25 July 2014


On June 4, cityLAB signed an agreement with Wildman Chalmers Design, LLC to design and build the Minim Tiny House soon taking up residence on N. Atlantic Avenue. cityLAB sat down with the project’s architect, Chad Chalmers, to ask him about our plans in Garfield. Chad is a graduate of the University of Buffalo, has worked as an architect for over ten years, and is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business.

cL: What projects have you worked on in the past?

CC: I’ve worked on a variety of projects including mixed-used with residential above and retail. I really like inner city mixed use projects with residences above commercial spaces. They make people feel like they are participating in the community. They live upstairs and shop downstairs, becoming part of the neighborhood during the daytime. I’ve also worked with a lot of nonprofits in the past. These are always largely about community.

 cL: Any project that you’re most proud?

CC: Croghan’s Edge, on 36th and Penn Avenue (part of the design team while with Moss Architects), is four townhouses that are each just sixteen feet wide. They were manufactured in a central Pennsylvania factory and shipped to Pittsburgh ready to live in, with all the finishes completed. Croghan’s Edge won an American Institute of Architects (AIA) award in 2012. I’d like to bring some of these ideas to cityLAB’s Tiny House project. It might work well to manufacture the house, and ship it complete to the site. We would pour the foundations, set the box and provide a turn-key product for a buyer. We would work with a local manufacturer who builds pre-fab houses on a regular basis.

cL: What’s different about building a Tiny House?

CC: The major difference in Pittsburgh is that Minim is single story and has small appliances. Everything is scaled down, a little unconventional and smaller. We will still need to use conventional materials to build this smaller house. Building a tiny house is almost like building an hotel room. You have to provide everything (sometimes even a kitchenette) within a 200-300 square foot room.

 cL: Is there anything easier?

I always say, ‘a project is a project.’ There’s no such thing as a small project in my opinion. We will still have to follow the same process we would follow if we were building a 2,500 square-foot house versus a 400 square-foot house. We will still have to provide water, sewer and electric hookups. We will still have zoning issues and site plans to create. We will still have to consider solar orientation, insulation, roofing, windows, doors and more. Designing a 400 square-foot house versus a 2,500 square-foot  house still takes all the same planning. We might be planning for only two doors instead of ten, but we will still have to select the doors. It’s exactly the same process.

cL: How will you deal with Garfield market and the Pittsburgh Zoning Code?

CC: According to cityLAB’s surveys and discussions with potential buyers, gardens are an important amenity for people interested in living in a tiny house. We’ll need to incorporate outside space into our tiny house seamlessly. Integrating the house with the outdoor space is going to be critical. We’ll consider putting in a yard, a garden, perhaps a raised surface such as a deck. We want to use quality materials. Zoning codes issues include setback from the side, rear and front, curb cuts, as well as the contextual fabric of the street.

In the second half of the interview, we ask our architect about materials, how Minim will fit into the streetscape and what challenges he sees in the project. Stay tuned!

24 July 2014

Zoning Code

There are two sides to the process of planning a tiny house. There is the glamorous side: selecting countertops, wood finishes and sleek appliances. It’s easy to envisage a lazy Sunday morning on your tiny’s front porch with a good book and some coffee or tea. But then there’s the flip side: the nitty gritty details of zoning codes, codified rules that determine where and what types of structures are allowed to be built in a city, township or municipality. Surely, zoning codes are necessary – you don’t want a chemical plant next to a school – but man does it make for some vapid reading.

The City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code was first written in 1958. It was last overhauled in 1999. There are currently twenty-four zoning district designations, none of which, fortunately, require a dwelling to have a minimum square footage. As the tiny house phenomenon continues to gain momentum across the country, planners will embrace tiny houses as both a viable and vital urban infill tool. Mayor Bill Peduto is a pretty cool dude. Why is he cool? Well, for one, he grew a Penguins playoff beard. But in addition to that, he’s been forward thinking on a lot of issues, such as the future land bank system that we’ve mentioned in this blog before. Changes like this will help to make the ‘Burgh a better place. After all, the very first section of the code, 903.01.A states:

[The City’s] approach to residential zoning reflects this diversity by allowing very fine-grained adjustments in the range of zoning controls applied within and among neighborhoods. The purpose of these controls is to encourage development and redevelopment while preserving the character of existing residential neighborhoods.


