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.

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, http://zoningdc.org/, 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**

support changes to DC’s zoning code

Part of the mission of Boneyard Studios is to support changes to DC zoning and building codes to allow higher density, affordable housing in the District.  Currently there are some excellent proposals on the table to allow for accessory dwelling units (typically carriage houses and basement apartments) in low-density parts of town.  The accessory dwelling proposals will:

  • Allow one accessory dwelling in the house or an existing separate building in single-family and low density row house zones
  • Not change higher-density row house and apartment zones
  • Require the owner to live in the house at the same time
  • Limit the overall size of the dwelling to 25% the size of the main one

There are also progressive proposals on parking, corner stores, and simplification of the zoning categories.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has put together a great fact sheet on the issues. There is unfortunately some misinformation on the impact of the proposed changes, so it’s important that the DC City Council members hear from residents in support of zoning update.  So read up and if you’re a DC resident contact your City Council members with an easy on-line form to voice your support for a progressive DC zoning update.

lot update (early june): fencing, electricity, compost, fruit trees!

Some pictures from the lot taken over the past couple weeks – Brian and Tony are almost done with the fencing, compost was delivered, garden beds are being built, and some of the fruit trees are planted already!  Plus, Brian installed his birdfeeder and hammock hooks are going up soon.  Lee returned from Brazil excited to see all the progress made on the lot.  Tony is off to South Carolina next weekend to pick up her tiny house shell and trailer.  Brian and Jay’s trailers are parked and waiting to be built.

View from the South with garden beds and a bit of the hogwire fencing to be put in on graveyard side of lot

View from the North side of the lot

Brian picked up a bunch of sixteen foot sections of hog wire fencing from a farm supply store near Baltimore- this will be used to finish up the fence. We got it to fit in the 17′ Uhaul, barely.

We thought we could save time digging fence post holes with a gas powered augur. Within 10 minutes of fruitless battle with rock and concrete, we realized that each of the 44 holes for the fence would need to be dug the old fashioned way.

Tony and Brian designed a removable fence – post system in order to be able to take off fence panels when moving the houses on wheels into or out of the lot.

A 4 foot deep hole was dug to put the electrical pole into, per DC code and Tony and Brian installed a 20′, 6×6 electrical pole — tough lifting!

16 yards of compost arrives to fill garden beds

Fruit trees and garden beds ready to be filled and planted

lot update (early may): got an alley lot address

Without a registered address, it is not possible to do very much on an un-named alley lot (even if it has a lot/square number) apart from cleaning it up, as no city permits can be granted to a lot without a street address.  After five meetings at DCRA, I have formal word from the Chief Building Official that an address shall be assigned to the alley lot. The official address will now allow us to apply for official permitting of perimeter fencing, a storage container, further excavation beyond 50 ft2, and an electric hookup. Great news, and a big thanks to DCRA (who are great folks doing hard work with limited resources).

For the code geeks: the lot is zoned R-3, and the planned fencing, garden installation, lighting, and construction of a garage is fully permitted under current R-3 zoning regs (for buildings, specifically see 11-204 ‘accessory buildings’ and 11-2507 ‘building on alley lots’).  DCRA was originally citing 124.5.2.6 (below) as cause to not assign an address to the lot. After further meetings the code official decided that an address could be assigned under 124.6.3 and 124.6.4, given the public welfare benefits this project will convey– the lot is currently unfenced, poorly lit, and a regular source of illegal parking, dumping, and occasional criminal activity– just last week a stolen abandoned vehicle had to be removed from the lot.  Relevant sections of DC Code are below.

DC CODE (excerpts)

124.5.2 Street Numbers

124.5.2.1 Every record and tax lot that is legally capable of supporting a structure or a site facility shall have an address regardless of whether the property is occupied or vacant.

124.5.2.2 When a record lot is vacant, but within an existing tax lot that contains a structure or structures, the vacant lot should be assigned the same street number as the tax lot.

