California's Owner-Builder Movement

Living Simply Before Tiny Houses

August 31, 2015
September/October 2015
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2015 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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For several years, tiny houses have been gaining in popularity and media coverage—there are tiny-house blogs, tiny-house books, and even a show called Tiny House Hunters on HGTV. I knew this subject had arrived when an article titled “Tiny Houses Big With U.S. Owners Seeking Economic Freedom” was featured in Bloomberg Business in July 2014. One happy owner was pictured in his loft bed, in an attractive cabin with a wood-burning stove, composting toilet, and solar power. According to the article, “tiny-housers” are motivated by many things, including not wanting to “tether themselves to a mortgage.”

Like most trends, the tiny-house movement has a historical precedent. In the 1970s, a controversy erupted over owner-built housing in Northern California’s Mendocino County, and quickly spread to other regions of the state. Californians, including Governor Jerry Brown, debated the individual’s right to live in unconventional, small, simple homes that relied on wood-burning stoves and composting toilets.

Living Simply

In 1974, Gerry Herbert was living in a one-room cabin he had built for himself from recycled materials, on 20 acres of land, located 5 miles from the nearest county road. In the mild climate of Mendocino County, he lived without central heat. Since building the cabin in 1972, he had also lived without conventional plumbing; he had neither running water nor a toilet. By 1974, Mendocino’s building inspector had begun to scrutinize the self-built dwellings of Herbert and other people living in rural housing. The inspector red-tagged 135 of the county’s estimated 1,500 illegally constructed houses built without permits and not according to code—one of which was Herbert’s cabin.

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Peter Pfeiffer, founding principal at Barley Pfeiffer Architecture in Austin, Texas, recently used a tiny house as an educational project for students in a construction class at Austin Community College. Upon completion, the house was sold at a fundraising auction for the college. (Barley Pfeiffer Architecture)

Red-tagging meant that the occupant either had to abandon the home or modify it to comply with code and obtain a building permit. This required compliance with the state’s Uniform Building Code (UBC), a long and complicated compendium that governed how a house was to be built, dictating such things as foundation style, lumber choices, insulation, window thickness, and much more. The UBC was an indispensable and authoritative guide for professional contractors and builders.

A cabin like Herbert’s would fail to comply with the UBC at even the most basic level, for it lacked heating, electricity, and standard plumbing. But Herbert, like many tiny-home dwellers today, did not believe this compromised anything except convenience. As he explained, “I am trying to live a simple life with all my wastes recycled … I wouldn’t build it unsafe and unhealthy, because I have to live in it.” Herbert identified himself as an owner-builder, as did thousands of other residents of Mendocino County. Herbert’s case was part of the first round of owner-builder trials in the Ukiah Justice Court, which took place in April 1975. It was the first trial in a decade-long series of controversies among rural California owner-builders, county building departments, state government, and property owners who lived in conventional homes and resented the spread of owner-built housing.

What happened in Mendocino County, and subsequently in other California counties from northern Humboldt to southern Los Angeles, reflected several related trends in 1970s America: the back-to-the-land and homesteading movements, which embraced voluntary simplicity and rejected consumerist lifestyles; the environmental and appropriate-technology movements, which were partially motivated by the 1970s energy crisis; population growth in the western United States, especially weighted toward an increasingly young population in California; and the self-built housing movement, which sought to empower individuals—particularly the poor—through the construction and ownership of their own homes. That the decade was a difficult one economically, characterized by stagflation and rising homeownership costs, also helps to explain the popularity of owner-built housing (as it helps to explain some of the popularity of today’s tiny houses).

Between 1970 and 1975, approximately 40% of America’s population growth occurred in three states: California, Florida, and Texas. In addition to settling in the South and the West, more people chose to live in rural areas rather than in cities. Of the four major geographic regions of the United States (West, South, Northeast, and North Central), the West had the largest growth in nonurban households. This westward migration in the 1970s paralleled the increase in owner-building in California.

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But by February of 1975, housing starts in the United States had dropped to their lowest point since World War II. Furthermore, members of the back-to-the-country movement did not want the standard suburban tract houses that had consumed much of the postwar American residential landscape. These suburbs enabled millions of returning GIs and their new families to attain the American dream of homeownership in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the young Americans moving west in the 1970s and choosing to settle in rural areas had been raised in these very developments and were now rejecting not only standard suburban housing but also the lifestyle it represented. Their settling in the country was a matter of ideology and of necessity, as owner-building leader Ken Kern wrote in his flagship book, The Owner-Built Home: “If we are to be at liberty to build our own home at less cost, we must necessarily be free from building code jurisdiction. This means we must locate outside urban control—in the country or in small-township districts.”

