If you’re a journalist looking to do a story on the Micro Showcase, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Micro Showcase and the previous popup project hosted here on the lot (Boneyard Studios), both received a bit of press:
- TINY HOUSE BLOG: tour of the Micro Showcase (Oct 2015)
- WASHINGTONIAN: inside the 8 winning homes of the 2015 washingtonian residential design awards (July 2015)
- WASHINGTON POST: northeast DC man campaigns for micro-houses (Dec 2014)
- ABC NEWS: living large in inside 140 square feet
- ABC7: tiny houses in DC
- ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: tiny houses on display in DC
- ATLANTIC CITIES: tiny houses—a new model for super-chic affordable housing?
- BALTIMORE SUN: compact, cheaper living in tiny houses
- CBS NEWS: for some, smaller homes are better
- DWELL: micro-dwellings across america
- FOX5: tiny houses create new green community
- GRIST: cities, get ready—the tiny houses are coming
- INHABITAT: village of tiny houses makes boneyard studios a unique urban retreat
- NY DAILY NEWS: forget mcmansions: tiny homes elbow their way into urban life
- PLANET FORWARD TV: tiny house, big impact
- THE DAILY: the tiny house movement, from washington state to washington, DC
- TINY REVOLUTION: interview with boneyard studios
- UK MAIL ONLINE: 200-square-foot houses pop up in DC
- URBAN TURF: one-on-one with DC’s tiny house folks
- URBAN TURF: the tiny houses of stronghold—an update
- WAMU: tiny home dwellers challenge conventional wisdom on comfortable living
- WAMU: living small: micro housing grows up
- WASHINGTON CITY PAPER: DC’s best tiny houses
- WASHINGTON CITY PAPER: the big tiny author visits the tiny houses of boneyard studios
- WASHINGTON POST: home, squeezed home—living in a 200-square-foot space
- YAHOO!: living large inside 150 square feet
The alley lot where the Micro Showcase is located was purchased by Brian in March 2012. It’s about 1/12th of an acre. The lot originally had overgrown grass, broken concrete, pooling water, garbage, illegal parking, occasional criminal activity, a dumped stolen vehicle, etc. A few pictures of the lot improvements I made (with incredible help from Tony Gilchriest on fencing, and a few other construction workers) from April 2012- Spring 2014. See photos below!
- Feb 2012: lot design and the site
- March 2012: water options + urban land search + the lot is bought
- May 2012: site preparation starts + got an alley lot address + shipping container arrives + 44 fence posts in, trailers arrive
- June 2012: fencing, electricity, compost, fruit trees + electricity on, garden beds and fencing finished
- July 2012: tumbleweed house arrives + stop work order, work resumes
- Aug 2012: gate welded, water on, construction in full swing
- Spring 2014: spring lot update
Unfortunately the tiny house community popup at 21 Evarts St NE ended on less than ideal terms, which are subject to significant deliberate public misrepresentation, hence the sad necessity of this FAQ.
The micro house trend is important, and in any movement there will be natural differences of opinion as to how to advance it. Fundamentally, beyond the personalities and ‘he-said-she-said’ griping and misrepresentation were simple, fundamental differences in strategy as to how to spread this movement to mainstream U.S. culture. I (Brian) firmly believe the movement will not be advanced by:
- showcasing designs difficult for the handicapped, elderly, or claustrophobic to use.
- showcasing aesthetically unrefined designs.
- showcasing the difficulty of building a micro house through multi-year, endless construction, poor planning & countless building problems.
- showcasing messy job sites, weedy gardens, and confirming some neighbors fears about being next to a ’trailer park’.
- building improper sanitation that garners the negative attention of regulators and press.
- ignoring local zoning battles that could potentially make more micro housing possible.
- constructing one-off designs, rather than having beautiful, highly functional models that are easily constructed or purchased by all.
- blaming others in an attempt to generate public sympathy, rather than taking personal responsibility for ones actions.
These differences led to the end of the tiny house community popup experiment on the lot in the fall of 2014.