Zoning issues are one of the top concerns of current or potential tiny house owners. Cities and states vary in their receptivity to tiny houses and especially tiny houses on wheels. Because tiny houses are just beginning to take off, some planning departments don’t know how to treat them, especially portable ones. In some cases, it comes down to how a tiny house is defined— is it an RV, a trailer, an “additional dwelling unit” (ADU), etc. Macy Miller, of minimotives.com recently wrote a great article not just about tiny house zoning issues, but also, where to park a portable tiny house. (If you’ll recall, her design, Minimotive, pictured above, was one of the seven models we considered at our planning session in May. You may not notice at first glance, but Minimotive is a portable tiny house and sits atop a cargo trailer.)

Some cities require there to be a certified builder of tiny houses, while other jurisdictions don’t allow a person to live in what it deems an RV full-time. Presently, City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code does not allow for dwelling units to sit atop trailers. While some people who want to build a tiny house, or already own one, favor the aspect of being able to pick up and go, in Garfield, where tiny houses have the potential to bring back density to the neighborhood, tiny houses with foundations make more sense. If you’re planning to build, whether here in Pittsburgh, or somewhere else, the best thing to do is contact the planning office of where you plan to site your house. They should be able to tell you what’s above board and what’s not.

17 July 2014


With Minim plans in hand, cityLAB went about finding an architect to help with the tasks that the plans do not address. We settled on Chad Chalmers of Wildman Chalmers Design, LLC. We had worked with him before and appreciated his rich knowledge of the Pittsburgh codes and his willingness to tackle the nuts and bolts of our project. We signed a Design Services Agreement with a clearly outlined scope of work which we’ve summarized below. These are the tasks that Chad will perform.

Zoning Analysis. Create three site plan schemes with different options for siting the house, all of which comply with the Pittsburgh Zoning, or outline the different options that may require a Zoning Variance.

Building Code Review.  Adapt the Minim house plan to conform to the local building codes and the Authorities Having Jurisdiction. Submit a zoning application.

Construction Documents.  Create a set of construction documents that can be bid out for construction pricing and submit for  building permit.

Bidding and Negotiations. Assist ciyLAB with both getting and evaluating bids to build the first Tiny House.

With Chad’s help we’ll uncover any site and/or code issues, deal with them and get the best pricing we can to build our Tiny House.

8 July 2014

Tiny Houses offer big potential in Garfield, says Tom Fontaine.  You can read all about it here.

8 July 2014

We here at cityLAB were curious about whether there are tiny houses in the Pittsburgh area. The short answer is not really, at least not like the kind we’re building in Garfield. As just about any research project begins these days, we Googled. Searching “Pittsburgh tiny houses” grabs about 1,280,000 results; our blog was the first hit. (Go, us!) But from there, there’s a website called Tiny House Listings where you can search tiny houses (and trailers) for sale by state. There aren’t a ton in PA to begin with and a lot of them are in rural towns with names you’ve probably never heard. Plus, some of the posts date back a couple years and it’s unclear if they’ve been sold or are still on the market.

Anyway, even though most of Pittsburgh is rather new to the tiny house phenomenon, there’s still evidence that some locals have been aware of it for some time. Someone at TechShop in East Liberty has done 3D printings (pictured above) of designs from from Dan Louche of Tiny Home Builders. A cool couple from Brookline has put their backyard up for rent to anyone who wants to park their tiny house there for a period of time. Lastly, Lawrencevillers (or is it Lawrencevillians?) Heather Mallak and Dror Yaron added a 40-foot cargo container to their skinny Lower Lawrenceville row house. Though not a stand alone house, the inside space is somewhat similar to tiny houses.

