Start Small housing concept gaining big momentum


Nearly halfway through his year-long People's Liberty Haile Fellowship, Brad Cooper’s Start Small project is starting to gain momentum.
 
Cooper was awarded the grant based on his proposal to build two 200-square-ft. single family homes on an otherwise unbuildable lot in Over-the-Rhine as a model for net-zero, affordable infill housing. He presented an update on his project, along with information for potential buyers, at a public event May 13 at the Over-the-Rhine Community Center.
 
Since starting the program, some aspects of Cooper’s design and concept have changed. The houses will now be 250 square ft. in order to accommodate the city’s zoning regulations. The two houses on Peete Street will also be attached to leverage potential energy and cost savings as well as to better fit the historic character of Over-the-Rhine.
 
Cooper's initial plans for composting toilets and water reuse will also be modified to meet building codes.
 
“The building codes need to adapt, and I think they will, but it will take time and people calling for the change,” says Cooper, who presented his project concept and suggested code changes to City Council’s Education and Entrepreneurship Committee in February.
 
The houses will be net zero, with solar panels providing all electricity. Cooper is working with Sefaria, an application that supports high-performance building design, to optimize the homes’ HVAC systems. Each house will have monitors to track the occupants’ energy usage as well as energy production from the solar panels.
 
As the popularity of the tiny house movement grows, it’s also come under criticism.
 
“This project is not for everyone,” Cooper acknowledges. “Start Small is providing choice and creating thoughtful infill development.
 
“The idea that tiny homes encourage less density is a myth. Zoning regulations that require minimum lot sizes encourage less density. Zoning regulations that prohibit two tiny homes being on the same lot encourage less density.”
 
Although not currently permitted under zoning code, “small homes could be developed as accessory dwelling units, which add density to areas,” Cooper says. “Multiple homes on one lot is permitted in neighborhoods that have adopted Form Based Code, and here I would expect the same density to be met as with a traditional project.”
 
Cooper encourages residents with concerns about density and other zoning issues to review the draft of the Land Development Code and contact the City Planning Department with any input.
 
As tiny homes become more common and zoning codes are updated to accommodate their construction, Cooper predicts ongoing evolutions of the concept to make tiny homes more appealing. “
 
I expect to see tiny homes with shared resources,” he says. “A communal kitchen, shared waste remediation, shared energy production and other communal ideas are a challenge to figure out but would make tiny living more affordable.”
 
Since January, Cooper has been working to develop financing options for potential Small Start homebuyers as traditional mortgages may be difficult to obtain.
 
“The main challenge is the unconventional nature of the project,” he says. “There is not a lot for an appraiser to compare the homes to locally, so having a lender feel comfortable with the value of the home is critical.
 
“Additionally, most mortgages are not held by the initial lending institution but bundled and sold on a secondary market dominated by government-subsidized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those entities require the home to be at least a 1-bedroom. The tiny homes will qualify not qualify as 1-bedrooms. I’m anticipating the need for a (local) bank or even an individual to step forward and provide a loan to a tiny homeowner. This institution would be willing to take the risk on something out of the box and hold onto the mortgage.”
 
Initially, Cooper projected the houses would cost $80,000, although it now seems they may list for $70,000. He hopes to have buyers in place before fall so construction can be completed before the end of the year, allowing residents to move in to the homes by early 2016. Cooper has partnered with Working in Neighborhoods to help potential buyers through the process.
 
Community engagement is a big part of the Start Small project. Cooper hosted a one-day exhibit called “Size Matters” at Assumption Gallery to invite the public to explore ideas about tiny living and affordable housing. In March, Cooper invited the neighbors to 142 and 144 Peete St. to introduce himself and his idea for the property. Keep Cincinnati Beautiful organized volunteers and residents to help clean up the lot in April.
 
Cooper has also solicited public feedback on the design and amenities of the tiny houses. He plans to hold additional presentations and information sessions in the coming months.
 
It’s looking like his Start Small project may in fact turn into something big.
 

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter is a jack-of-all-trades with a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums and nonprofit organizations. She's a bit obsessed with the built environment and irregularly shares her musings on architecture, urban planning and city life on Facebook and Twitter (@StrawStickBrick).
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