Part Two – Tiny Home Communities: Barriers to Innovation

900 words – 4 minutes reading time

Welcome back. As a refresher, this is my second blog in a three-part series on increasing the diffusion rate of innovation in housing. I’ve chosen ‘tiny homes’ and associated ‘tiny communities’ as my focus. This choice has many reasons, but the bottom line is that this approach also has the advantage of restoring a sense of community in our living places.

In Part 1, I discussed the background of the problem. In this blog, I’ll outline the planning and zoning regulation advantages I see to overcome innovation resistance.

The Problem in a Nutshell

My research consistently points towards a significant restraint in adopting ‘tiny homes,’ or more technically, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), is the insufficiency of planning and zoning ordinances to permit such construction. Here are some examples.

  • Minimum lot size requirements. Many zoning ordinances require a minimum lot size for ADUs, which can make them infeasible for homeowners on smaller lots. Los Angeles requires a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet for an ADU.
  • Setback requirements. Setback requirements specify how far an ADU must be set back from the property line. San Francisco requires an ADU to be set back 5 feet from the side and rear property lines and 10 feet from the front property line.
  • Height restrictions. Height restrictions limit the maximum height of an ADU. These restrictions can make it challenging to build an ADU that is tall enough to be comfortable and functional. For example, the city of Berkeley limits the height of an ADU to 16 feet.
  • Parking requirements. Parking requirements specify how many parking spaces must be provided for an ADU. Seattle requires one parking space for each ADU.
  • Owner occupancy requirements. Some zoning ordinances require the owner of an ADU to live in either the ADU or the main dwelling. This requirement can make it difficult for homeowners to rent out their ADUs, reducing the amount of affordable housing available. Mountain View, CA, requires the owner of an ADU to live in either the ADU or the main dwelling for at least one year.

A Larger Context: An Opportunity

As I’ve said, the fundamental issue is industrial land development regulation. The real problem is more fundamental – it’s about our belief systems. That is to say, how we group things and how we understand how these things relate to one another, like buildings, landscapes, and connections between the two.1 But, land use planning (and consequent zoning regulations and processes) are built upon a paradigm of Engineering that sees things such as houses as separate things, whereas using ADUs to address inadequate housing supply requires a different cognitive approach, which I call Design, which sees everything as being interconnected. I have addressed this issue in other contexts, but it applies here.

“An excellent way to understand this distinction is by analogy. The analogy

is that of Architects and Builders. Each of these creation processes correlates

with a social role, world outlook, and set of values and beliefs. In other words,

  • Design and Architecture move concepts to an actualizing stage.
  • Engineering and Building are the mechanics of the process.”

Drawing on our analogy, a builder’s beginning construction of a house yields a vastly different outcome from one that starts with an architect. A builder usually begins by looking at what constrains the process: cost, time, and material availability.

On the other hand, an architect usually starts with the potential.2

Making the Transition

In the past, city planning has been dominated by engineering principles. This has led to efficient and functional cities that often need more human-scale qualities. In recent years, there has been a growing movement to use design methods in city planning called ‘form-based codes.’ This approach emphasizes creating livable, equitable, and sustainable cities.

There are several reasons why design methods are superior to engineering principles in city planning. First, design methods are more holistic. They consider all users’ needs, including pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation riders. On the other hand, engineering principles are often focused on moving cars as quickly as possible.

Second, design methods are more creative. They allow for a broader range of possibilities and solutions. On the other hand, engineering principles are often limited by technology and budget constraints.

Third, design methods are more inclusive. They involve a more comprehensive range of stakeholders, including residents, businesses, and community organizations. Engineering principles, on the other hand, are often top-down and exclusionary.

The future of city planning is human-centered Design using tools like Form-Based Codes. This approach emphasizes creating livable, equitable, and sustainable cities. Design methods are superior to engineering principles in city planning because they are more holistic, creative, and inclusive. Cities designed with human beings in mind are more likely to succeed in the long run.

Wrapping Up

To sum up. Based on research and lived experience, a Design approach to urban planning (specifically housing innovation) will yield a superior result to traditional Engineering mindsets and practices. Superior in the sense of increased well-being of residents, more community connection, and enhanced long-term sustainability.

Next will be my exposition of six Design Principles for communities to become future-ready. Stay tuned. Let’s stir it up…


2“Design Principles for the Virtual Workplace” Proceedings of the ACM SIG on Computer Personnel Research, Denver, CO, pp. 12-22, April 1996.

By | 2023-10-01T10:35:27-07:00 October 1st, 2023|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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