Downsized living spaces are starting to crop up in nearby cities as well. Here’s a concept from a local firm, Fisher Architects, for a shed reimagined as a couple’s weekend home near Oil City, PA, about 90 minutes north of Pittsburgh. In Canal Winchester, southeast of Columbus, OH, there’s a pretty cool tiny house as well. (Exterior above, interior below.) Of course, you can always take a tour of Boneyard Studio’s group of tiny houses in Washington, D.C., as we’ve mentioned before.  Lastly, in Kennett Square, just outside of Philadelphia, Janice Kenney is living in her 140-square-foot abode, which has helped to energize the tiny house community in the City of Brotherly Love.


Did we miss any tiny houses in the Steel City? Are there any that are being built? Let us know.

3 July 2014

Four hundred and ninety-five dollars. That’s all it takes to buy a perfect set of Tiny House plans. We made the payment online and a week later the plans arrived. Three sets of them, all neatly rolled up along with a guide to building the Minim house.

The plans are made up of eight sheets which include floor plans, a reflected ceiling and power plan with window schedule, sections, two sheets of exterior elevations, wall panel drawings, roof panel drawings and details, and structural plans and general notes. This is a typical if somewhat small set of architectural drawings. The accompanying Minim house construction guide is not such a typical set of specifications.

At fifty-two pages long the construction guide is meaty. The first three pages describe the set of drawings (in case something is missing) and include an end user license agreement. After that, the guide dives straight into the nitty gritty, detailing the materials needed to build Minim, including all framing, insulation, finish wood, roofing and siding materials. Windows, doors, kitchen cabinets and even appliances are precisely specified making it easy to order them. Sofa and bed dimensions specify the mattress thickness so that the pull-out bed will function properly. Details are provided for all the custom woodwork. All of this is fairly typical for architectural specifications that would generally accompany drawings.

It’s the final twenty-six pages that diverge from the norm. Here Brian Levy, Minim’s designer, has systematically and painstakingly documented building Minim, photograph by photograph, bringing the project to life, and making sure that someone handy can really build this Tiny House on their own.

Brian is excited to have “won” our tiny contest and will be watching our progress. We are equally excited to have the benefit of his documentation, all for just four hundred and ninety-five dollars.


26 June 2014

While a lot of you reading this post have known about Tiny Houses for a long time, the concept is just beginning to enter the mainstream’s consciousness. Tiny: A Story About Living Small, directed by Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith, was recently picked up by Netflix. The documentary follows Smith as he DIYs his way through building his own Tiny House. At a taut 61 minutes, it won’t take up too much your time, and besides, you’re crushing the new season of Orange is the New Black anyway. Tiny even caught the attention of The Atlantic. While the wider world is just catching on, you’ve always been ahead of the curve. Kudos.

20 June 2014

On April 22, 1889, Oklahoma City exploded (literally) onto the map. Where the city now sits was once designated as “unassigned lands.” The federal government held an event known as a “Land Run.” Homesteaders lined up along an imaginary line, a gun was fired, and citizens raced across the countryside. Wherever they drove their stake into the ground, became their new home. As Mick Cornett, the city’s current mayor, explained in his 2013 TED talk, by the end of the day, Oklahoma City’s population had gone from zero to 10,000. If only land were so easy to acquire these days…

Today, Pittsburgh is finally on the rebound after decades of economic decline and population loss. Nearly half of the city’s population fled over the last thirty or forty years, leaving behind a large amount of underutilized land and vacant lots. Native Pittsburghers who left are coming back and outsiders who never lived here are moving to the city as well. Our economy, once firmly tied to the steel industry, is now based in “eds and meds”, thanks to our world-class universities and hospitals. Pittsburgh is also gaining a reputation as an innovative, nimble, and entrepreneurial tech hub. But to those moving here who wish to revitalize unused, forgotten land, the process of procuring land is anything but innovative or nimble. And that’s a shame, because a neighborhood like Garfield, with its abundance of vacant lots and dilapidated structures, is a wellspring of potential.

