fill inlet to fill up the tank (unpressurized)
  • A fresh water fill inlet to fill run the system without the water tank (i.e. when pressurized water is available)
  • A water pump (we’re using this standard SHURflo 2088-422-444 2.8 Classic Series Potable Water Pump). Note that this is a pump designed to run off of 12 volts, but you can easily substitute a 120 VAC model.
  • An accumulator tank to reduce pump cycling and smooth water flow (such as this SHURflo 182-200 Pre-Pressurized Accumulator Tank)
  • A simple water strainer to pre-filter the water (such as the SHURflo 255-313 Classic Series Twist-On Strainer 1/2″ FPT x 1/2″)
  • Some one-way valves to allow city water to plug into the system without any manual switching of valves.
  • A hot water heater.  This can be a) a traditional small electric heater, such as the 2.5-10 gal Aristons, b) RV-specific (and pricey) tankless water heaters such as the PrecisionTemp RV-500, or c) residential tankless heaters such as the wall-mounted Eccotemp FVI-12-LP (note that this also requires 120 VAC to run).

Design: The system can be plumbed according to a traditional RV schematic, below, with a few caveats

  • No blackwater tank: at Boneyard Studios we’re using Incinolet incinerator toilets, which just uses an electric connection to dispose of waste.  So we don’t plan to have any water going to the toilet (and consequently no toilet plumbing, no blackwater to dispose of, and no blackwater tank to take up valuable space).
  • No hot/cold water mixing for shower.  Almost all small water heaters have temperature settings on them which obviates the need for a separate cold mixing valve- simply lining in the hot water directly to the shower is simpler and works great, just adjust the temp at the tank.  Also note that one may run an electric water heater for 5-10 minutes prior to a shower, and leave the heater off the remaining time (this is quite efficient, and allows one to run an electric water heater in an off-grid electrical system, such is done in Minim House).

When plumbing the system, consider designing to to be a) easy to drain, for when the house sits empty during winter, and b) keep pipes outside of the walls, tastefully exposed, so if they fail, they do not fail disastrously, and can be more easily repaired should any freezing ever rupture them.

Water Efficiency: water efficiency becomes much more important when not connected to pressurized water.  This Bricor 1 gpm low-flow model is one of the most water efficient showerheads one we’ve found (there is even a .55 gpm model, but at a rate less than .96 gpm, the tankless water heater does not click on- a widely noted tradeoff of tankless water heaters- always check minimum flow rates).  Bricor will even ‘tune’ the showerhead to match the water pressure your pump generates (in this case, 45 psi).  Bricor also seems to make the most water efficient faucet aerator on the market (.375 gpm).  At this rate, a 40 gallon fresh water tank would give 30 minutes of shower +  26.6 minutes of sink time.  It’s worth noting that this water efficiency is far superior to any RV on the market today, as they all use flush toilets and typically less efficient showerheads/aerators.  Also note that one of the most water saving devices we’ve come across are the foot pedal water valves, available at restaurant supply stores. These valves are incredibly convenient, more sanitary, and much more water efficient than standard faucets- highly recommended.

**Also see the post off grid water for micro homes**

celebrating a year of tiny houses in DC: from full moon ride to boneyard studios

Upon waking this morning I quickly fell into an anxious and depressed Monday-morning mindset until I noticed the date on my calendar and realized that I had something to celebrate.  It was a year ago today that Boneyard Studios was conceived.

Saturday, September 10, 2011 was the monthly summer full moon ride in Washington DC (sponsored by my favorite bike shop Bicycle Space)  I always meet interesting, creative and engaged DC residents on these night rides.  While drinking cocktails with fellow bike enthusiasts in Logan Circle park, I met Brian and we discovered that we both wanted to build tiny houses on wheels.  After geeking out about tiny houses for a couple hours and talking about the lack of tiny houses on wheels in urban spaces, we hatched the plan of finding space to build them within the District in the next year.  At the time it felt like just another of my crazy ideas that I get all excited about and quickly forget.  Yet here we are a year later – Boneyard Studios in existence (with a couple new members), a few tiny houses in construction, and a great community in formation (of builders, architects, tiny house enthusiasts, affordable housing activists, sustainable living advocates, local business owners, neighbors, and supporters).

Logan Circle Park during a full moon ride – where Boneyard Studios was conceived.

A quick timeline (not comprehensive):

Sept 10, 2011Boneyard Studios conceived at the Full Moon Ride in Washington DC

Oct 2, 2011 – First tiny house meetup in DC hosted by Lee (these meetups continue every three months or so and are a great way to connect with others in DC building or interested in tiny and/or sustainable living space

Fall 2011 and Winter 2012 - The search for the lot begins.  Research tiny house design, appliances, and city zoning and code.  Read  tiny house blogs, books, and connect with other tiny house, affordable housing, and sustainable urban development advocates and supporters.  

Spring 2012 - Brian has architects work on his plans for the not-too-tiny house.  Lee starts getting quotes from builders for her house (at first based on the Tumbleweed Fencl design).

March 2012 - Brian closes on the Boneyard Studios Lot.  We knock on neighbors’ doors to introduce ourselves and flyer the neighborhood houses to explain the project idea.

April 2012 - We help organize the Repurposing Space Showcase with Wangari Gardens and the Box Collective – two other great community organizations.  We host an open house of a Tumbleweed Fencl during the showcase and a few hundred visitors come out for the event.  We meet Jay who quickly becomes a new member of Boneyard Studios!

May 2012 - Lee’s builder, Tony, moves to DC to start work on her house.  Tony and Brian do a tremendous amount of work on the lot - clearing old concrete, building fences, and planting gardens.  We host a BBQ to introduce neighbors to the idea for our projects.

June 2012 - The lot gets some utilities and more work done to it.  Lee’s tiny house shell  arrives in DC from South Carolina.  We host a tiny house class on the lot and speak at the Tumbleweed tiny house workshop in DC.  First happy hour on tiny house lot to introduce friends and supporters to project.

July 2012 - After a stop-work order request is removed, construction finally begins!  See here for details about stop-work order, code and zoning.

August 2012 - Construction in full swing on Jay and Lee’s tiny houses.  Check out Jay’s great time-lapse video of his build.  Second happy hour on tiny house lot to introduce friends and supporters to project.

September 2012 - Construction continues and we reflect on what we have accomplished in this past year.  At the end of the month we will be giving a presentation on the project at the World MakerFaire in New York City.  Check out our events/workshops page for more information.

It’s so easy to forget the progress we’ve made when dealing with the day-to-day challenges and obstacles, so today I’ve spent some time reflecting and feeling proud of what we’ve accomplished this past year and feeling grateful for all the wonderful people we’ve met through this project.   A toast to Boneyard Studios and to all of you who have helped us out…we would not have made it this far without your support.  I look forward to the accomplishments there will be to reflect on next year at this time.  Cheers!


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