I recently attended a meeting with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs
Industrialized Buildings Advisory Committee (IBAC). One of the main agenda topics was the
regulation of tiny homes, roughly defined as a dwelling under 500 square feet.
Tiny homes have recently emerged and have grown in popularity in part due to two cable
shows featuring people wanting to downsize and change lifestyles. What rarely gets
mentioned on these shows however, are the codes or standards the home is built to and
the zoning challenges.
For example, many tiny homes are built on a chassis and have wheels for ease of mobility.
Typically, a “mobile home” like this would fall under the federal HUD code. However, HUD
specifically exempts homes under 400 sf.
So if its built offsite in a factory, it would be considered a modular home, right? Well, no.
Not if it’s on wheels. So if it’s not permanently affixed to real property and under 400 sf,
where does it fall? And that is the current challenge faced by this emerging cottage
industry (pardon the pun). More often than not, tiny homes are built to meet or exceed the
same standard as a recreational vehicle, such as the tiny home pictured below.
The Georgia IBAC struggled with
this exact same question – how do
we regulate a home that doesn’t
meet the International Residential
Code (IRC)? While this decision
was moved to the next meeting of
the IBAC, there were many
indications of where it’s headed.
In order for a tiny home to be
regulated under a state program
like Georgia’s and receive an
insignia from the agency, it cannot
be a tiny home on wheels (THOW).
It must be affixed to real estate.
According to Will Johnson, CEO of
Tiny House Atlanta, about 75% of the potential customers of tiny homes are looking for one
permanently affixed to a specific plot of land, rather than the mobile option.
In addition to the “permanency” requirement, manufacturers of tiny houses will have to
significantly redesign some units in order to comply with the IRC. For starters, the 2012 IRC
defines a dwelling unit as having at least one habitable room not less than 120 sf. That
minimum requirement was lowered to 70sf in the 2015 IRC, an indication that perhaps the
general public is trending towards smaller homes. There is also the issue of ceiling height and
stair geometry. Many tiny houses have bed lofts above the living space with minimal
clearance above. This would not meet the code as there has to be a minimum of 5 feet
between the floor and the ceiling or that space cannot count towards the minimum room
size requirement. The code also requires that each dwelling unit have a water closet,
lavatory and bath (or shower), as well as a kitchen with a separate sink. And if those lofts
had stairs leading up to them, the rise/run requirements in the code might call for the stairs
to take up a majority of the living space. And, unless this house is going on the lot behind
your current home, it’s not an accessory structure as defined by code either.
None of this is to say that tiny houses cannot meet the IRC – they can. It will just take a bit of
creative designing and perhaps some exceptions to the code in future versions. As it is
written now however, it would be impossible for the tiniest of tiny houses to comply given
Beyond the code requirements, tiny houses still face many local zoning restrictions. For
example, many localities have minimum size requirements for dwellings. However, we are
seeing more zoning boards approve “tiny house developments” where several of these
units are placed to form a tiny house community. There are also talks that HUD may reduce
or eliminate its 400 sf minimum requirements, opening up the possibility of federal regulations
for this niche.
So, while it’s a super-cool idea, make sure your tiny home complies with your local codes
and zoning requirements before you run out and buy one.