Big Steps in Building: Ban Minimum Floor Areas

We spent the summer borrowing bandwidth from a timberframe builder in Dorset, Ontario. Early in the summer his design for a small 512 square foot tower was published in a popular cottaging magazine. Brad Johnson of Portico Timberframes is quoted: "If you stay smaller and simpler, you can come up with a good design at a much lower cost, use fewer resources and minimize your impact on the environment."

Except that you are not allowed to. In almost every jurisdiction around, there are minimum floor area requirements, usually designed to keep out the riff-raff and ensure that tax assessments keep going up. Brad's phone rang off the hook all summer, and to every caller he had to explain that it was too small. People would keep saying "But that's all I need!"

In some areas it is a minimum footprint rule; A few years ago I designed a cute little 1100 square foot two story prefab for Wasaga Beach and ran afoul of their minimum 900 SF footprint rule; we went to the Committee of Adjustment for a waiver and they didn't even look at us, they just were not interested in anything small in their town. Back to the drawing board.


The Drop House would be a nice place to live, but you probably can't do that either; it is a manufactured home. Many jurisdictions restrict housing HUD code-designed housing to trailer parks and prohibit them in conventional settings. Yet the HUD code is a useful standard that could make better housing available at higher densities and lower cost than conventionally built housing. And they don't have to look like trailers.

There was a court case about minimum floor areas in Connecticut this year; according to the New York Times, ''Such regulations affect the ability of low- and moderate-income persons to find housing in suburban areas,'' said William Olds, director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, a party to the legal action. ''Having a minimum footage requirement inflates the cost of housing, and it isolates communities from people of different incomes, color and nationality.''

But others are fighting such changes: 'I think most towns are going to resist taking away local autonomy,'' said John L. Boccalatte, a lawyer defending restrictions. ''We are defending our position on grounds that the statutes permit the conservation of property values."

Minimum floor areas are illegal in New Jersey, Massachusetts and other States. "the tendency across the country has been to strike them down when not based on occupancy,'' said Terry Tondro, law professor at the University of Connecticut.::New York Times

Planning and zoning laws have been tools for "maintaining property values" and keeping out riff-raff since they were invented. Exclusionary zoning is more subtle than it used to be: "Research in this area documents the fact that decision-making in cities, towns, and especially suburban areas routinely exclude people on the basis of socio-economic status or race.While in decades past this exclusion specifically kept out people according to their race, more modern and subtle versions keep people out through informal means, or through the control of land use. An example would be zoning ordinances, which exclude low-income or multi-family housing from well-to-do suburbs." ::Environmental Justice Resource Center

We are moving into a different world, and those low density suburbs are not sustainable. Rules on minimum floor areas, keeping out HUD code trailers and restrictions on modular housing are limiting innovation. They should not be allowed anywhere.