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The exterior and loft of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company's Cypress model, which ranges in size from 130 to 172 ft2. (Tumbleweed Tiny House Company)

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The exterior and kitchen of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company's Elm model, which ranges from 117 to 204 ft2. (Tumbleweed Tiny House Company)

United Stand

Mendocino County has a temperate climate, which makes it possible to live without central heating, and makes it relatively simple and economical to build a minimalist shelter. But however satisfied Mendocino County’s owner-builders may have been with their own homes, the county building inspector would not sanction their violation of building codes. In response to both the practical problem of potentially becoming homeless and what they saw as a government attack on their autonomy and constitutional rights, Mendocino’s owner-builders formed an activist group they called United Stand on March 13, 1974. Reported to have grown to 1,200 members by its peak in early 1976, United Stand organized to oppose red-tagging and secure the rights of owner-builders to continue living in their houses without conforming to state building codes.

United Stand’s main goal was to implement new provisions for Class K housing (so named because the building code already provided specific rules for classes of buildings under the labels A through J). Rather than abolishing or changing the existing code, they wanted their houses to fall under this new building category, for which heating, wiring, and plumbing requirements would be relaxed. Class K provisions would apply only to rural houses and would stipulate that such houses would never be sold or rented to another occupant; they would house only their builders.

Over the next three years, the various stakeholders debated Class K guidelines that would relax requirements for owner-built homes in the areas of electricity, plumbing, foundations, and building materials. For owner-builders, it was a welcome designation of their special status, but opponents spoke pejoratively of the “K-shacks” that threatened to depress property values and spread alternative lifestyles throughout California’s communities.

United Stand—and the owner-building movement generally—argued that its commitment to personal freedom need not necessarily conflict with the government’s legitimate interest in protecting home buyers and keeping deficient houses out of the marketplace. One of the major arguments for codes was that they ensured the safety of a home when it changed hands. But owner-built homes were unlikely ever to be sold, which obviated the need for this protective measure. The essence of owner-built housing was that it was by the owner for the owner and met the fundamental human need for shelter. It was not a commodity or an investment.

Ups and Downs for Owner-Builders

When Mendocino’s United Stand organized to stop red-tagging and implement the Class K regulations under which they could legally build and occupy their homes, it was the first major phase of the owner-builder controversy in California. The movement for code reform and the freedom to build extended from as far north as Eureka to as far south as Los Angeles, and United Stand eventually had chapters in at least eight counties: Mendocino, Humboldt, Nevada, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Butte, and Los Angeles. By September 1977, though, the controversy had quieted enough that United Stand could be called dormant. Building without a permit had been decriminalized, and civil action against owner-builders largely depended on the local district attorney, who was taking a hands-off attitude in the late 1970s.

However, in 1979, the conflict resurfaced. Professional home builders and contractors, required by law to comply with potentially costly regulations, argued that owner-builders were getting a free ride. A local newspaper reported that “discontent and a feeling of discrimination emanate from the county construction industry where licensed builders complain the county promotes double standards.”

Small and Efficient Appliances

It’s easy enough to find small appliances, and easy enough to find Energy Star appliances, but so far there seems to be little overlap between the two—with the exception of a few Energy Star refrigerators. (In 2003, Energy Star guidelines were expanded to include compact refrigerators.) Cleantechnica also reports that Whirlpool and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are collaborating to develop a compact, super efficient refrigerator that is quiet—a real advantage in a one-room house.

The following are resources to help find the most efficient, compact appliances currently available.

Resources

Compact Appliances
Energy Star Products
Smarter House
Top Ten USA

By 1980, in response to persistent contractor complaints, Mendocino County revived its discussion of illegal home building and considered enforcing new consequences for code violations. A proposed ordinance would make such violations infractions, punishable with fines (county officials used the analogy of a speeding ticket). The ordinance was passed in early May of 1980. It created a Land Use Law Enforcement Unit, instituted fines as penalties for code violations, and promised to give owner-builders the opportunity to bring their houses up to code before facing charges. However, in a reversal of one of United Stand’s major victories just a few years earlier, the new ordinance recriminalized code violations.

But by 1982, after another lawsuit and renewed debate, controversy over owner-building diminished after the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors adopted a revised set of Class K guidelines, which was called “the most relaxed rural building code in all of California.”