This blog isn’t just about tiny houses, it’s for anyone who’s interested in moving to this hidden gem of a neighborhood. Garfield is the next hot topic in city’s East End renaissance, and real estate here is starting to heat up. We talked with Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s deputy director, Aggie Brose, to discuss the current laborious process of acquiring land, as well as a new streamlined acquisition process that is in city council’s legislative pipeline. We promise it doesn’t involve a gun and foot race like it did in 1889.

(In this post, instead of showing you boring images of tax forms and deeds, we wanted to feature some of the murals you can find in Garfield. This is by street artist, Shepard Fairey, and can be found at 5243 Penn Avenue. For more murals in Garfield and throughout Pittsburgh, visit pghmurals.com.)

So let’s say you’ve found a (vacant) parcel of land you’re interested in building on. The first thing to do is contact the real estate division within the Pittsburgh Department of Finance.  They determine whether that land is owned by the City, or owned by a private owner who is tax delinquent. Once that determination is made, you fill out a “Request of Purchase” form from the real estate division.  If you already own other property in the city, you have to be up to date on all taxes and utilities and be in good standing with stuff like city parking tickets in order to purchase land.

If you’re all good, then the ball is back in the City’s court. If the City owns the property and there aren’t any liens against it, then the process moves relatively quickly and in a few weeks, you’ll be the owner. However, it doesn’t usually go so smoothly. If the city owns the property and there are liens on it, it could take up to fifteen weeks to clear the title (of the liens) and transfer the deed to you.

(“Davu Ayomi”, by Tarish Pipkins at 5424 Penn Avenue.)

But the really big headache occurs when the property is not owned by the City. If the property is vacant and tax delinquent, the City must notify any owners on the deed, who very well could be deceased. (Another complication is that if an owner declared bankruptcy, the property may already be a part of a sheriff’s sale.) But let’s say an owner never comes forward during this period of time to claim the property. The process of beginning to transfer the deed to you begins. But even after this transition has begun, the previous owner can still come forward during one last redemption period to claim the property. However, s/he must pay any and all taxes, fines and liens in full in order to keep the property. Only after this redemption period has ended and no one has stepped forward to claim the property, does the City proceed to take it into their possession and sell it to you. This process can take anywhere from 12-18 months. Quite the buzzkill for an excited new resident looking to move into and improve a neighborhood.

However, if you hang in there, you can get land at bargain prices. And that’s pretty cool, because Pittsburgh was recently ranked the world’s fifth best market for long-term real estate investment by a UK firm. For more info on purchasing vacant land from the City of Pittsburgh, here’s a PDF regarding auction sales and the “Make Us an Offer”program from the real estate division’s web page. Lastly, here’s some more helpful info from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

(Artist and title unknown. 5020 Penn Ave.)

This inert process of transferring property into the right hands is not a problem unique to Pittsburgh. An abundance of trash strewn, overgrown vacant lots with the corresponding red tape to get them flipped quickly is a problem many older Rust Belt cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, etc.) face. But some cities have become created policy vehicles known as “land banks.” While the specifics differ from city to city, land banks, generally speaking, are organizations that inventory, manage and market vacant properties, making it faster and much easier for a buyer to purchase a vacant property. Whereas the real estate division is largely reactive, fielding inquiries as they come in, a land bank is proactive. By preemptively investigating whether there is a legitimate deed holder, cleaning up properties, fixing code violations, demolishing hazardous structures, gathering info on the properties into a database and then actively marketing them to potential buyers, a land bank removes much of the headaches and heart burn for individual buyers. Flint, Michigan and Youngstown, Ohio are both successful models already underway and Pittsburgh’s big brother, Philadelphia, just became the largest city to create a land bank when it did so late last year.

