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**

tiny house appliances: cooling

We think we’ve done some decent research on tiny house appliances, so here is our first installment on cooling the small abode. Here in DC summers are stifling, so we need real air-conditioning (not evaporative coolers).

Compared to a (far cheaper) traditional travel trailer, the only real advantage of a tiny house is a) better insulation, b) better build quality and c) aesthetics. So keeping air conditioners entirely out of the window is a high priority.  Leaving these aside, along with a number of other inferior options*, and a standard disclaimer about the importance of maximizing building insulation and air sealing before considering air conditioning, there are 3 basic possibilities:

  1. ‘ductless’ mini-split a/c systems, with the evaporator (outside) and air handler (inside) connected separately through the wall.
  2. ‘portable’ a/c units, which sit on the floor inside and vent outside through a hole in the wall (or the window-which would disqualify them). 
  3. ‘through the wall’ a/c units, which look like window units but are specifically designed to be mounted on a frame in a wall, and can protrude into the tiny house, or outside.

The main considerations in deciding between these 3 types of units include:

  • Btu rating. With adequate insulation and air sealing no tiny home under 200 ft2 should need anything larger than 7000 Btus (see BTU calculator).  Note there are some 6000 Btu and 7000 Btu mini split units by Fujitsu and Mitsubishi, though they appear to be packaged only with multizone (room) applications, or run on 240V. In the end it seems that there are currently no mini-split systems under 9000 btus, so they will typically be a bit oversized. Portables and through-the-wall units are commonly available at 5000-9000 Btus.
  • Cool+heat: some, but not all mini-split, portable and through-the-wall a/c systems come with heating. Not having to pay for or wire an additional heating system is a great benefit. While some will choose to heat solely with a propane marine stove, it is most convenient to have a backup electric heat option to keep things from freezing when away from the house. 
  • High efficiency.  SEER is the measure of energy efficiency, and mini-split systems currently range from 13-26 (the higher the better), typically significantly higher than the portable or through-the-wall units.  Portable units keep the compressor inside the house, and draw air from the interior, so they tend to be rather inefficient (which many reviews attest to).  Through-the-wall units do not have this problem. Note that there are a few portable ‘dual hose’ models that draw outside air in, instead of inside air, though almost all of these are 9000 Btus or greater.
  • Indoor footprint: Given the tiny house size constraints, selecting narrow profile units is a priority. For mini-splits, the only indoor part is the air handler, which typically range from 7-12” wide and mount on the wall. Portable and through-the-wall units are quite bulky, but could be build into cabinetry.  For through-the wall and portable units, it is important to note that while taking up more floor space during use, they require no exterior components, and can be easily detached and stored away during temperate months, unlike the mini-splits.
  • Voltage: Note the majority of mini-split systems, and many through-the-wall units run on 240V. Tiny house builders should only go with 120 volt systems, as they do not require special wiring.
  • Multi-speed. Many units will have a ‘low’ setting that runs around 300-400 watts (as opposed to the 1200+ watts on high). At this low setting, future off-grid solar becomes slightly more realistic.
  • Service availability: there seem to be many relatively unknown makers out there, apart from the well known brands- Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Fedder, Friedrichs, etc.
  • Cost: compared to our alternatives, mini-splits are significantly more expensive both in terms of base price and installation costs (which typically requires an HVAC technician to charge the a/c lines, and occasional recharges). It is also not clear how well the exposed a/c lines hold up over long distance travel.  Portable units require a small venting hole out the side or bottom of the house, while through the wall-units need to be framed inside a wall. Creating an opening for these would be a minimal cost- even less so if built into a new construction.

So the takeaway:

For mini-splits: Apart from being a bit oversized for tiny houses, this SEER 22, 9000 Btu Fedders model fits the bill (and can be found cheaper on ebay). There is another from the previously unheard of MG company. The Fencl we have on the lot uses the Klimaire (which is lower SEER and slightly more expensive). There’s also a Freidrichs model (a/c only, and more expensive).

For portables: While there are a wide range of models available online and elsewhere, though some are much narrower than others, and none of the smaller models (8000 Btu’s and less) include heat (one exception here). But the fundamental inefficiencies of these units call us to consider only the dual-hose models, of which there are very few models under 9000 Btus (one exception by the relatively unknown manufacturer SPT here).

For through-the-wall units: Similar to their window-unit cousins, there is a wide array of units designed to be build into a side wall (the key difference being that these units do not have venting on the sides or top/bottom).  Of the many options, this 8000 Btu Freidrich heat/cool model (UE08D11) fits the bill, gets high marks for performance and reliability, and can be installed flush with the exterior wall with an ‘architectural grate’.  After many months of pondering, currently the through-the-wall approach is our preferred option.


