In the months since Coconino County approved rules for tiny homes, Amanda Acheson, the county’s sustainable building program manager, has been contacted by “at least a couple people a day” who are interested in building or living in a tiny home.
“A lot of the people I talk to are teachers, I have worked with nurses, retirees, students and anyone who wants to live more simply,” Acheson said. “These can be transitional homes, either for young people trying to transition into the housing market or people who are retiring and want to downsize.”
The growing interest in tiny homes, which are generally defined as a dwelling unit smaller than 400 square feet, has also created new business opportunities for those interested in building them.
Wyatt Brown, a managing member of Flagstaff-based Density Investments, is working on a planned community of about 30 tiny homes to be built near Kachina Village. He projects the soonest he could break ground on the project would be in about a year and a half.
The development will be created through a method called “component building” meaning pieces of the homes will be constructed at a different location and the final structure will be built on site.
“A tiny home, even site-built, is very easy to move,” he said.
Brown has been involved in tiny homes for about 15 years, he said, and his company focuses on urban infill projects and green building.
“I want to build tiny homes in Flagstaff just because it’s cool,” Brown said. “I think these would sell. They’re cute and they’re fun to live in for certain people.”
Ehren Michaelis, the owner of Elevation Tiny Homes, has been involved in construction for decades and had been wanting to start building tiny houses for years before he launched his business about a month ago.
“With my construction background, I like to focus on every aspect of the build,” Michaelis said. “With bigger houses, you don’t really get to focus on each piece, but with a tiny home, you really have to be innovative and clever with what you need versus what you want. It’s a unique design challenge.”
Tiny homes can appeal to “almost anybody,” Michaelis said, because they can be tailored to a person’s lifestyle.
“People are starting to see that maybe the $2,000 per month, or more, mortgage isn’t worth it,” he said. “A house as a status symbol is changing.”
Now, Michaelis is working on building a custom tiny home for a woman who is moving to Los Angeles. The home is being built to function completely off the grid and be mobile. He is using a trailer built by Iron Eagle specifically for tiny homes.
Coconino County is one of the first jurisdictions nationwide to set up regulations specifically designed for tiny houses, which has been attractive for people looking to relocate in their tiny homes.
“A lot of the folks we are working with are coming to Coconino County and they are grateful we have a process,” she said.
The homes can be built on a trailer base with wheels or on a solid foundation, but both options can come with different sets of regulations.
Prior to the permitting process, living in a tiny home could be illegal, because many did not meet building code for basic safety standards. Often, people were living in an unpermitted building because the safety standards and process did not exist.
“The goal with this was to make it so people did not have to live in fear,” Acheson said. “We want people to know there is a process for living in these newer, accessible homes.”
If a person comes to the county and has been living in an unpermitted tiny house, Acheson said officials from the department will do a special inspection of the home and see where it meets code and where it falls short.
The newly adopted standards include allowing rooms as small as 65 square feet, a ceiling height as low as 6 feet four inches in all livable areas, ladders may replace stairways into loft areas. One bathroom and kitchen are still required.
Some of the common issues are ingress and egress, meaning there must be entrance and exit opportunities in case of emergency, and placement of hazards like wood stoves and electrical boxes.
One home Acheson said was inspected had a wood-burning stove placed directly in front of the electrical service box, which created a fire hazard. The owner then worked with the county to bring the home up to code.
Keeping a home, even a tiny one, up to the life safety code is crucial not only for the occupants but also for the community, because a fire in an off-grid home in the woods could create a devastating forest fire, Acheson said.
Brown said “people who skip around the code are endangering public safety” by living in unpermitted tiny homes.
The city of Flagstaff does not have specific guidelines for tiny homes.
“We have always allowed the construction of small dwelling units,” city Zoning Code Manager Brian Kulina said in an email. “The problem is that when most people think of ‘tiny homes,’ they think of small structures that are constructed on wheels similar to what is shown on all the TV shows. The city considers those RVs or travel trailers, which are only permitted in RV parks or commercial campgrounds.”