Beyond advancing the micro house movement, there were substantially different levels of prior experience in community organizing and living. My (Brian) expectations of community were formed in many ways: as an active member of the DC Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association (member 10 years, President 2 years, Treasurer 1 year), a DC block club leader (6 years), Resident (4 years) Board Member (3 years) and President (1 year) of the Omega Co-op (one of the oldest housing coops in Minneapolis), through founding and living in several group houses, through participation in community-run gardens (member 14 years, lead coordinator 4 years), as a teen mentor (5+ years) and participant in a DC foster youth program, and as a DC property owner (12 years). In these experiences, healthy community happens when there are (at least) 3 things: presence (gotta be there, every week, or at least every month), shared expectations, and personal responsibility/respect. In retrospect, I made mistakes: At the start of the project I was a bit burnt out on group organizing, and consciously decided to just be optimistically trusting that minimal standards of conduct would prevail. As a result we failed to have clear, cooperatively derived set of expectations. Further description of the issues follow:
- Endless construction. After 2 years and 4 months of ongoing construction (July 2012-Nov 2014), 5 different builders, and emotional turmoil that affected everyone on the lot, one of the 140 ft2 tiny houses remained substantially incomplete (bath, kitchen, trim, etc), along with ongoing construction piles/noise/poor aesthetics compromising the showcase and the sanity of neighbors (one of whom, 20 feet away, is the Ward 5 City Councilmember, and whose family personally thanked Brian after its removal). Photo below dated Nov 2014; video dated Oct 2014. As the years dragged on, there was mounting tension between one member, who primarily came to use the lot as a long term construction and material storage site and was infrequently on site, and Brian, who was there daily using the site quietly as an office, garden, and for entertainment.
- Sanitation. Despite repeated requests, for years 2 of the houses never had proper sanitation improvements in their tiny houses (defined here as an incinerator toilet that left no human waste behind. Both refused to purchase and operate sanitary incinerator toilets; one house had an incinerator toilet that Brian bought and owned, and never had an operable incinerator toilet of their own- buying a broken one that after 8 months remained broken; Jay only used a bucket for years). There were literally buckets of urine kept or drained behind Jay’s house, fecal matter disposed of in trash bags, etc. Perhaps a 23 year old could not have been expected to know better. Nevertheless, it came to represent a liability to the project, and the the microhouse movement more widely. The DC Zoning Commission got wind of this situation (perhaps literally), and it became the primary and only concern of the Commission regarding the lot, as communicated very clearly at several zoning meetings in 2014 that Brian attended (the others never attended any zoning mtgs or regular neighborhood mtgs from the summer of 2012 until the present). The Commission then proposed (and will pass in 2015) a new zoning regulation (‘Camping in Alleys‘) that specifically targets the project, prohibiting any residential use of trailers on the lot, on every alley lot in DC.
- Zoning. While all participants in the project wished to live full time in the houses, they could never officially do so due to other city zoning & codes- a battle that became increasingly clear the project would never win but that some remained (and remain) in denial about. In the late fall 2014 DCRA issued a letter to the property owner (Brian) demanding that the houses not be lived in, and threatening a $2000 fine. DCRA letter is on file.
- Mismatch of effort. The owner of the lot contributed solely and willingly to the acquisition and development of the property (with $80K+ of his own funds and thousands of hours of labor, which did not include the $ or labor for his own house), fortunately with no expectation of gratitude. This included: 11 trips to DCRA to deal with permits, years of engagement on the city zoning rewrite, payment and installation for fencing, storage unit, new community space, electricity, internet, acquiring and operating a hot tub, garden furniture, wood oven, construction of 10 garden beds, planting 15 fruit trees, flowers, as well as regular maintenance of the lot (despite requests, perhaps 3x was the lawn mowed by anyone else in 3 years), engaging DDOT to upgrade alley lighting to LED, in addition to 25+ blog posts and high quality content that drove 75% of the BYS daily site traffic. During this time two other members mostly just worked on their houses, when they were in town (Jay departed the community for the entire summer for 2 years). They maintained a Facebook page, organized some music events for friends, did a bit of press and tours (as everyone did), and ran for-profit tiny house workshops. It was suggested that they might contribute in some small way to other lot improvements that were agreed upon by consensus- a community micro-library, a bike rack, etc. None of these things ever came to be.