City council voted 8-1 in favor of implementing a Pittsburgh land bank and it has the support of the new mayor, Bill Peduto. It’s going to take some time to get it off the ground, funding sources have yet to be determined and adequate manpower is a must if a land bank is to be successful. Despite these challenges, the decision to move forward with the land bank in Pittsburgh will allow us, as Ms Brose wrote in a recent Post Gazette op-ed, “[to view] empty lots and houses, as opportunities, and not barriers, to revitalization.”

(Dubbed “Garfield Gator” by pghmurals.com. Artist unknown. 408 N. Pacific Avenue.)

Here’s the City’s website concerning the ongoing process of creating the land bank, including a great FAQ section. In the meantime, if you want to buy a piece of land, buying one that is already on the market is definitely the faster way to go.

17 June 2014

Right now 223 N.Atlantic Avenue is a vacant lot of overgrown weeds and grass, but in the not too distant future it will be home to cityLAB’s Tiny House project, Minim. If you happen to be the proud owner of Minim someday, you’ll probably find it hard to leave the space, in all of its sophisticated, contemporary glory. Eventually you’ll have to venture outside. Maybe you’re new to the neighborhood, or new to town. Maybe you just need toilet paper. Either way, you’ll want to know what’s around.

Your new address is just two blocks north of Penn Avenue, which means you’re super close to the 88 bus route that can take you west towards Downtown, or all the way east to Bakery Square in East Liberty. Walk a little further south, and you can catch the 87 on Friendship Ave. (west to Downtown, east to Lawrenceville). If you need groceries, there’s a brand new Bottom Dollar pretty much at the bottom of your street at 5200 Penn. Whole Foods and Market District are only a fifteen minute walk as well. Want to eat local and help out the community? Garfield Community Farm is a quick walk up N. Atlantic and a block east to Wicklow St. (That’s their bio-shelter below.) For local, organic produce you can purchase a CSA subscription or volunteer in exchange for around five hours a week.

Need to power through a project at work? Commonplace Coffee (formerly Voluto) is just a few blocks aways and serves up one of the best cups of joe in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning coffee scene. Stop in at Daily Bread if your wardrobe needs an update. Treat some out-of-town guests to a meal of a lifetime at Salt of the Earth, or maybe just a slice of pizza at Spak Bros. All this is within walking distance! If you need to hop on your bike to go a little further, that’s no problem: your new address is close to the high point of Penn Ave., so whether you’re headed east or west, you’ll have a nice downhill to get you there fast. (But bring some water for the hill on the way back.)

You can explore the map on Walk Score’s website — it shows just how close everything is. While it knocks off points for bike-ability, the steep hill is to the north, away from all the things you’d most likely be biking or walking to so we consider this an eminently walkable location. For an even more comprehensive map about getting around the city on bike, here’s a map from Bike Pittsburgh. Truth is, there’s a ton to do in Garfield. Being on North Atlantic Avenue puts you in the middle of it.

(Thanks to our architect, Chad Chalmers of Wildman,Chalmers, LLC,  for the photo of the Minim lot in its current state.)

10 June 2014

We searched Garfield for a while before finding the perfect piece of land. One day in early April, Rick Swartz, Executive Director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation suggested that we take a look at a parcel that was coming out of the “taking” process (which will be explained in a later blog). This parcel is a tiny piece of land, just 24′ by 43′, only two blocks from Penn Avenue and across the street from the former St. Lawrence O’Toole Church. The address is 223 N. Atlantic Avenue.

We love 50-L-151.  Why?

- It was available to buy now;
- The site is adorable;
- We can demonstrate how a left-over piece of land can be used to its best advantage;
- It’s tiny enough for a tiny house and big enough for a tiny garden as well; and
- It’s a short walk to public transportation and all that Penn Avenue has to offer.

It’s the perfect urban infill project.  So in mid-May we took the plunge, signed a sales agreement and made a deposit on the land.