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.



5 June 2014

Good design will stop us in our tracks and demand we take notice. Minim, from Foundry Architects and Brian Levy, does just that. At only 210 square feet, its creators wrung every bit of utility from each square foot. Measuring 10 feet, 8 inches by 22 feet, it is able to be hitched to a trailer, though ours will be built as a permanent structure. But it’s not the size of Minim that grabs our attention; there are many of tiny houses that are around the same size or smaller. It’s not even Minim’s cool features: the wet bathroom; the window shade that is also a video projection screen, etc. While many tiny houses are made to look like Thoreauvian cabins, or as though someone simply shrunk a conventional house, Minim is boldly and unapologetically accomplishing a mission through design. That mission is to help its owner lead a simpler life and is centered on four philosophical principles that Levy lays out:

1. A contented life is largely independent from the size of one’s dwelling.

2. Humans can and must live more sustainably, but not without style.

3. Living in a small structure should never feel compromised— it should feel amazing.

4. Excellence in design has a role to play in spreading the acceptance of simple, affordable, green living.

Levy didn’t take the design of his home lightly, and you can read more about his design philosophy here.

The house is constructed from pre-fabricated SIPs (structural insulated panels), which are strong, energy efficient and cost effective (costing about as much as traditional framing). Minim’s floor plan is flexible and open (check it out below). The bathroom or closet can be enlarged by taking out one or both of the eight foot bookshelves. Walls have been removed to open up the space and large windows allow for plenty of natural light. The couch doubles as a storage unit and a two-burner stove is set into the countertop, with a covering that can be placed over it when not in use. As far as other appliances, Minim can also accommodate a small dishwasher, combination washer/dryer and full-sized refrigerator. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Minim’s design is the rollaway bed, which tucks underneath an elevated alcove. Minim’s exterior is sheathed in untreated, shiplapped cypress, while its interior is outfitted with rich walnut countertops, built-in furniture and flooring and stainless steel fixtures.

There’s the common expression that a picture’s worth a thousand words. That holds true in this case. Here’s a photo tour of the house. You can also check out a video tour, or, if you have free time and want to get away, you can check out the original house in D.C. in person.

Can you see yourself living in Minim? What are the aspects that you like, or might like tweak? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

2 June 2014

As we announced in our last post, Minim was the run away crowd pleaser at our tiny house presentation and survey earlier this month. With clean lines, bold design and versatility packed into every square foot, we here at cityLAB kinda have a crush on Minim too. But the other tiny houses we considered have a lot going for them as well. While we’re moving forward and building Minim, we hope some of these will pop up in Garfield as well. Here’s what our crowd had to say about Minim’s competition.

1. Tumbleweed Loring’s porch was a big hit with a lot of people. About half our crowd loved the sleeping loft with ladder and half did not. Access to the rear yard (with the only entrance/exit being the front door) was another mark against Loring. Some people liked Loring’s Arts and Crafts style and others thought it looked liked a shrunken doll house.

2. Tumbleweed Whidbey was a pretty popular chap. It actually garnered more “yes” votes than any other house when respondents were asked if they would or wouldn’t live in this particular house. It has an open feel to it and an abundance of natural light thanks to the skylight. The second bedroom was a hit, but some thought that this house took up too much outdoor space, leaving very little yard. And again, the ladder thing.

3. A lot of people liked the layout of Tumbleweed Harbinger, but thought it felt small. Access to the sleeping loft via ladder was again a big sticking point. Lack of storage was another point of concern, but on a positive note, some liked the prospect of building a deck off the back of the house.

4. We’ll take an in depth look at the winner, Minim, in our next journal entry.

5. One of the larger houses of the group, Vermont, was also a bit more open than some of its counterparts, but again at the cost of yard space. Some saw its relatively simple design as a plus, “DIY-able,” as one person put, but others saw it as “plain Jane.” In its favor was Vermont’s ability to accommodate a washer and dryer, as well as stairs, rather than a ladder leading to the loft bedroom. Ultimately, it failed to inspire.

6. Modeled after the houses built to replace the wretched FEMA trailers provided for displaced New Orleans residents, the Katrina boasts a French Quarter kind of design aesthetic. While it had a lovely large front porch and first floor bedroom, the kitchen was considered way too small (although this is easily solvable by an architect). Katrina had one of the larger footprints and hardly left any space for a garden or yard.

7. The smallest of all the homes, the Minimotive was too small, really only large enough for one person. It is meant to sit atop a utility trailer, giving the owner the ability to pick up and go when and where s/he pleases. While the City of Pittsburgh building code won’t permit a trailer to be parked on the site, many of our respondents thought it could be converted into a permanent house. The original Minimotive was a DIY project designed and built by an architect for just $11,000. While many appreciated the creative, modern design, and creative use of materials such as the exterior sided in recycled pallet wood, at the end of the day, most found it came up just a bit short on square footage.

28 May 2014

On May 13, an unseasonably warm Tuesday evening, over 30 people gathered at Assemble in Garfield as cityLAB’s president and CEO, Eve Picker, presented seven potential tiny house plans for the upcoming project. Attendees were given a survey packet and asked to record their opinions regarding each building schematic. On a five-point scale of ‘very poor’ to ‘very good,’ respondents rated five aspects: 1) fit into streetscape; 2) overall design quality; 3) functionality; 4) quality of interior space; and 5) potential for outdoor space. Additionally, the respondents were asked if they would live in the house and why, or why not, because, ultimately, this could be their house one day. Back at the office we went to work mining the data and recording each and every comment. We locked our intern in a room and didn’t allow him to come out, excepting for bathroom breaks, small snacks and one hour of sunlight a day. We’ll get to the results in a bit, but first, more on the presentation.

First of all, we’re really excited to announce cityLAB has just signed a sales agreement to buy a vacant lot from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Our tiny house will be built at 223 N. Atlantic Avenue, just north of Broad Street, and only two blocks away from Penn Avenue, making it extremely accessible to public transportation and the business corridor (we’ll talk more about the site in a future post). The planning session was to help attendees (we like to call them “potential buyers”) visualize what a tiny house might look like at 223 N. Atlantic, which measures just 24 feet  by 43 feet.  All seven of the housing plans we considered can be found online and there was no shortage of images describing what each one looks like built.  The smallest house, called Minimotive, is just 196 square feet. None were larger than 600 square feet.

Other aspects covered in the presentation included: how the house would be located on the lot (close to the street, or set back); which way the house would be situated; how big of a footprint the house occupied (and how much outdoor space was left over); how the layout of interior works; and finally, pros and cons about each plan. Designs ranged from beautifully detailed Arts and Crafts to minimalist ultra-contemporary models. You can view the whole presentation below, but now for the results…

A show-of-hands vote was taken at the end of the presentation and Minim, with its sleek design and maximum utility, was far-and-away the favorite. However, the survey responses told a slightly different story. When asked a simple yes/no Would you live in this house?, the results looked like this:

The last question on the survey asked respondents to rank their top three tiny house picks:


Here Minim collected the most overall votes, as well as the most first and second-place votes. Additionally, the survey revealed that Minim was rated ‘good’ or ‘very good’ more times in four out of the five categories than any of the other houses.

We’re thrilled to be building the gorgeous, tiny Minim house in the months to come. We believe people will come a long way to see Minim, and we think Minim will go a long way to help make Garfield a 6% Place.

In the next post, we’ll look at what people had to say about the other tiny homes. In the meantime, check out the slideshow in our previous post and let us know what you think about the different house plans. We’d love the feedback!