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Tiny Houses on Display in D.C.

By Nancy B. Solomon, AIA

This article first appeared in Architectural Record.

February 26, 2013
Photo courtesy Boneyard Studios

A community of tiny, movable houses is taking shape a few miles north of the U.S. Capitol, on a triangular lot tucked behind traditional row houses and accessible only by alley. Called Boneyard Studios, it was conceived in 2011 by two tiny house enthusiasts—Brian Levy and Lee Pera. Lamenting the dearth of tiny houses (typically less than 400 square feet) in urban settings, the two joined forces to create a public demonstration site in Washington, D.C.

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Although Levy and Pera, who were later joined by Jay Austin, are designing their little structures to meet their personal needs, they do not plan on living in them anytime soon—D.C. regulations currently forbid it. But all three hope that this demonstration site will encourage changes in local laws to permit smaller, more affordable living options here and on vacant land across the city. Their efforts reflect a growing interest nationwide in residential downsizing: just last summer, for example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city will waive zoning requirements to allow for the construction of an apartment house featuring 275- to 300-square-foot micro-units.

Levy purchased the .09-acre lot in March 2012. Since then the three, along with a combination of professional and volunteer support, have been working on designing and constructing their respective structures, improving the shared lot, and increasing public awareness through neighborhood outreach and scheduled tours, such as the one recently hosted by the American Institute of Architects’ District of Columbia (DC) chapter. (For future tours, see boneyardstudios.com).

Although the three houses are being erected in parallel on trailers no more than an arms’ span apart, they are by no means identical. They range in size, construction methods, and materials. At 140 square feet, Austin’s Matchbox house is the most modest: a rectangular box with a sleeping loft built with standard wood-framing insulated with open-cell spray foam that will be clad with shou sugi ban, a type of wood siding that has been charred according to an ancient Japanese technique.

Pera began by purchasing the shell of a tiny house that had already been assembled. With the help of architect Matt Battin of Urban Density Lab and builder Tony Gilchriest, she extended the original structure so the unit now measures about 144 square feet. She replaced the roof with a steeper one that features dormers above a sleeping loft and finished the exterior with a rain screen of locally and sustainably sourced locust and cedar.

Levy enlisted Will Couch and Matthew Compton of Foundry Architects and David Bamford of Element Design + Build to help design and build his 235-square-foot house, which is framed with structural insulation panels. With an abundance of windows on three sides, the interior feels surprisingly airy. A low platform in one corner will hide a trundle bed that can be rolled out partially for seating or fully for sleeping. The same platform will support a desk and closet above. Space-saving technology borrowed from the boat industry maximizes the use of space.

According to Levy, the three are motivated by financial reasons as much as the desire to live simply. They hope that one day the regulations will change so that they will be able to inhabit their tiny community. In the meantime, they are enjoying the process.



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