11 August 2014


This is what our survey looks like. It’s pretty much what we expected. We’ll use this to make sure we build Minim in exactly the right location within the boundaries of our lot.  It shows us the exact location of the neighboring house. It also provides us with accurate topography along with locations for water and sewer, gas and electric hookups. The gas and water valves are at either corner of the lot and the closest utility pole is right across the street.

8 August 2014


BYard Cem

In a tiny sliver of a neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C., on a tiny sliver of a wedge-shaped lot, sit four tiny houses. Before this sounds anymore like a Modest Mouse song, we’ll explain. Officially, this is “Lot 21” in the neighborhood of Stronghold, but to most people it’s better known as the site of Boneyard Studios. If you’ve been following our Tiny House Journal, you know that we’ve mentioned Boneyard at least half a dozen times. After all, it’s home to the original Minim, the tiny house model we’re building right here in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Garfield. Minim’s designer (along with the folks at Foundry Architects) and owner, Brian Levy, lives on the lot with a few other tiny house compadres: Jay Austin, whose house is called Matchbox, and Lee Pera, the owner of what is known simply as the Pera House. Another woman, Elaine, visits D.C. often, but doesn’t live in her tiny house full-time.

D.C. zoning code requires residential units on alley lots be at least 30 feet wide, thus the houses are officially zoned as travel trailers. The D.C. real estate market is pretty pricey; demand is high and housing stock low. The lot, which sits across from a cemetery, was purchased for $31,000 and Levy, Pera and Austin were able to build their homes for approximately the same amount of money as it would cost for a downpayment for a small one or two bedroom house in the nation’s capital. Like so many other tiny housers, Levy, Pera and Austin thought where they lived mattered more than how big of a space they could own.

BYard Grouping


The houses borrowed ideas from marine design, where certain pieces, say, a table, serve varying roles as a desk, coffee table, island, dining table, etc. Also incorporated into each house are features, sometimes through necessity, that are environmentally friendly and off-the-grid: rain catchments, solar power, induction stoves, and ceramic water filtration. While any tiny house enthusiast worth her salt knows that Boneyard is the East Coast mecca for micro-homes, the four houses have drawn the attention of a wider audience, including the Washington Post and Dwell, among other publications. Boneyard offers monthly showcases, simply RSVP. If you can’t make it down to Washington, Boneyard’s website is chalk full of great photos, stories from the owners, FAQs and a blog. Definitely worth checking out. In the meantime, here’s a 10-minute tour of Jay Austin’s place, Matchbox. We dare you to not be inspired.

6 August 2014


A site plan on paper is good, but getting a feel for the location of our tiny house on the actual site is even better. So, one lovely, sunny morning, we trundled over to 223 N. Atlantic Avenue, site plan, measuring tape, stakes and string in hand. First we measured the width and length of the site and found it’s corners. And then, as accurately as possible (but with a fair amount of guesswork) we staked the four corners of our tiny house.


And finally, we tried to estimate the height of our tiny house, to understand its relationship to its neighbor and to the street.


In a few short hours we discovered some important things.

1.  Minim is taller than we thought it would be. The site slopes up from south to north, so at the southern end, Minim’s floor could be between one and two feet above ground.

2.  The large tree at the back of the site is not ours, although its heavy branches hang over it. We are going to have to set some money aside to prune it.

3.  We need to think long and hard about how Minim meets the sidewalk. Minim’s facade is bare and uninviting. How can we give it some sexy “street appeal”?

4.  We hate the idea of giving up the side yard for a parking pad, but off-street parking is required in the City of Pittsburgh, and we are committed to following the zoning code.  We’re going to explore alternative parking surfaces that will make that pad usable as green, outdoor space since we are sure that not all tiny house owners own cars.

5.  223 N. Atlantic Avenue is a lovely place to be on a sunny, summer day.


4 August 2014


Chad reviewed Pittsburgh’s Zoning Code and presented us with seven different siting options for Minim. Some of them slid the house to the south end of the site, closer to our neighbor’s house, leaving the northern edge of the site more open. Some of them slid the house to the north of the site, closer to the vacant parcel next door. Some of them widened the house so that it spanned the entire site. And some of them added a stoop, or a porch, shifting the house further to the back of the site.

We made our final site plan selection with the following criteria in mind.

1)  We want to maximize the open-ness of the site to the north;

2)  We want to avoid filing for a zoning variance, so that this process is easy to understand for anyone who wants to do it themselves; and

3)  We want to leave a space for a garden at the rear of the site.

With this criteria in mind we’ve selected Scheme A – 1.  Our tiny house is finally taking shape!


