It might be possible to get variances or special permits from friendly planning departments, but it's hard to convince a group of people to make large $ investments in dreams which could be destroyed arbitrarily by changing political winds. We may take the risk anyways, but our problem has gone from practical matters of structure and finance to a fundamentally political one.
This is really a shame. I suspect that a lot of people, like us, would be perfectly happy in low-footprint small (<500 sq ft) homes as long as they had easy access to a fancy kitchen, home theater, storage, etc in a space shared with a dozen of their friends. I always wondered why this isn't common - and the answer is, at least in California, it's effectively illegal.
Because your (prospective) neighbors are worried you're building a Section 8 slum that's going to crash the value of their own properties. The house is usually a family's biggest investment, so it's not really surprising people get testy when they see a potential threat.
You can get pretty rural pretty quickly west of I-280 in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and of course Santa Cruz County further south. Head 10 minutes west of I-280 via Sand Hill Road, and you're at Skyline at Alice's restaurant, which marks the limit of the town of Woodside's boundary. Anything north, west, or southwest of that point is unincorporated.
As a practical matter if you're in a rural unincorporated area you're going to have to deal with septic tanks, and finding a place in the bay area where you can dig seven (and counting) different leach fields with possible space for expansion, not on >35% slopes, not near streams, etc. is going to be tricky. Further out you may have problems getting water; are you going to dig a well? How many GPM? Check out the problems that mutual water companies in the hills have had during previous droughts. On the other side of the ridge things are even worse; there's La Honda's rationing and talk of trucking in water: http://www.hmbreview.com/news/cuesta-la-honda-guild-keeps-ra...
On a more positive note, if you can get the structure and finance down, why not build a ~3000 ft^2 conventional house with external power/water/septic hookups? Those hookups are where you'd place your friends' tiny-homes-on-trailers. They wouldn't be permanent structures, so perhaps that would pass legal muster. Or buy 7 acres and subdivide? Again, I like your idea and wish you the best.
It does seem to be that one of the least-friction approaches is to permit property as an RV park and have everyone move into tinyhomes-on-wheels instead of small permanent structures. We may end up taking that approach, although it would probably change the composition of our consortium somewhat.
There are some "special planning areas" in the delta (Sac county) that look very permissive, but they bring other issues (flood risk and flood construction requirements, mainly). On the other hand, hey, water :-)
Two hours covers a lot of counties, but none with ordinances that permit rural compound housing. I don't know how far you'd have to go. I don't think there are any in CA.
While no openings, I do plan to write up what I have learned when it is safe to do so. It would be great to have neighbor communities. Talk to your friends now and plant the seed; it may take years to germinate, but you can use that time to save money.
Back in university I lived in a large co-op house with 38 other people and it was the best living arrangement I could possibly hope for. I'd love to do it again as an adult (though perhaps with less people and more privacy), but unfortunately I just don't know that many people who would be up for it!
In other words, anywhere you want to do this, you're opposed by people who already live there, who usually have quite a bit to say about the area.
And anyone who wants to take away that influence from incumbent homeowners or tenants will be marked as someone who is destroying a long standing community for the sake of outsiders who want to take it over.
It is indeed a shame as I'm personally a big fan of small homes and at one point tried to get a new housing project off the ground.
But I'm seeing in some places slow consideration for new ways of living. From turning office buildings who've struggled to reach 25% occupancy in places where living rents are skyrocketing into homes, to microhomes.
In any case, it's not an easy issue. In some ways, small housing shares similarities with minimum wage: just because the economy is such that without a legal minimum wage, adults would still be willing to work for $4, doesn't mean we ought to allow it and let the market figure it out. People will get exploited. Similarly, the government needs to set building standards, including the minimum space a home ought to have, in my opinion (I just happen to think it can be quite small, if properly built, for certain people). If you don't have these standards, I would be the least surprised if we suddenly found large groups of students, young adults and struggling working poor living like they do as the 'Rat Tribe' in Beijing.  And again, like minimum wage, we don't want that.
But yeah then we're talking, really really small. <500 sq ft should really not be an issue. I live with my girlfriend on a little over 400 at the moment and it's great.
California certainly has some ecovillages, but most have buildings sized like typical houses.
That said, some counties are apparently friendlier to this idea than others. And it is our fallback plan.
But take away the countryside location of these homes and could the tiny house work in an urban environment? I'm doubtful. The future for housing for most people on the planet (including the US) is in cities and urban environments. Can you live in a tiny home where you don't have long, uninterrupted views out of your windows? Or where you only have windows along one side of your dwelling (e.g. single-aspect apartments). Do you feel you have enough privacy when your apartment or house is joined with your neighbours' home?