124.5.2.3 Every building with an entrance from a public, private street named alley shall have an assigned street number.

124.5.2.6 No street number shall be assigned to a building, site facility or occupancy that has its access onto an unnamed street or alley.  If an address is required for an occupancy, structure or site facility in such an instance, the street or alley must first be named according to the process described in Section 124.6.3 below.

(SECTION 6.3)

124.6  Administration

124.6.1 The code official shall maintain a master file of assigned addresses and maintain a master address mapping database.

124.6.2 The code official is responsible for determining whether an address is required for any given parcel, structure, site facility or other condition.

124.6.3 The code official may grant a waiver of the business rules contained in this Protocol, based upon the evidence presented, if the code official finds that the waiver:

124.6.3.1 Benefits the public health, safety and welfare;

124.6.3.2 Does not create conflicts or duplicate addresses; and

124.6.3.3 Is in the best interest of the District of Columbia.

124.6.4 The code official is responsible for assigning a new address under the following conditions:

124.6.4.1 A new parcel of land (whether tax lot or record lot) is created through the subdivision process;

124.6.4.2 A new structure is constructed on a vacant property;

124.6.4.3 An existing structure is reconfigured to create additional occupancies or units;

124.6.4.4 A new structure is constructed on property already containing one or more structures that have addresses;

124.6.4.5 A new site facility that is constructed on a property parcel, or right-of-way;

124.6.4.6  An existing structure is renovated to relocate the main entrance to a different street frontage.

124.6.5  The code official, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the E-911 Coordinator shall confer on recommended street names for public streets to ensure that no duplication occurs and that no streets with names that sound alike, or could create confusion for the delivery of emergency and non-emergency services, are created.

water

How does one get a reliable supply of water to garden a forlorn alley lot in DC? There seem to be 5 options:

  • Tap the water.  So, how complicated could it be to install a water spigot 100 ft from a DC water main?  Off to DC Water office for 2 hours to pull maps and consult the (very good) folks there.   DC Water is not thrilled about having to provide maintenance on any new alley water lines, as they are often located on narrow alleys their large trucks can’t deal with.  So we’d need a lawyer to draft a covenant to exempt DC Water from maintenance requirements.  Then we need a civil engineer to detail the line hookup (running from the street down and alley to the lot) and submit basic plans to DC Water for permitting.   Then a permit from DDOT (transportation) for a public space permit to dig up the alley to the road.  Then a plumber to come out dig and lay line.  Then DC Water to come out and tap the water line and install the meter, then the plumber to come out again, fill the trench and make it all pretty.  So bottom line:  5 entities, lots of legwork, probably $10-15K, and 6 months.  Doable, but rather a pain.
  • Buy the water: Thanks to the preponderance of above-ground swimming pools in northern Virginia, there are several pool filling services that can deliver water to your door. $325/delivery, up to 5000 gallons.  $500 for a 1000 gallon tank. This could probably work just fine.
  • Pray for water: it’s possible to collect and store and treat rainwater, but the rain gods are fickle. We’ll likely have some sort of rain collection system for garden use though.
  • Friend the water: technically there 13 neighbors with property backing on the lot, so perhaps we can find a friendly one to throw a hose over the alleyway once a week to fill a tank.  Maybe in exchange for a parking space? We shall explore.
  • Make the water:  There are at least 10 companies peddling ‘electric condensing water generation units’ (i.e. glorified dehumidifiers) online like this one.  Using power (and no small amount of it), these units pull purified water out of the air, provided there is water in the air.  As we are all too aware, DC’s relative humidity never falls below 40% (and is typically 50-60%), so we’d be good.  These units aren’t the cheapest, but small residential water coolers can provide daily cooking and drinking needs (in fact they appear to compete directly with water cooler delivery services).  Water for showers is another question.  There are also industrial sized units that use 2kW and generate up to 50 gal/day.

So DC Water, we’ll probably spare you for now.

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