Lessons in planning approved tiny housing

It’s possible to get a ‘tiny house’ planning approved in SA, as long as you don’t call it a house. But it might still remain a fringe option.

We are seeking approval for our tiny as ‘dependent accommodation’ in the Norwood Payneham & St Peters’ (NPSP) council area, i.e. as a granny flat that is attached to a main dwelling.

There are a few of other options that could be whole articles of their own… the tiny house village might be possible, but sure as hell won’t be easy, especially not near the city. A tiny house on its own block is possible too, but probably isn’t viable in urban areas either. So I think the tiny house ‘granny flat’ holds most hope for bringing tiny houses in from the fringe.

Note that for the time being I am only talking about planning approval (zoning and the like), not building code compliance (structure, fire, how it all goes together).  The building code shouldn’t stop us, but it’s far too massive a beast to comment yet.

We also haven’t asked after the status of tiny houses on wheels, since ours won’t have any; though I can confirm there is no distinct treatment for manufactured / transportable housing in the SA planning system.

We still have a few hoops of uncertainty to jump through, but it looks like our project should go ahead smoothly (touch wood).

In a sense that’s a great sign for others who want to legally live in a tiny house. Especially given we aren’t trying to work out how to dodge around the system (like most tiny houses do), but instead we are working out how to get our future home approved as legitimately as possible.

But hold your applause… the progress so far is not without qualifications.

Fortunate Circumstance
We have a lot of good quality help, from planners, builders, architects and council staff – the sorts of help most people can’t depend on (not without thick wallets). Council’s planning staff have been fabulous, helping to clarify how the approvals process works, and what the critical factors are for us to address (and the remaining uncertainties). It would be very easy for staff to have sniffed a grey area and to have decided they were going to find every way they could say no, instead of how we could work out a solution that was going to work.

We’re also lucky that NPSP has fairly amenable planning regulations around dependent accommodation. My reading of the situation is that people around here just aren’t building granny flats – especially not to rent out.  Most (wealthy) land owners are building massive studios or sheds out the back (or just rebuilding their whole home to suit); the sorts of backyard building that neighbours never complain about… so Council’s never had much call to police them.

These advantage aren’t entirely unique, but they’re not exactly reassuring for other builders out there… if you luck out with your local planners, no matter how much you try to work constructively, it’s quite possible you’ll remain totally stuffed.  That’s the catch with grey areas in the rules!

There are also a few things to share back about the planning system that can be applied across the state, and give a sense of the viability of tiny houses going mainstream.

The Outbuilding Option
The first is that anywhere in SA, it is possible to build a 40 square metre ‘outbuilding’ without even seeking council approval. (Dev’t Regs Part 1, 5AA and Sched 1A, 3(1))  The main catches with this for tiny houses are that these don’t apply to buildings where human activity is their primary purpose, and even if you want to be shifty regards purpose, there are height limits that may not work (3m external wall height). Sheds, carports and storage areas are fine. A ‘tiny house’ which you live in is not.  A studio might fit (a place you hang out but where you don’t permanently sleep)?  But that could be pushing it.

(I have also heard about a 15 square metre rule, which may apply to studios or dependent accomodation, but I couldn’t find it in the regs.  ? Someone please enlighten me if you know more.)

So the ‘outbuilding’ route might work for some, but it’s still pretty fringe.

The Uncertain Dangers of Dependency
Secondly, getting somewhere you’re going to live approved as ‘dependent accommodation’, like we are, is always going to be a tenuous grey area. It may matter less what is in a council’s development plan than it does how assessors (or the courts) interpret the undefined concept of ‘dependent’.

I was initially very optimistic, based on readings of a number of council’s Development Plans (where all the local zoning and planning rules are kept), that it would be easy to get a granny-flat-tiny approved in quite a number of councils… and just as reassuringly, that it’s pretty easy to review a development plan to find the rules and work out which ones.