Millions of people already live in homes like this and have to contend with these issues. The challenge for homebuilders and architects is to design housing to address these issues: homes that give us light, space, privacy, quiet and comfort in a noisy urban setting. Sadly, if I look at the new build housing going up in the UK I'd say architects and house builders are doing a pretty poor job of it. Are things better in the US in this regard?
Also, space can be 'modest' in size rather than micro or miniature and still be sustainable or amenable to high density. For example, London has it's own housing design guide that recommends new one bedroom apartments for two people to be a minimum of 50 square metres (538 square feet). That's still less than space standards in continental Europe but it's enough space to live comfortably even if it doesn't count as tiny by Western standards.
I agree. Skyscrapers would provide the best bang for buck in terms of space. You could fit a lot more people into a city like San Francisco.
Walkups, not skyscrapers, are the best bang for the buck.
Ten times as many floors is a lot of floors...
"In 1972 Leslie Martin and Lionel March published a cogent analysis of the key forms of urban development. They postulated that on any given site development can take three basic forms which they called 'pavilion','street' and 'patio'. These forms cover different proportions of the ground area.
If developed with buildings of the same height and depth the pavilion form would provide the lowest density and the patio form the highest. On the other hand, constructing a given amount of floorspace would need buildings of different height depending on which form they took. Figure 2.2 illustrates this principle [see: http://imgur.com/LmJ1tTg ]. It shows that the same amount of floorspace could be built on the same site as a fifteen-storey tower block, five-storey linear blocks or a three-storey perimeter block."
I nearly picked one flat when I moved because it had a bedroom without a window which would have made a perfect office.
I accept I'm not the norm though.
Imagine a room where the entire ceiling + walls has that effect. It would feel like you're outdoors (on a summer day, in Kansas.)
Also with near full wall HDPI displays you could do some awesome infograophic style style stuff, house conditions etc.
I don't necessarily think "small" is the way to think about it. Instead if a family lives in a house for decades their priorities / needs change. So, for example, the retired couple who still live in the house with 2 bedrooms for their children when they first bought the house.
Or what about the house that's available and in an ideal location and has all the right things, but it's a one-bedroom with plenty of square feet, but where will the kids sleep?
If you had a modular way of reconstructing the interior of the house, and they redo the walls using inexpensive modular components, all of a sudden maybe now their master bedroom is twice the size it was, or maybe that space becomes a loft / sitting area instead.
Suddenly it makes sense that a family could reasonably expect to live in the same house over long periods of time comfortably, if it suits them, no matter the changing circumstances that life presents them.
EDIT: And make far better use of the space they have over time as circumstances change.
I asked one of the guys on the tour why they don't do it for houses. He replied that the problem with houses is that it's rare to find houses that are actually built with enough precision to have perfectly square corners and perfectly vertical walls. It doesn't really make sense to go to that extent for a narrow-margin stickbuilt 2- to 3-storey dwelling that doesn't support the immense weight of an office building.
The modular idea could still work. You'd just have to add this little hacky layer in between to adapt the out-of-plumb house bits to the injection-moulded modular walls or whatever. I dunno what that layer would look like and still be cheaper than making changes to a home the traditional way.
Good luck if you do it, I can't wait to buy it.
Unfortunately it didn't take off then, only a few buildings were built with it. It's a shame because it looked very modern, very cool, and frankly I'd like to own one of those buildings.
I guess the question really is whether the additional expense is manageable.
And of course I definitely think the way to go with modularity would be open source. That way the market becomes immediately inclusive of all potential manufacturers or DIYers.
All in all, you can do that for about $200, if you're willing to do it yourself. This neglects doing the electrical (you don't need plumbing for a partition, but you do need outlets every 12 ft so that there is no space on the wall with more than 6' without one).
Until you get into moving structural walls, or doing kitchens and bathrooms; you can change the interior of the house fairly cheaply. Depending on where you live, you may not need any permits either if it isn't a structural change.
If you're building up a tool inventory from scratch and all your power tools, etc. that will be needed, this won't be free :)
Then there's also the fear that an inexperienced person would have: "am I buying the right tools for the job?". Or, "will I ever do this kind of project again?" If not why don't I just hire a contractor to do the work for me instead of investing in tools I may never use again, and remove the fear of doing it wrong or causing more damage which in turn will end up costing more money.
The way things are done today it's relatively intimidating to someone who doesn't know the first thing about it. On the other hand I would argue that perhaps it's not necessary that the process of redoing the interior layout of the house should be intimidating or inaccessible to the average home owner.
But building a wall actually requires fairly few tools. You can get buy with a hammer, handsaw, square, and level to do the framing. For the drywall you need a utility knife (for cutting the drywall), some drywall taping knives, a paintbrush and a roller cover.