The county also requires tiny houses that are permanently on wheels to be placed in an area zoned to allow manufactured and mobile homes. Homes that are built on trailers but can have the suspension and axle components removed can go on any parcel zoned for a single family detached unit in the county.
Increased interest and acceptance of tiny homes can promote diversity in housing choices, Acheson said, because the units do not require mortgage payments and can be made in a variety of price ranges. However, she said, the trend is so new that there is not enough data available to determine the real economic impact of the tiny house market.
Mobile homes or manufactured homes do not typically appreciate in value, she said, so it will take some time to accumulate data to see if the trend is the same for tiny homes.
“We need more housing, and we need more diversity of housing, and tiny homes can provide that,” she said.
Brown said there are fixed costs for anyone building a home, tiny or not, like utility hookups, which can make the price per square foot of a tiny home higher than that of a traditional home.
“Tiny homes cost less overall, but the bang for the buck is not even close to a high density multifamily apartment,” he said.
Cities should be more creative with ideas when permitting tiny homes, Michaelis said.
Rules that require a tiny home to be hooked onto a city sewer system may be outdated with technology like composting toilets and graywater recycling, he said.
“Cities have to be open to new technology,” he said.
Tiny homes generally cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to create a custom dwelling, Michaelis said, which should comfort some cities about changing zoning to allow them.
“Cities are concerned that it’s a trailer, or will turn into a trailer park, but if someone spends that much money, they don’t want it to look trashy,” he said.
Scientists haven’t found any evidence that suggests the city of Flagstaff’s use of reclaimed wastewater puts human health at undue risk.
That was the conclusion reaffirmed earlier this month by a panel of experts tasked with evaluating the city’s use of treated effluent at places like golf courses, city parks and the slopes of Arizona Snowbowl.
The city can produce up to 10 million gallons a day of A+ wastewater that officials contend is 99.9 percent pure, although it is not rated safe to drink. It's that last 0.1 percent that officials not just in Flagstaff but across the country are interested in learning more about.
The group of water and genetics experts, university researchers and medical professionals was first organized five years ago at the request of a former city manager in the face of mounting local concern over the potential human health effects of reclaimed wastewater use.
The group reconvened Nov. 3 to review a final report on the city’s reclaimed wastewater testing as well as results of panel members’ own research on antibiotic-resistant genes and bacteria in Flagstaff’s water system. In short, the city’s own testing and the scientists’ research found evidence of certain unregulated substances, collectively classified as compounds of emerging concern, in Flagstaff’s drinking water and reclaimed wastewater.
But based on concentrations and types of substances detected, the panel didn’t see cause for concern about those findings.
At the end of their meeting, the members reaffirmed their conclusion that no data at the present time suggests that reclaimed wastewater use in Flagstaff is dangerous to human health.
“I don’t see any reason to stop using reclaimed wastewater, there was nothing alarming about it,” said Amy Pruden, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University and one of the panel members.
The work showed that the city is “comparable or better” than other places in its use of reclaimed wastewater, Pruden said.
Other tests of the bacteria present in Flagstaff’s reclaimed wastewater didn’t raise any red flags either, said Jean McLain, the associate director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center and another panel member.
“The recycled water in Flagstaff, from the standpoint of living bacteria, was as clean or more clean than the other municipal systems tested,” McLain wrote in a follow up email.
When it first met in 2013, the panel decided to focus on compounds of emerging concern, or CECs. The group of substances includes pharmaceuticals, personal care products and endocrine disruptors. They are not regulated by the federal government, though they may have the potential to cause adverse health or ecological impacts.
Upon the recommendation of the panel, Flagstaff’s Water Services department committed to testing its potable and reclaimed wastewater for CECs. Between 2010 and 2015, city staff sampled a total of 20 locations in its reclaimed and potable water systems. Each water source was sampled one to three times and was analyzed for up to 95 CECs, including four substances that were specifically recommended by the advisory panel.
