Olympia building code change relaxes rules on ‘tiny homes’

By Brandon Block

The Olympian

The Olympia City Council made changes to the city’s building code on Tuesday that will make it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and tiny homes.

The approved updates to the International Building Code relax requirements for houses that are 400 square feet or less, defined as “tiny homes.”

Under the new code, tiny homes must have a ceiling height of 6 feet 8 inches. Previously, the minimum ceiling height for all residential homes was 7 feet.

More specifically, the new updates will allow for lofted beds, which previously were unworkable under the ceiling height and egress rules. Several provisions related to fire safety also were altered to allow skylights with hinged windows to satisfy the egress, or exiting, requirements.

Also part of the new building code update is an ordinance that removes the fire sprinkler requirement for accessory dwelling units, if the primary house does not have them. That means that if your house was built before 2014 — the year Olympia began requiring fire sprinklers in all new residential construction — then neither your home nor your ADU would be required to have sprinklers.

“Tiny home” is not a well-defined term. It is often used to refer to any small, detached structure, anything from a backyard cottage to an elaborate recreational vehicle.

The term “tiny home” also is not defined in Olympia’s municipal zoning code (which concerns what types of buildings can be built where); they are treated the same as single-family homes.

Building codes, by contrast, govern the construction of buildings and are written though an entirely different process whereby municipalities choose which elements of the International Building Code they wish to adopt.