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.