*There are a range of other options we investigated, and discarded:

  • Specialized a/c units that go from 1000-9000 Btus for cooling computer servers and such. See Kooltronic, with the drawback of no heating and systems that are not residentially designed.
  • RV units.  It is surprisingly hard to find units smaller than 9000 Btu, and have the drawback of unsightly roof mounting.
  • Marine units (such as those found here), but like weddings, unfortunately anything maritime seems to increase prices by 50%.
  • Climateright 7000 and 2500 Btu tent and small enclosure air conditioners, which could work, and heat and cool, but with the disadvantages of ungainly (uninsulated!) large vent tubes, and the disconcerting caveat that the lowest outside temperature can be 36 degrees for operating heating.
Hanging out in Fencl loft

tony the tiny house builder in DC: week in review

I’ve been lagging on blog posts because the build hasn’t felt real yet.  I am hiring Tony – a friend from my Oregon days – to build mine for me, and he just arrived in DC this week.  So now, all of a sudden, it feels quite real and very exciting!

We’ve been doing preparatory work this week meeting with other tiny house builders, scoping out materials and prices, looking at designs we like, and helping Brian out on the lot and garden beds.  Making decisions usually stresses me out, and all the decisions that go into a tiny house have been overwhelming me, so it felt good to already decide on a couple things while looking at materials.  For instance, I love the look of the interior of the Protohaus and have decided to go with bead board rather than the knotty pine that the Fencl plans call for (saving a significant amount of money as well).  I have also decided I really like the look of cork flooring and many of its benefits and will most likely go with that for my flooring – whew…two decisions made effortlessly!

Bead board in the Protohaus

Knotty pine interior of Fencl

The biggest news this week is that I may end up downsizing even more.  Originally I planned on building on a 22 ft-long x 8 ft-wide trailer, extending the Fencl out by 4 feet in length and one foot in width.  But this week we were out for beers with our new tiny house friends Margaret and Zach – who are building an amazing tiny house in South Carolina – and Zach told us about an ad he had seen for a tiny house shell.  It’s a fabulous deal, but the main issue I had with it is that, while built on an 18-ft trailer, the shell is just 16 feet long and 7 feet 10 inches wide.  Could I really lose 6 feet of interior space?  That’s a lot of room in a tiny house.   Still, the price is less than what my trailer itself will cost, and the seller was excited that we even knew about tiny houses.  Tony talked with the builder/seller and he seems to have done solid work, and Zach checked it out in person for us.  It looks like I’ll be buying the shell all built out!  We will finish the roofing, siding and interior starting in June.

Next, Tony and I went to spend some time hanging out in the Fencl (18 ft long x 7 ft wide).  After spending about an hour, moving about in the rooms, hanging out in the loft, scoping out storage, I think I can make a smaller unit work.  It will require getting creative about storing my stuff (or getting rid of more), but I’m excited about the challenge.   I like to think I adapt easily to wherever I live and the size will be fine, but if it’s too small I can design and build a larger one over time.  It will be useful to spend some time in one first to get an idea for what I really want and need in size and design.  I’ll post more photos of the shell soon.

Lee in Fencl loft

Tony checking out the windows

tiny house kitchen design

Poor design is truly not at the top of the world’s problems, but an ill-designed kitchen is a daily (and often costly) insult, and may detract from one of life’s great joys: cooking together and eating.  When considering the tiny house kitchen, the goal is to subtract as little as possible from what I already have: the ability to cook a wide range of food for a group of up to 10 friends.  Having designed and built out a small rowhouse kitchen 4 years ago, there are a few design principles that have allowed a full range of cooking options with limited kitchen space. This will need to be adapted even further for the tiny kitchen- but hopefully not too much.

1. ‘All is one’. The motto of Dr. Bronner’s soap can be taken and applied to the kitchen: only possess what can accomplish the most tasks with the least, but best, equipment– the fewest number of appliances, cookware, types of glasses/plates/silverware, and storage vessels.  Deliver the greatest variety of food with the least, but best, ingredients. Keep counters clear, decorative schlep be gone. This philosophy is not good for Macy’s stock, but is quite well suited to a well-designed kitchen. More specifically, I have whittled my current kitchen down to the following things, with no apparent decrease in functionality from a much larger, widely stocked kitchen that any moderately serious chef might have:

  • 3 motors: a KitchenAid mixer, a blender, and a small food processor.  If needed, the mixer motor doubles a dough kneader, ice cream maker, pasta press, grain grinder, juicer, food strainer with appropriate attachments.  With it, and a high quality chef’s knife, there seems little reason to have a full size food processor.  A smaller food processor suffices for coffee grinding, pesto making, peanut butter processing, etc.
  • 3 heating elements: the stove/oven, microwave, and upright toaster.  There is simply no reason for a rice cooker if you have a 2 quart pot. Be gone Foreman grills, electric kettles, crock pots and myriad other devices that clog cupboards and duplicate functions.
  • 3 knives: a 8” chefs knife, a bread knife, and paring knife are really the only essentials, along with kitchen shears.  Possibly an extra chef’s knife if there is to be regular co-cooking.
  • 6 Pots: There seems to be really just 6 essential pots: a 2 quart, a 4 quart (a 4 quart pressure cooker is even better), 6 quart, 12” fry pan, a 6-8 quart enameled dutch oven, and a 10 qt. pot.
  • 3 types of glasses: only 3 types of glasses seem necessary: mason jars (pint and quart), wine glasses, and mugs for hot beverages. All other special-use vessels are secondary and unnecessary.  Consider that the mason jar alone may also serve as small leftover containers, vases, a cocktail shaker, oil candles (there’s an attachment you can buy), cocktail and punch glasses, etc.