Some more simple facts:
- Land purchase. The lot was originally purchased by Brian in March 2012 to start a tiny house popup that hosted five different tiny houses over several years, with the goal of showcasing what a tiny house community might look like, and advancing the micro house movement. Brian co-founded the project; Jay did not join until months after the property was acquired. At the time of purchase one of the co-founders seemed to Brian to be unable purchase the property, nor planned to stick around DC (leaving for much of the summer immediately after the project began, and there were multiple conversations about potentially leaving DC within a year). To my (Brian) recollection there was fairly limited discussion of cooperative ownership of the property, and never any written proposal made to jointly own the property. In 2013 the deed of the property was transferred to an LLC so that a liability insurance policy could be acquired to cover, among other things, the other member’s many volunteers on the property (Brian, the property owner, could be held personally liable for any accidents on-site without the insurance, and after many hours of research it was clear an empty lot that was not an LLC could not get a liability policy). This was all transparently communicated.
- Departure #1. Due to issues above, originally only one member was asked to leave the lot by September, in a kindly worded letter, in July 2014. They eventually left Nov 14 after months of delays and missed deadlines they themselves set.
- Departure #2, Jay. Upset at Brian’s decision to request departure #1 without his consultation, Jay decided in July that he too would leave. Despite the ‘uncomfortable conditions’ that he then created (see below), he stayed on for over 6 months, squatting, comfortable enough with illegal rent-free living on property he did not own nor have any lease on. Before the police were called to ticket Jay’s trailer and motorcycle (which was done with a seriously heavy heart) Jay had previously committed, twice, in writing, to move out by the late November. He broke his promise to do this, had for months stopped paying for any utilities/etc (to date over $850 in bills remain unpaid), was using the press to defame Brian as he lived on his land, had repeatedly refused a generous settlement agreement, and then also failed, upon repeated demand, to provide some reasonably convincing evidence of substantive effort to find another parking space (he sent a craigslist ad he had posted the week he had committed to leaving- this after 4 months of stating he was going to leave). He was ticketed by the MPD 5th District ($500 for illegal parking scooter+trailer on private property), as advised by local DC counsel. Based on Jay’s promised departure date, the owner had committed the property to other uses (a local high school tiny house build) and was consequently forced to delay their program. Jay at last departed Jan 25, 2015, only because he left the country and knew his empty trailer could be again legally ticketed, then towed off the lot.
- Settlement. In August 2014, 2 members decided to make (completely unfounded) demands for money to leave the property, coupled with statements about going to press and DCRA. The immediate employment of a lawyer was strongly advised. Rather than go to court, involve law enforcement, or pursue an eviction (which would have been costly and would have permanently compromised their ability to ever rent a property), a generous settlement offer to move the trailers within 2 months was made ($1000 to more than cover moving costs + 5 months of the payments they were contributing for parking on the lot ($150/mo) + the project website). This offer was repeatedly refused for unknown reasons (3x the money, more time, and dropping an anti-defamation clause were the demands). No settlement was reached.
- Decision-making. Decisions to request that a 4th trailer to leave (Elaine’s), to build the Studio Shed at Brian’s full expense, and many others were jointly and communally made at monthly meetings. Representation otherwise is completely false. Regarding the garden, Brian built and paid for it and personally flyered the neighborhood to find neighbors who might be interested in a plot. There were no takers, period. Having a community garden was in any case not possible without a water source. Neither built water collection systems that could support more then themselves (one never had an operable system at all). One member took 4 of the 10 garden beds, for two consecutive years, and all 4 became untended weed plots by mid-summer.
- Profit and ownership. Jay seemed to believe they were entitled to ownership of the property after making minimal payments ($150/month) to partly cover utilities, insurance payments, and a fraction (20%, not 2/3) of the interest Brian was paying on $80K of personal loans to fully underwrite the project. This was deeply misguided, though perhaps not unamusing. They also seemed to want to believe Brian was driven to profit by the the project. But the record should be clear: $0 in commissions have been made off of any activity on the lot, of the 64 house plans sold to date, exactly 2 buyers came to visit the lot (sales are all online), and the personal debt in undertaking this experiment is still being paid off. Lee made far more hosting commercial for-fee tiny house workshops (technically in violation of zoning rules for the lot) that featured visits and training on the property.
