Living small is big for business

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — The idea started on an empty alley lot in the Washington, D.C.'s little-known Stronghold neighborhood. Brian Levy wanted to show those around him the benefits of minimal and environmentally friendly living.

So in 2012, he enlisted an architecture firm and builder to construct a 210-square-foot house on wheels — a particularly chic structure with stainless-steel kitchen countertops and maple floors. It garnered media attention and quibbles from neighbors who had grown accustomed to parking on the empty lot.

It also raised questions over whether the city's zoning laws even permitted Levy to use the lot for his tiny-house experiment. Yes and no. He cannot use his micro home as a permanent residence.

But because Levy and other local urbanists lobbied the city to loosen its zoning restrictions, new laws that they say are friendlier to the tiny-house movement were slated to go into effect this month.

(In Baltimore, the city's building and fire codes currently don't permit such small abodes. Last year, after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake helped Civic Works unveil a 200-square-foot tiny home designed to demonstrate energy efficient features, a city official said city agencies were examining what needs to be done to allow them to be legally built in Baltimore.)

D.C.'s new zoning laws coincide with Levy's latest business venture: He and his business associates have partnered with a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer to build prefabricated versions of the house and deliver them to customers in the District of Columbia and elsewhere in the country.

"We're aiming to be the premier micro-house manufacturer in the country," Levy said. "We're a business, but we're also mission-driven. We're focused on helping people live more simply, more cheaply and more ecologically."

Micro houses — or tiny homes — are part of an architectural movement encouraging simple and sustainable living. The movement has gained steam in recent years as urbanists and hobbyists pitch the structures as a cheap solution to the expensive housing crisis plaguing many fast-gentrifying cities.

There's even a popular HGTV show based around the homes called "Tiny House Hunters."

But critics of the movement contend that it focuses on single adults and overlooks vulnerable segments of the population, such as families and children, who experience poverty and are often on the losing end of urban housing shortages.

For a while, Levy experimented with creating a community of tiny houses on the lot called Boneyard Studios, which disbanded amid controversy in 2014. There was a rift between Levy and the two other micro-home owners on the lot, which included questions over the sometimes-smelly disposal of sewage, since the homes are not connected to sewage treatment.

The lot now includes four micro structures, a garden and other projects that friends are working on and which people can tour.

Together, these projects showed Levy that interest existed in tiny houses and that the venture could be worth a bigger investment. He created Minim Built — initially called Minim Homes — where he and his two partners sold 88 plans of his flagship micro house for $495 each.

Chris VanArsdale, one of the co-owners, said he fielded questions last summer from interested buyers and that they considered selling. But ultimately they decided to see if they could create a business model around selling a version of the Minim House on their own.

Now customers can order one of the houses — with or without wheels — for $71,000, plus shipping, and have it delivered ready for move-in.

At 265 square feet and 12 feet wide, the Minim House he is selling is slightly bigger than the one currently showcased on his Stronghold lot.

The company is hoping to sell at least one house a month in its first year. They said they already sold one test model to the technology company Intel, which used the structure as a traveling showcase for its products.

Washington, D.C.'s new zoning laws would allow micro homes to essentially function as carriage houses in the city, provided the structures are not on wheels. Under the new regulations, it will be easier for homeowners to purchase a micro house for their back yard and rent it out.

The old rules required owners seeking to rent out units to argue their case to receive an exception.

Under the new regulations, the structures will be automatically permitted in some neighborhoods as soon as homeowners acquire building permits from the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Eric Shaw, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email that with these new zoning laws, the city wanted to give homeowners more opportunities to have accessory dwellings on their properties.

"Accessory units can provide additional and often more affordable housing options, can facilitate aging in place, and can help homeowners afford their homes," Shaw wrote.

Levy said their target customer includes retirees looking to downsize, cramped D.C. homeowners looking for extra space or rural cabin dwellers.

"It's ideal for one, possibly two people, depending on how much you love them," Levy said. "It's low-maintenance."

It is also designed to be as functional and livable as possible, Levy said.

There are large windows and a full kitchen. A cozy table for two pushed against a wall can swing to the middle of the house for an eight-person dinner party. There is a couch that can double as a bench for the table, and a 96-inch projection screen. A queen-size trundle bed pulls out when needed, and there are bookshelves, closets, a work area and a bathroom.

And they are all small.

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