That got a bit more complicated when I started calling up council planning officers asking about tiny affordable housing options (mistake #1 – don’t call it a house!), who promptly told me that it’s not possible to rent out a granny flat – or some other seemingly arbitrary condition for ‘dependency’ which wasn’t referenced in their development plan.

It wasn’t until sitting down with Matt from NPSP that I appreciated why. Recent cases have established that definitions in councils’ development plans don’t actually carry that much weight. Rulings always favour what is in state regulations… or sometimes even a common dictionary definition!

So when a council’s development plan says dependent accommodation is detached accommodation which is “connected to the services of the primary dwelling”, you can probably just treat this as an advisory comment. Don’t think you can connect up to the sewer and electricity and think you’re sweet.

Whether fortunately or not, there isn’t an alternative definition of ‘dependent’ to refer to in the state regulations. What there is is a definition of “dwelling”: ‘ a building or part of a building used as a self-contained residence’ (Dev’t Regs 2008 Sched 1)

For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter much whether you fit council rules for ‘dependent accommodation’; if you are viewed as being ‘self contained’ then kiss your dependent accommodation / granny flat status goodbye.

Seeking approval for a dwelling is a whole different kettle of fish to building a granny flat. In the zone we are building in it would be prohibitively difficult, and in other areas you might be forced to subdivide the property… and either way, you trip the need to meet all of the planning requirements for an independent dwelling (and likely building code implications as well), with bigger setbacks, driveways, private open space, storage, laundry… you name it. I guess you could do it, but you don’t want to – you won’t be building tiny affordable housing any more, you’re subdividing and redeveloping. You could maybe do it on a cheap rural block of land, but I couldn’t see anyone doing it as an inner-suburban backyard option.

Everything hinges on the fuzzy interpretation of whether your proposal is ‘dependent’ or ‘self-contained’.

We have a constructive relationship with council, and some project specific things going our way (e.g. a prior relationship with the other tenants with whom we will be effectively sharehousing in an external bedroom; it looks like a dependent relationship). We’re optimistic of a positive assessment.

So as long as we get through the next few hurdles, I guess we’ll show that development approval is possible.

But does it really establish what we want?

We want to establish a precedent for a viable, repeatable (tiny & environmentally responsible) affordable housing option. I don’t think we’re there.

We are actually a unique and possibly unreplicable story, which is a ‘tiny house’ in form; while we try not to mention ‘house’ to any of the wrong people for fear it will push us further into the grey zone.

If anything, I’d say we’ve learned that state planning regulations define and deal with ‘dwellings’ in a way that will force tiny houses to remain a fringe option, whether we’re successful or not. Our positive progress comes with more than a tinge of sadness too.

3 thoughts on “Lessons in planning approved tiny housing”

  1. Hi John, good post and I concur with your observations re dependent/independent of ‘habitable’ dwellings. On the plus,a colleague from work – Jim – is going in a personal capacity to the March 16th seminar so we’ll share insights on the current/future planning systems. A paper is still needed or an on-line SA tiny house wikipedia page we can add to?

  2. The 15 sq m rule is in Schedule 1 of the Development Act. Recently there was a bill to replace this Act, see Hansard on SA Parl website. Not sure if Act repealed, if it was not sure if new Act in operation. Think the outbuilding exemption was being deleted, would think something in new regulations to exempt things like chicken coops and dog houses but only guessing. .. Act was amended, think Schedule. If on wheels will need to be registered as a caravan to move it, see TransportSA website for information, eg road safety glass in windows and force on contents and fittings. Just the same it looks like the most practical way to work through the planning and building nightmares.

    1. Hello Ann, I would like to point out that even though a tiny house is on wheels you do not have to register it as a caravan to move it on public roads. Just use a tilt tray truck. A truck and driver is not expensive to hire and this method of movement does away with the cost of road lights and a trailer braking system fixed to the tiny house. Hope this will help fellow tiny houser’s.

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