1 August 2014

TH Villages

In previous posts, we’ve talked a lot about the attractiveness of building a tiny house for reasons such as financial independence, mindful living and environmental sustainability. The next evolution in the tiny house movement is to take these advantages and scale them up to a broader cross section of people by creating villages of tiny houses. Here are five reasons why tiny house communities are awesome:

1. Location, location, location.

By 2050, over 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. High demand for urban land will drive rents and mortgages for more conventional dwellings steadily upward. In the case of a tiny house village, the high cost of property can be defrayed when spread over many landholders.

2. Sense of community

As Lee Pera, cofounder of Boneyard Studios (below), points out, “It’s about moving more of your life to the community and the outdoors rather than designing your home to meet every need you have: Using the local coffee shop, the gym, spending time in parks and other public spaces.”


3. Sharing is Caring

Eventually, you’re going to be doing some project where you’ll need something you don’t own (or don’t own anymore). Living in a community amongst other tiny housers who understand this dilemma will make it much easier on you to go from tiny door to tiny door to see if one of your neighbors is willing to lend you whatever you need.

4. Urban Infill

We’ve discussed in this blog before how tiny houses are a great urban infill tool for cities. Of course we believe Minim is going to be a smashingly successful example of this right here in Garfield, but imagine what tiny house villages across all sorts of cities will do. It will bring back the density that keep streets safe and make neighborhoods desirable places to move to.


5. A Leg Up

Some cities are beginning to build tiny house villages in order to address the needs of their homeless population. Quixote Village (above), which just opened in December 2013 in Olympia, Washington is the best example of the tangible and positive impact tiny house communities can have. In Quixote’s case, it cost half as much to build tiny houses for the homeless than to build studio apartments. A similar concept is underway in Austin, Texas with plans calling for a community garden in the center of the houses. What’s more communal than growing and eating food together?

There are tiny house villages popping up all over the place. Jay Shafer, founder of both Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. and Four Lights Tiny House Co. has plans to open a yet-to-be-named village (pictured at the top of this post) in Sonoma County, in northern California. There is Quixote Village in Olympia, mentioned a above, and the forthcoming project in Austin from the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Craven Road in Toronto boasts a grouping of houses, none over 500 square-feet, mixed in with larger, conventional houses. Of course, there’s Boneyard Studios, (who we seem to mention in every post) with their cluster of houses on a wedge-shaped plot in northeast D.C.

Is there space for a tiny house village in Pittsburgh?

28 July 2014


The second half of Minim’s architect, Chad Chalmers…

cL: What about materials?

CC: I’d love to explore different materials. There’s a lot of new technology out there including composite materials which are very durable. One good example is the interior wood finish that is specified in Minim. There’s a shortage of walnut right now so we may need to reconsider that wood. Perhaps we will consider indigenous materials such as Pennsylvania cherry so that we can reduce shipping costs. Or bamboo, a sustainable option, with one of the shortest harvesting times.

cL: How will you put Minim on  foundation?

CC: Since the City of Pittsburgh does not permit trailer homes on wheels, we’ll need to explore foundation options. One possibility is to use caissons, where a hole, 12-18 inches in diameter is dug in the ground and concrete poured into it. We could potentially reduce foundation costs by pouring  caissons where they are needed to support the building, so that we don’t have to do a lot excavation.

cL: What about the streetscape?

CC: Fitting Minim into the streetscape is going to be a little tricky. It’s smaller than its neighbors. Landscaping is going to be key and so is setting the height of Minim’s floor. How many steps should we have up to the front door? Should there be a front porch? How do resolve the proportions of Minim to the existing streetscape and make sure everything fits? We’ll be doing some three-dimensional studies so that we understand what the streetscape will look like.

cL: What are the key challenges you see?

CC:  I believe most of the challenges will be underground – water, sewer and site conditions.  There will be challenges with existing utilities and the cost of getting them to connect to the house. We may be challenged by sub-surface site conditions. Infrastructure is going to be key. The city requires that all the final connections to the house have to be completed by a professional – a registered plumber, register electrician, etc. Only then can you receive an occupancy permit. This, of course, will add cost, but is a necessary part of the process.

cL: What comes first?

CC: Every project has a process. The first step is to start with site plan review and to understand the orientation, zoning codes and how these relate to the adjacent neighbors. Next we’ll create a couple of different site plans, showing different sized houses and select the one we like the best. We’ll need to look at this from 10,000 feet and then, step by step, zoom in until we’re dealing with the nitty gritty details such as countertops, finishes, doors and windows.

cL: What’s the most exciting part for you?

CC: I’m most excited by the idea of being able to produce a product that everyone could own for potentially less than the cost of renting in the City of Pittsburgh. This could be a starter home or a home for an empty nester. It has lots of potential. Just looking at all the “missing teeth” throughout the neighborhood and imagine being able to fill them with Tiny Houses. That’s exciting!

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.