Hi! Welcome to our shop here in Battle Ground, WA, where we manufacture and install high-performing tiny prefab homes that go on permanent foundations. While the definition of what is considered a tiny home varies, this is a clear position on what we build, yet with all the other housing options available, we need to peel back a few of the layers to get a better grasp on what we’re really talking about…
I originally started my search for a small rental cottage that I could legally keep on wheels while pulling it from location to location. The first home that I built was a typical non-inspected unit built on an old mobile home frame. I quickly realized that there was high demand for a rental when it rented out quickly. Expanding my research, I discovered that this endeavor would require a legal, permittable option if we were to scale these tiny prefab homes on wheels. Plus, I was nervous about what the regulators and code officials would say about my product…
We had a rough experience with that first one when a customer wanted to place one of our homes in a small, downtown lot in Vancouver, WA. The neighbors where quite upset about a tiny prefab home in their neighbor’s backyard. Naturally, they called the code enforcement and made a complaint. Thus, we were required to remove the home to keep our client from having to suffer the barrage of issues that comes with code enforcement.
Starting with this experience as a springboard, we put our heads to the books and internet, scouring everything we could find on the topics of:
- Tiny Homes On Wheels (THOW)
- Park Model RVs
- FEMA Trailers
- Mobile Homes
- Manufactured Homes
- Modular Homes
- Temporary Worker Housing
- IBC code
- State codes
- Local codes
- Zoning codes Land use codes
- Classification of structures and the associated implications with each one
Spending thousands of dollars and close to 3 months pounding the pavement, we sought a way through this huge pile of accumulated data. The results kept resurfacing; it needed to be a structure worthy of long-term living. In order to offer stability and assurance to our clients, a better way to keep those regulators out of the backyards of our clients had to be found. We believe we have done just that!
Let’s start by going over the different options and what each one brings in terms of benefits and features vs. the cons.
Tiny Homes on Wheels
Per the public opinion, these are the craze right now. Cute, classy, and full of unique custom designs, they draw people in by the droves. Tiny house tours, tiny house hotels, tiny house trade shows, tiny house TV shows, and the list goes on…
The cons that aren’t so widely talked about include much heavier load towing with higher-quality materials, inconvenient bed placement (tough for our aging seniors), expensive value proposition, inability to live in long term, parking difficulties, and finance difficulties. Plus, tiny homes on wheels typically don’t have an RV certification.
Most people know when they’re looking at an RV.
The roof shape is typically designed for easier traveling down the road, they have holding tanks for both gray water & black water, they typically operate with 12 volt power systems, they’re designed with the least amount of weight as possible, etc.
Where the distinguishing factor lies is with the RVIA certification. An RV gets hooked up to temporary utilities and is not designed for long-term living, though people do live in them for long periods. At the end of the day, the 2” walls and skimpy insulation make for a tin box that sweats with the weather outside.
Park Model RVs
These are built and inspected to a different code—ANSI A119.5. They have a separate classification and must be less than 400 sq ft as measured from outside of siding to outside of siding. Typically these are placed in RV parks for cabins. They are not attached to the ground via a foundation system.
Park model RVs do not meet the energy code for most states. Their intent is for short-term vacation activity. They do not have structural rules like regular buildings, even though many of the materials used are similar.
This is a loose term that I grabbed because I’ve heard people refer to them as such. From my experience, these FEMA trailers are an RV, park model RV, or one of the other labels that we’ll be getting into further down the list.
A disaster strikes, and FEMA needs to supply some sort of temporary housing. They turn to the factories that already exist. FEMA isn’t going to reinvent the wheel for a short-term problem.
These are built to HUD (Housing and Urban Development) standards. These are governed at the Federal level.
From the research I did, they haven’t been built since 1976, as that’s when the HUD code was standardized. After 1976, you had to meet certain plumbing, electrical, thermal, and frame requirements. After 1976, the manufacturers also had to change the name of what they were making to match the desire of the market, and thus started calling them manufactured homes.
This is the official age of the HUD home. All structures built after 1976 to the Federal HUD standards are considered “Manufactured Homes.” The interesting part is how the public views these homes because anything that’s built in a factory is manufactured to them…
At the end of the day, it boils down to what’s on the inspection tag. Every factory-built structure has a tag that identifies it with what codes it was built to and what inspection agency approved it.
We’ll go into more detail on this in another blog, but for now, it’s important to know what the tag says and shows. Manufactured homes can be built on a steel trailer frame chassis and temporarily strapped down to the ground, or they can be placed on permanent foundations—although the latter is not the norm.
These homes are built in a factory and sometimes get confused with manufactured homes but are significantly different. Again, it goes back to what code they’re built to and who inspected them.
Modular homes are built to local building codes that correspond with where the home will be placed. For much of the time, these homes will sit on a permanent foundation. They can come in one unit to many units depending on the size of the project. For an average home, it’s usually 2 units to max of 5.
If modular is used in a large commercial application such as Guerdon Modular Buildings in Idaho, they’ll build an entire hotel consisting of 100+ boxes, as we call them in the industry.
For us here at Wolf, we build single box modular homes.
Temporary Worker Housing
This is a section inside of Washington’s Administrative Code Chapter 296-833 that specifies what can and can’t be offered to workers who will be housed on the job site. Typically this is for farm workers, mining, or any other vocation where it makes sense to offer housing for workers.
This code section does not specify what code or standards the homes must be built to other than the fact that they need to be something legal. For example, a guest house, shed, or outbuilding can be built to legal standards and might even have a kitchen in there, but if it doesn’t offer a location to wash the employee’s clothes, it’s out of compliance and must be corrected.
For more specific information, look up the local codes for this housing usage and what the requirements are.
IBC, IRC, NEC, UPC, UMC, WSEC, and Many Other Codes
Most codes are set at the national level and then left to the individual states to adopt and amend based on their local needs and site conditions. The building code has been broken into many smaller sections for each respective field of experts to develop maintain, improve, and manage. The main acronyms stand for:
- IBC International Building Code.
- IRC International Residential Code
- NEC National Electrical Code
- UPC Uniform Plumbing Code
- UMC Uniform Mechanical Code
- Washington State Energy Code
It is important to keep these codes in mind as you plan a new dwelling, as this code is what determines a safe and habitable building. The codes alone can be daunting at best when it comes to understanding and working within their constraints and limitations. On average, every 3 years, the council for each code section will review recommendations to update the code and then roll out the changes the next year. Of course, this is a very high-level perspective. Any dwelling, studio, cottage, structure, guest house, hardship dwelling, etc., must meet these codes.
In closing, we needed to pick a product that was scalable and would meet the demands of affordable long-term housing. The most logical was the modular option that met all the local, state, and federal codes. That’s what we did!
Stay tuned as I look to share with you all that I know on the topic of permitting, building, living, and maintaining a tiny prefab home, small structure, or cottage!