You can certainly add a drill (to screw it together) or rent a nail gun/compressor to make things go faster. A circular saw is also one of those things that it makes sense for a homeowner to have.
But even if you aren't doing it yourself, you can pay someone who has those tools, and it shouldn't take them that long. Stick construction with drywall is easily modifiable (as compared to e.g. concrete).
Also, I think that now with the advent of Youtube and online forums; things are a lot easier for someone who wants to do it themselves. You can see videos of people doing it, you can ask questions related to your specific situation (which even if you read a book may not be covered, because everything presents just a little bit differently).
It's very empowering to be able to improve your living environment.
One word: efficiency
Tall ceilings create a heating and cooling nightmare. In my area a number of builders over the last two decades came into the valley from warmer climates like Arizona and built a bunch of homes with very tall ceilings. People loved them and they kept building, then a cold winter comes along and people complain about their $800/month+ heating bills in what was claimed to be an energy efficient home.
My house has a tall main room that spans two floors. People ask me why I have the fans on in the winter... and I tell them that it keeps our heating costs down. It's counterintuitive, but true.
On a 35*50 (1750 sq. ft) single level house, you're adding 170 ft of exterior wall to an envelope that had 1360 sq. ft of walls and 1750 sq. ft of ceiling giving directly on outdoors, or 5.4%. Given a "code" insulation level of R-20, it would mean adding less than an inch of insulation to compensate.
I suspect the builders from warmer climates simply didn't build correctly for the climate: not enough insulation, problematic details. You get issues whenever builders move from one climate to another, because many of them just don't care enough to learn about how to adapt houses to their new climate. Details that are fine in one climate (if you're living in a dry enough place, you can install your windows almost without thinking) won't work in another (install a window "Vegas-style" in Seattle and see how long it takes before it leaks).
They do also feel a lot bigger, though. Maybe it's worth the tradeoff?
This is how it's done in Europe:
Yes, I'm talking about the UK (and Ireland)
Another pre-condition is being in a city with tiny house-friendly zoning regs.
As someone who frequently entertains the notion and novelty of tiny living, I keep up with it, and know more than a few folks who have been evicted from their tiny homes.
D.C. has actually been making it harder to live in tiny homes, as they are non-conformant structures in which you can "camp", temporarily, but cannot live, so there's this shell game going on of tiny home dwellers rotating out their dwellings just frequently enough to be on the right side of the law.
But it's worth noting that by "tiny homes," we mean specifically tiny detached homes. Within a few blocks of my house are some four-banger apartment buildings with ~ 1000 square foot units, and I could probably afford to buy one and rent out three of the apartments. That could actually be a realistic option if I ever become an empty-nester.
While I'm generally not a big fan of regulations, I get that there are definitely well-intentioned regulations for legitimate problems, such that landlords weren't allowed to cram too many people into too small a space, or demand that too many people share too few kitchens and bathrooms, but for those who choose the path for themselves, those self-same regulations are burdensome.
What's harder about living in a small house as your primary home (not a vacation home like the article) is storage space, especially when you have kids.
There are also clever ways of doing built-in storage in a small home that minimize the use of living space. Of course you also can't be a packrat.
I recommend Dwell magazine as a great source for small living space design ideas.
On topic, though, I agree with your statement about the irony. I have family in the UK and the ideas of whether a house is "large" or "small" is completely different compared to the US. Ultimately real estate is local, and my place is small compared to nearby ~2500+ sqft Silicon Valley homes.
2 generations ago, families of 4 lived in 700 sqft houses in the US. We've supersized over the decades.
There are also substantially different histories in play (when was the last time the UK government was giving 65 hectares to anybody that asked? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homestead_Acts ).
I think it was a bit after 1066, if you had the good luck of being Norman and if William was feeling generous that day.
Pretty much :-) Not really different from just about any other house in a more or less rural environment.
"I work my office job from a toilet cubicle. You guys paying for offices are schmucks. Here's how I do it, I go to the toilet for free right next door to my office space I rent for $5000/mo. I'm working in entirely cost free space for the whole day. Then for the other 8 hours 45 minutes of my 9 hour day I work from the office. See, it's easy; can't see why people don't do this more!"
/tired, bad humour
A vacation house bigger than most people I know can afford for their actual home. And than the author speaks of "making sacrifices". Makes me want to throw up.
Well, or maybe we can simply agree on the fact that different people have a different understanding of what a tiny house should look like? I'd too call that house tiny because the part in the world where I come from we tend to have much bigger houses.
And btw. the article isn't so much about the fact that this house is tiny by all means, it's more about using what you have or can afford and make the most out of it.
He doesn't give the dimensions of his home. However, from looking at the pictures it's possible to estimate - I get around 25' by 20' looking at the number and size of windows.