By Colin McCandless, Contributing writer
REGION – Tiny houses are a big thing these days.
You may have seen these diminutive dwellings featured on HGTV shows like “Tiny House, Big Living,” as homeowners seeking to minimalize their lifestyle hunt for the perfect tiny house.
While some enjoy watching programs about tiny houses as an escapist thrill or to live vicariously, others might be intrigued by the prospect of downsizing space and possessions and reducing their carbon footprint.
For Massachusetts’ residents interested in exploring this nascent industry as a potential housing option, it might help to know some of the basics first. What exactly qualifies as a tiny house and what types of designs are available in our state?
Tiny house categories
A tiny house can be categorized as a tiny house on wheels or a tiny house on a foundation.
Tiny houses are defined in the 2018 International Residential Code, Tiny House Appendix Q, as a “dwelling that is 400 square feet or less in floor area excluding lofts.” Massachusetts officially adopted the Tiny House Appendix, which provides safety standards for houses on foundations 400 square feet and under, into its state building code in January 2020.
B&B Micro Manufacturing is a tiny house builder based in Adams. Co-owner Jason Koperniak said the typical square footage of a tiny house is less than 250 square feet. His company primarily builds tiny houses on wheels that are certified by the RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association) to be legal recreational vehicles (RVs). Every tiny house manufactured through their shop is made to order and prospective tiny homeowners choose from one of their signature models at a base price or design a custom unit.
Brady-Built Sunrooms and Additions, located in Auburn, specializes in sunrooms, but about two years ago they decided to offer tiny house construction as well. “We saw that the tiny house movement was growing,” recalled Brady-Built Sunroom design consultant Derek Szeto. They finished their first tiny house project in February, working with clients who own land in the town of Harwich on Cape Cod.
The tiny house movement is still in its infancy in Massachusetts, so although Brady-Built provides three base models for tiny houses, if someone wants something different, they prefer to collaboratively design it with the homeowner, which requires a clear plan and project vision.
“The tiny house movement is so new, so we’re kind of learning with our customers,” explained Szeto.
Zoning laws in Massachusetts
Because it’s a relatively new industry, towns are still adapting and zoning laws pertaining to tiny houses often vary by municipality, meaning you cannot just build a tiny house on a foundation wherever you want. “Each Massachusetts municipality has its own unique set of zoning bylaws,” remarked Koperniak. “These bylaws will impact which zones of the municipality, if any, will allow the use of tiny homes.”
This is why they work to educate any prospective tiny homeowner on what is allowed to be built on their plot of land, he added.
Utilities have presented one potential obstacle depending on a town’s zoning laws, particularly for tiny houses on foundations. For this reason, Szeto said some people try to categorize their tiny house projects as ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), which are regulated differently than tiny houses. Some landowners designing a tiny house on a foundation might aspire to live off-grid completely, utilizing solar and renewables, eliminating the need for municipal utility connections.
However, tiny houses on wheels can be treated like an RV at a campsite. “Our tiny house RVs are set up to be plug and play with a typical seasonal campsite hook-up,” asserted Koperniak. “This consists of a 50-amp electrical supply, a frost-free hydrant and a sewer line.”
Pros and cons of the tiny house lifestyle
Szeto said that many people in the fifty and over demographic are becoming interested in the tiny house movement because their kids have left home and as empty nesters they’re looking to downsize.
Tiny homes offer multiple benefits including being environmentally friendly, low maintenance and providing utilities savings. “Tiny homes do have long-term energy savings and a reduced carbon footprint compared to a lot of traditional built homes,” explained Koperniak. “There is also less space to maintain in a tiny home.”
For the environmentally conscious, tiny homes “offer immense flexibility on how to be sustainable and efficient structures,” added Koperniak, and can be constructed using solar panels, compostable toilets, green materials and building methods, efficient appliances and more.
But if you’re considering the market, just don’t expect the cost to be tiny as well. Koperniak and Szeto both echoed that tiny houses are not always economical in relation to traditional homes or apartments. B&B Micro Manufacturing’s wheeled models range from starting prices of $62,000 to $97,000, while foundation-built models can start as high as $199,000.
Tiny houses are not for everyone, observed Szeto, but for individuals subscribing to a minimalist lifestyle seeking to reduce their impact on the planet, it delivers strong appeal.
“With a tiny house, it’s all about minimalizing everything,” stated Szeto.