Tiny homes and tiny roadblocks

How small can you live in Boulder County?

Christi Turner

Welcome to the Aspen 24-footer!” 

It feels roomy inside. With its 11-foot ceiling, generous sofa seating and wide windows with natural light pouring through, it seems almost too roomy to be what it is: a Tiny Home on wheels.

Not all “Tinys” are created equal, says the man who built this one — Byron Fears, co-owner of SimBLISSity Tiny Homes in Lyons.

“It’s all about how you use the square footage,” he says.

An entrepreneur and construction expert, Fears says he thinks the Aspen has used its square footage optimally. The 24 feet by 7 feet of space occupied by this “Tiny,” as Fears affectionately refers to all super-small dwellings — otherwise known as tiny homes, tiny houses or micro-homes — is permanently mounted to a specially designed steel trailer. Its interior boasts walls and ceilings made from Colorado-sourced beetle kill lumber, with a stylish built-in sofa and two lofts, one spacious enough for a king-size bed and moderate storage. Creative storage cubbies under the stairs, high-end LED light fixtures, a composting toilet, full-size fridge, RV-style tub, three-burner stovetop and oven, and a stylish and efficient heating and cooling unit all help to give the sense that this space, albeit only 250 square feet total, is equipped for fulltime, functional and feng shui inspired living. “You don’t have to be a total minimalist,” Fears says, showing off under-sofa storage large enough for a few snowboards.

But this Tiny can’t officially be considered a “home” in Boulder County. All structures in the county, including those intended as permanent housing, must be attached to a permanent foundation — “not on wheels or trailers,” according to an FAQ page added to the county website specifically to address the growing number of tiny house inquiries. That means that for the time being, SimBLISSity Tiny Homes on Wheels — among whose key assets is mobility, keeping down living costs in the long-term — are just loads on trailers in Boulder County, registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, designed for permanent residency but incapable of passing the county’s home permitting process.

That doesn’t mean the county discourages small-scale living. This is Boulder after all, where many of the same ideas and values behind tiny homes — living simply, closeness to nature, reducing one’s environmental impact and carbon footprint — are prevalent enough to be reflected in the county’s regulatory structure, including a “fairly aggressive energy code.” In fact, says county chief building official Gary Goodell, “Tiny homes really fit into what we’re trying to do, especially in terms of encouraging less energy use.”

And despite complications with making a tiny home code compliant in Boulder County, there are some built-in incentives for building smaller.

For example, all homes — no matter the size — must undergo what’s called Site Plan Review, and it isn’t free. The cost for a home 2,000 square feet or greater: $1,075. But for a new, single-family structure less than 2,000 square feet, the cost is only $400, just one-third that price. Then there’s BuildSmart — requirements that homes meet strict energy efficiency standards — and wildfire protection requirements, mandating, among other measures, a home sprinkler system and wildfire prevention measures that can include tree removal. From any angle, says county sustainability examiner Ron Flax, “The best way to save money on a home, no question, is to build it smaller.”

Even the International Residential Code, on which the Boulder County Building Code is modeled, has seen big shifts toward smaller living. The 2015 IRC changed to allow a minimum total area as low as 70 square feet — down from its already low 120 square feet of minimum floor area in the 2012 code. The change was a direct result of the growth in “proponents of minimalist living [who] have advocated living in smaller dwellings to reduce environmental impact and provide for lower living costs,” according to the International Code Committee, which oversees the IRC. “Although micro units may not be everyone’s dream,” the committee reasoned, “There is no technical, safety or general welfare reason to require one room of at least 120 square feet.” 

Officials say the county hopes to adapt the 2015 IRC on January 1, 2016, assuming the public consents. That would mean tiny homes even smaller than the SimBLISSity Aspen 24 would meet minimum area requirements — as long as they’re on permanent foundations. 

There’s still another prohibitive expense — possibly the greatest — to making a tiny home code-compliant in the county: water and septic systems, which can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. The permit for any new septic, or onsite wastewater system, costs $1,023; installation estimates run between $7,000 and $15,000 on flat property and up to $35,000 in the mountains. That’s more than half the cost of SimBLISSity’s estimated $65,000 price for a new Aspen 24. 

But the land use code is a living document, says land use department communications specialist Richard Hackett. And as the tiny house movement grows larger, county officials say cost-saving options could become available — like smaller cisterns for water, or acceptable alternatives to permanent septic systems. Not to mention the possibility of allowing, eventually, a safe anchoring system for tiny homes on wheels, instead of a permanent foundation — once there’s a way to legally certify them as permanent homes, fixed in one spot.

Despite the tiny house trend, new home size in the U.S. hit an all-time high last year, clocking in at 2,600 square feet. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the average size of a new, single-family home just over a generation ago — 983 square feet in 1950. And countywide, Boulder still struggles with people’s tendency to live large. 

“We did a search for building permits for 2014,” Hackett says. “We only found one new home that came in under 1,000 square feet.” The average new home size in the county, Goodell adds, has hovered around 1,500 square feet for many years. 

Still, Goodell says there’s tiny house momentum in Boulder — even two rogue tiny homes, reported to the county last year and now in the process of getting up to code. 

“Maybe not 80 square feet, but you could do a 200-square-foot home,” he says. “There’s a sweet spot in there, a size of house that works for families.”

Not even the icons of tiny living are strictly advocating the tiniest homes. 

“Tiny houses are a great gateway drug,” says Merete Mueller, co-director of Tiny, a 2013 film aptly produced in the Boulder region. She and co-director Christopher Smith estimate their film — about Smith’s struggle to build his own tiny house from scratch — has garnered up to 5 million views on Netflix. 

“They’re so fascinating, and they help prove it’s possible to have really livable, comfortable, beautiful small living spaces,” she says. 

Mueller now lives in a small, shared NYC apartment, while Smith inhabits a shared Los Angeles apartment. 

“Unfortunately, filmmaking isn’t a career-choice that lends itself to living minimalist,” Smith says. “I have about 20 hard drives sitting in my room. I’m still wrestling with some contradictions like that.”

As tiny houses on wheels move closer to being certifiable homes in Boulder County, Fears has a bigger tiny home vision for his business and his land: “I’d love to see a half-dozen families working on their tinys here, building their homes and building community.” 

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