- ETC. From a post signed by both members and sent to 5200 Boneyard supporters in March 2015, which was then reprinted by several media sources that did no fact checking): “we dug trenches and shoveled soil and put in hours of labor improving the lot“: In 3 years, Jay once spent an hour digging a trench to plant some bamboo for privacy around (Brian’s) hot tub that he used daily. He also cobbled together a stand to stack firewood that collapsed the day after. This was the extent of the other members contributions to lot projects. “damaged builders’ equipment and intentionally ruined architects’ tools“: I (Brian) accidentally left a single worktable outside one evening in 2014. It rained and the top was slightly warped. The owner was fully compensated. “entered her house without her permission in the middle of the night.” Malarky. The person in question never lived in or spent a single night in her house as far as we are aware. We all had keys to each others houses, and regularly put back tools & materials inside for safe keeping. “throw two-by-fours into the alley to stop a few kids from riding scooters” The ‘kids’ were teens riding motorized ‘pocket rocket’ style motorcycles at 50mph+ down a 10′ narrow alley where pedestrians and a pre-school regularly walk with their kids. Brian early engaged with DDOT to install speed bumps, but to date no action. “padlocked both gates…” It was very clearly indicated that no further concerts or BYS activities were to be held after Oct 2014. They nevertheless planned one for Nov. Gates to the lot were locked and power switched off, for 2 hours, to prevent illegal trespassing and activity. Etc, etc…
- ETC. But otherwise, was there grace? Only if you consider grace to be: secret recording of private conversations (Jay), unannounced interception and deletion of Brian’s project email account, spurious demands for financial compensation, going to press to defame Brian (in articles in City Paper, Curbed DC, and on their Facebook and website), inflammatory statements on neighborhood nextdoor.com listserve (the nextdoor.com management removed Jay’s for being ‘offensive and inappropriate’), property damage to Brian’s Minim House & irrigation equipment from thrown firewood, an injury to Brian by from one of the members with firewood (from which the owner still bears a significant scar; photo available), dumping of a large pile of construction debris upon departure (after the first departure Nov 14 2014, 3 days later there remained a pile of debris, and zero communication that it would be removed, so on Nov 17 it was delivered to the new location at no cost), threatening a lawsuit against Brian for writing this FAQ (Nov 2015), etc. Sad but all verifiably true. Also sad that complete falsifications and misrepresentations have ensued to cover poor behavior. Underneath it all one imagines there is a shame and suffering which we all hope may one day be relieved.
- So: it is with sadness any of this has to be written, but it was the decision of the the 2 other community members to first go to the press and make further efforts to turn a private matter public, and to continue to misrepresent the past rather than moving on to new and better projects. In the end, some risks taken, hard lessons learned, and the foolishness completely forgiven. We wish them well on their new endeavor to start a tiny house community. Here on the lot, pop went the pop-up, and the nonprofit MicroShowcase was born in current form. –Jan 2015 (updated March 2015)
There are not. There is no commercial activity on the lot, nor shall there be. We are not selling anything, and all events/space are free. This has been confirmed with the head of zoning at DCRA, Matt LeGrant.
The alley lot where the Micro Showcase is zoned Residential-3 (see 11.2507 / R-3 Buildings on Alley Lots)). Current DC code doesn’t permit the construction of habitable foundation-built dwellings on an alley lot unless the alley is more than 30 feet wide. However, private parking of vehicles and trailers (which tiny houses on wheels are classified as) on private property is permitted under R-3. I worked extensively with DCRA (11 visits and counting) and a City Councilmember to receive a street address and secure the appropriate DCRA permits for excavation work, siting the storage container, fence construction, construction of the Studio Shed and the electrical hookup. Again, because the tiny houses on wheels are classified as trailers, they didn’t require building permits.
Just within the past decade, median home values have doubled (DC median home values in 2010 are $400,000 — nearly double the median value in 2000), rent for a one-bedroom unit has gone up 50%, and the number of low-income rental units has halved (fell from more than 70,000 to 34,500). Shelter is becoming increasingly unaffordable at a breakneck rate. A quarter of DC renters are spending half their income on housing, D.C. ranks 2nd among least affordable places to live in U.S. (see 2012 DC Fiscal Institute report)
Due to their small size, most tiny houses are inherently not up to the minimum size requirements of building code. Building tiny houses on trailers reclassifies them as travel trailers, doing away with such requirements and offering the added advantage of mobility. Of course, tiny homes should be (and typically are) built to code as much as possible.
Check out our comprehensive post on Microhousing: an overview