The owner-builder controversy incited debates about important issues, including whether the individual had an inalienable right to build and occupy a house of his choosing; whether the community had grounds on which to oppose him; and whether building regulations ensured safety or obstructed innovation. For this eclectic community of owner-builders, their supporters, and their opponents, housing was much more than just shelter: it was a means of personal expression and fulfillment; it was the foundation of an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Much more than a commodity to be bought and sold, housing required an ethic of its own: It should not harm the planet or submerge its owners in debt; ideally, it should manifest its owners’ values and ideals.

Connecting to Today

Obviously the world has changed dramatically since the height of California’s owner-building controversy. It is easy to dismiss the Mendocino owner-builders and United Stand as a quintessentially 1970s phenomenon, as the housing arm of that decade’s counterculture, or as young idealists trying to create rural utopias. While those characterizations are partially accurate, the owner-builder movement remains relevant to the 21st century. While some of today’s tiny-house builders appear more interested in miniaturization than in truly downsizing and simplifying, the majority are probably looking for a way to live without high rents or mortgage payments. (See “Small and Efficient Appliances” for where we are today with compact, efficient appliances.) Perhaps the strongest link between owner-building of the 1970s and the tiny-house trend of today is the desire for economic freedom and autonomy, which comes with a willingness to scale down and simplify, to sacrifice some space and amenities in return for a debt-free life. With the crash of the housing market in 2008, we saw the far-reaching consequences of unsustainable mortgage lending—for individuals, communities, and the global economy. This was truly the antithesis of the owner-builder ideal. Not only did housing become a commodity to be bought and sold for profit, it became inextricable from the complexities of bundled mortgages and collateralized debt obligations. Hardly the manifestation of autonomy and environmental consciousness that the owner-builders envisioned.

A significant difference, however, is that owner-builders in 1970s California seized the opportunity to buy then-cheap land in a desirable part of the United States. They wanted permanent or semipermanent homesteads where they could settle down and raise families. Many of today’s tiny houses are highly mobile; they can be put on trailers and driven anywhere someone will allow them to stay for a while. Sometimes the ability to park a tiny house depends on the kindness of land-owning friends or strangers. As with the 1970s controversy, local supervision or lack thereof (such as the attitude of the current building inspector) continues to play a significant role in whether and where someone can live in an unconventional home.

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Get more information about the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

Learn more about Barley Pfeiffer Architecture's projects.

Kern, Ken. The Owner-Built Home. New York: Scribner, 1972.

Kern, Ken, Ted Kogon, and Rob Thallon. The Owner-Builder and the Code: Politics of Building Your Home. Oakhurst, CA: Owner-Builder Publications, 1976.

Kern, Ken. The Healthy House. Clovis, CA: Owner-Builder Publications, 1978.

Pursell, Carroll. “The Rise and Fall of the Appropriate Technology Movement in the United States, 1965-1985.” In American Technology, edited by Carroll Pursell, 292-299. Blackwell: Malden, MA, 2001.

Turner, John F.C., and Robert Fichter, eds. Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Van Der Ryn, Sim. The Toilet Papers: Designs to Recycle Human Waste and Water, 1st ed. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1978.

Plumbing was, is, and will likely continue to be a major issue for owner-builders and tiny housers, as sewage can have an impact on the health of the surrounding community. This was by far the most contentious issue in 1970s California, where rural owner-builders generally relied on composting toilets, much to the distress of local supervisors. However, by 1977 what had seemed an egregious disregard of public health and safety just a year earlier was being discussed as a solution to water scarcity. Governor Jerry Brown’s Office of Appropriate Technology established several compost toilet pilot projects around California, designed to evaluate the viability of these systems as a water conservation option for rural areas. In 2015, California’s current drought crisis (and its implications for anyone who buys and eats food), requires us to consider the full range of water-saving options, including alternative sewage management and the use of graywater, at least in rural areas.

The emerging trend of microapartments also taps into the desire to live simply and affordably, or at least to have private space in expensive cities like New York, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, which are experimenting with 200–300 ft2 rental units. An apartment of 275 ft2 (but with luxury amenities) recently sold for $722,000 in Hong Kong. Perhaps it is time to abandon the notion of “conventional” housing. Both history and current trends show us that different people have different priorities in choosing a home.

Although California’s owner-building controversy has faded from memory, the owner-builders’ environmental ideals as well as their desire for economic freedom are clearly alive and well.

Mariel Wolfson is a freelance writer focusing on energy and environment. She recently completed a PhD at Harvard University with a dissertation on the history of energy-efficient and healthy housing in the United States.

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