When inner-Sunset District resident John Barry of San Francisco wanted to convert the old shed in his backyard into some living space, he contacted Tumbleweed Tiny Homes Company to draw up the plans.
Yet he found the permit process with the City very difficult and confusing. Still, Barry hopes City planners might consider smaller houses as way to meet the need for affordable housing.
Affordable housing remains a key issue in the City that has limited land. Also for homeowners that simply want to create a bit more living space rather than finding another place to live, something like a tiny cottage might be the solution.
As a long-time resident of the inner-Sunset which is near Golden Gate Park, Barry has devoted himself to neighborhood groups like the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People (SHARP). Being an active member as well as a local realtor by profession, Barry is very aware of the needs of the community.
"With this current downturn economy and the need for housing, I thought turning an old shed into a living space would be a 'no-brainer,’” said Barry.
His disappointment was magnified when the Planning Department denied his initial application based upon the blueprint plans that Jay Shafer, founder and president of Tumbleweed made. "The City has these rules about no new construction can be done to an existing structure that exceeds or alters its original proportions," said Barry.
Contacting the Planning Dept. by phone for details, expect a delay, the phone-line is constantly busy. Emails are answered automatically with the formally phrased text “The Planning Department will make every attempt to respond within 72 hours.”
The Planning Dept. resource center which handles all inquiries, did reply to this reporter via email saying, “a legally noncomplying structure in the required rear yard can be converted to a recreational room as an accessory to the residence.” Not able say specifically about Barry’s case, the email also noted, as per planning code section 136, “a garden tool shed not exceeding 100 square feet in size and 8' in height can be constructed in the required rear yard. “No other accessory or principle structures can be built in the required rear yard,” the correspondence said.
Ironically, the old shed was in very poor condition and, according to Barry, "had to be practically rebuilt anyway.” "The foundation was actually the only thing we kept from the old structure," he said." Yet Barry still is puzzled as to why the City's Planning Dept. rejected the Tumbleweed design, especially since Shafer and his crew specialize in utilizing only simple "green" materials, creating a smaller ecological "footprint." Insightfully as Shafer noted, "building codes prohibit small houses in most cities. So, Shafer was not surprised by the Planning Department's rejection. Even with more than 10 years of being in business, Shafer realizes that the concept of a tiny house still is not on most urban planner's radar screen. Four years ago back in 2008, Digital Journal News did a feature on Shafer and his tiny home endeavor.
Back then when Digital Journal spoke to Shafer he was engaged to be married and was still the visionary with the dream. Now married with children he has taken efforts to take his dream concept to a more business level. Tumbleweed is a viable business and interest has not declined - despite planning code obstacles.
Even so, Shafer is not giving up. And, as Tumbleweed’s business and marketing manager Steve Weissmann said, “it’s actually about finding ways to fit our designs into existing codes.” With sales of just the floor plans increasing from only one or two a month to more than two or three each week, Weissman said by phone that “it is about creating an awareness in each city and area that small home floor plans are the wave of the future.”
There are examples of people living in small design living spaces such as a yurt for example. In fact the day Barry met with Shafer to visit his tiny home, on January 18, The Real Estate Guide for adjacent Mendocino and Humboldt counties featured a cover story on yurt dwellers.
Weissmann mentioned that yurts are great as a living space. But Tumbleweed specializes in an originally designed home. Yurts, shacks and sheds like 'Tuff Shed' are usually perceived as some thing special or extra, but not an actual real home. Tumbleweed is promoting an actual home design, designed from start to finish as a home, not something that is converted into a home.
Typically Shafer's designs are for little homes ranging from 65 sq. feet to 840 sq. feet. His home-floor plans use mostly organic and or recycled materials and can be either hooked up onto the power grid or not. Shafer sees the tiny home concept as viable and feasible for these changing times. "As society moves along into the future, we will need to build more economically affordable and environmentally sustainable homes," said Shafer.
Shafer talked to this reporter as Barry and he met for a tour of one of Tumbleweed's model homes in Sonoma County this past January. “The City’s Charter of San Francisco is immune to many things,” said Barry.
And from his experience with the SF Planning Dept. He would like to see San Francisco adopt more housing ideas like Tumbleweed Tiny Homes. Weissmann agreed as he said “we are doing what we can to find solutions to meet the planning codes,” he said. Weissman also noted that the designs that Tumbleweed makes (while striving to be safe, efficient and economical) has more to do with zoning rules. “Marin has different zoning rules than Sonoma and Sonoma has different rules than San Francisco,” said Weissman. “We are making designs that are larger but we still aim to be compact, Tumbleweed’s goal is keeping it simple,” he said.
Barry hopes Tumbleweed succeeds as he noted the affordable housing issue, is not going to go away anytime soon.” And, if blueprint plans are any indication, looks like Tumbleweed has found a niche in the market. “We used to draw up the plans and then build. But now we just sell the plans and do about 26 workshops per year,” said Weissman. Sales and interest in Tumbleweed really took off when Shafer and his house designs got some media attention back in 2000. Since then it has been steady, due to The Internet. There has been some infringements as both Shafer and Weissmann have had to deal with people stealing the plans via The Internet. Despite the intellectual properties and copyright issues, Weissmann is not worried, “our designs are completely original and they can’t compete with us,” he said.
For more details visit Tumbleweed Tiny Homes web site.