116 jars on the wall...

2. Good food is beautiful, and should not be hidden. There is a lovely whiteness to salt, a mahogany sheen to kidney beans. The kitchen is about food, yet kitchen designers consistently and shamefully seem intent on hiding it in pantries and cabinets.  Yet when opened, the ‘modern’ pantry is a confettied disaster zone of colored plastic, paper and foil packagings.  It is difficult to see what we have, how much is left, or if it looks good to cook with or eat.  Then even when organized, the true substance of the food is hidden by food marketers behind gaudy packaging, so that even when we are in our sanctified homes we are still being marketed to.  I use a simple and highly space efficient way to organize food, one that also reinforces healthy whole food eating habits: the use of standardized, cheap, durable, non-toxic and beautiful mason jars, organized on a rack. The jars work to store dry goods, frozen and refrigerated food.  All use the same lid (use only wide mouth- a mason jar funnel is useful for loading the jars).

Building a mason jar rack is simple carpentry, and can be constructed for less than a single custom cabinet.  The mason jar system allows display of food (beans, nuts, dried fruit, sugars, spices, grains, etc).  I shop primarily in bulk, then liberate the food when it comes home, repacking in mason jars.  This will reduce the size of mixes, cereals, and begin to cultivate a bias against corn-syrup sodas and artificial foods and canned products.  Canned vegetables are typically mush compared to fresh or frozen, dry beans are far better (and cheaper) than their canned cousins (and can be made quickly too, with the pressure cooker, with excess frozen in mason jars).  Canned tomatoes all contain BPA, so I prefer the ones in aseptic packages. For flour, sugar, and other goods requiring storage containers larger than 1 quart, use plastic stacking 2/4/6 quart restaurant supply containers (only #1 or #2 plastic, as the clear ones usually contain BPA).

3. The kitchen should be a warm place for cooking together, and must be designed as such. Just as it hides food, the ‘modern’ kitchen seems intent on hiding every tool behind solid doors, making it a frustrating experience for sous chefs to help (and chefs, who must constantly dig up the needed items for guests).  If one can’t see it, how easy can cooking be for you or a guest? Therefore:

  • Cabinets: Minimize them, and store in them the least essential things. To the extent that cabinets are used for glassware, plates, etc, have at least some in glass so things are easily viewed. After a bit of practice, I now have 1-2 completely empty cabinets.
  • Countertops: In a functional, inviting kitchen, everyone should be able to make a mess on their kitchen counters without a second distracting thought to damage. We should be able to cut on them, anywhere, without having them dull our knives, drop glassware on them without too much chance of breakage, and have a surface that is warm and inviting (unless we plan on opening up a Cold Stone Creamery).  I admit being scarred by the wrath of an ex for staining her granite countertops with lemon juice- but I think granite is simply an expensive, misguided choice for a functional kitchen. Everything else is passable, butcher block is preferred (with the one downside of 2x yearly oiling).
  • Pots and tools: Try to hang them on walls, easily visible.
  • Silverware: Mix silverware together in several mason jars and leave them out, avoiding the sorting or searching around cabinet drawers.

With these general principles in mind, how will the tiny kitchen shape up? The revised designs have a 9’ galley kitchen (in the 10’x22′ tiny house), with a 6’ folding table behind it.  The majority of food will be stored in a mason jar shrine of 60-70 jars across from the couch that also is built to house books, the propane fireplace/hearth, and bottles of spirits. There will be no cabinets at head level.  I will also likely dispense with: wine glasses, the oven (the microwave will also be a convection oven), the small food processor (it seems the blender can really do almost all the same functions), one of the 6 qt pots, and will limit the place settings to 5-6.

©2012 Brian Levy

lee’s tiny house design

I recently bought the framing plans for the Tumbleweed Fencl after attending Tumbleweed’s tiny house workshop here in DC this past summer.  I plan on doing my interior differently than the Fencl and am still in the design phase of the interior.

While I don’t plan to actively travel with my tiny house, I do expect I’ll move it a few times.  Therefore, I want to follow the advice given by Tumbleweed Tiny Homes to keep it within the width and height allowances that make it easy to drive on most major roads in the country without a special permit.  Most Tumbleweed models are 8 feet wide by 16 or 18 feet long and include a loft for sleeping and a front porch.  I am going to build mine out to 20 feet long and not build the porch that is standard on most Tumbleweed models.  Since I don’t plan to move it that often, I will build up my own little deck or patio that is removable so I can use that extra few feet of the trailer as interior space.

Here are some of the interior designs of other tiny houses that I really like:

Protohaus – they have done a great job with the design of the interior and should their plans be available in time for my build I will buy them.  Click for more pictures.

Chris and Melissa’s Tiny Tack House in Washington State.  They have beautiful photos of the interior on their blog.


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