The results showed the presence of CECs in both potable water and reclaimed wastewater flowing through the city’s system. The amounts detected, however, were described by the city as “trace concentrations” similar to those found in sampling efforts dating back to 2002.
The number of compounds detected and their concentrations were, in general, much higher in the reclaimed wastewater, with 64 different CECs detected in the reclaimed wastewater samples versus 22 CECs detected in the potable water samples.
In its review of the results, the advisory panel did not recommend that the city to conduct further sampling, and the city indicated it wouldn’t continue sampling for CECs unless that recommendation changes in the future.
In addition to its own water testing, the city contributed samples of its water to three research projects that zeroed in on antibiotic-resistant genes. The genes are classified as CECs and present a threat to human health because they can confer pathogens with the ability to resist antibiotics, making them extremely difficult for doctors to treat.
The research projects analyzed water samples from Flagstaff and three other utilities for the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes and then assessed whether those genes were associated with bacteria that actually had the potential to grow and survive treatment by antibiotics.
A Virginia Tech research team did find antibiotic-resistant genetic material in both potable and reclaimed wastewater in Flagstaff. Their tests found both types of water contained genes that confer resistance to four antibiotics classified as highly and critically important, though the gene counts were either equivalent or higher in reclaimed wastewater, said Pruden, who led the study.
Flagstaff’s TGen North also analyzed the city’s water, but found no indication of bacterial species of concern nor antibiotic-resistant genes in drinking water, which is a different finding than Pruden’s study. The TGen testing did detect the resistance genes in certain bacteria that were living in Flagstaff’s wastewater.
The takehome message from both research groups, however, is that the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes doesn't mean Flagstaff’s drinking water or reclaimed wastewater is crawling with dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The material detected could be inside dead bacteria or bacteria that aren’t pathogenic or could be free-floating DNA not associated with any organism, said Jolene Bowers, a research assistant professor at TGen, which is a nonprofit genomic research institute.
Resistance to antibacterials also isn’t necessarily a product of superbugs developing in hospitals and then spreading throughout the water system. Bacteria also acquire resistance via the environment as they interact with and fight off chemicals produced by other bacteria, said Dave Engelthaler, director of TGen North.
A different research team from the University of Arizona sought to answer the question left hanging by the other DNA analysis tests--are the antibiotic-resistant genes associated with any bacteria that have the potential to grow, multiply and survive through a dose of antibiotics?
Those are the ones that present the true risk, said McLain, who led that project.
The researchers focused on two bacteria, E. coli and Enterococcus, which are of interest to scientists because they can cause serious infections and have multiple drug-resistant strains.
The study had two positive findings for Flagstaff’s water and the effectiveness of its treatment processes: there was no evidence of either type of bacteria in the city’s drinking water samples and no viable E. coli bacteria in Flagstaff’s reclaimed wastewater.
Researchers did find five Enterococcus bacteria in the reclaimed wastewater, each of which was resistant to at least one of the antibiotics tested.
But McLain echoed Engelthaler in pointing out that Enterococci are found naturally in soil and water, and antibiotic resistance is also a natural phenomenon.
“There was nothing found in our research that suggested that recycled water is spreading living bacteria in Flagstaff,” she wrote in a follow up email.
While the panelists cleared Flagstaff for continued use of reclaimed wastewater, several said lots of work remains to be done to understand the impacts of CECs on human health. Scientists are still trying to figure out which antibiotic-resistant genes may pose a risk to human health, in what concentrations and via which pathways, Pruden said.
“Right now we have no idea,” she said.
The same thing goes for CECs in general, said Robin Silver, who is a practicing physician and a member on the panel. There isn’t any hard science that says exposure to a certain amount of a specific compound is unsafe, said Silver, who is also the cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity.
While CEC concentrations in Flagstaff’s water are pretty low in terms of what has been established for human disease, the physicians in the group feel that it doesn’t take much of something like an endocrine disrupter to cause an effect, Silver said.
Several panelists lauded the city of Flagstaff for creating the water advisory panel, conducting its own extensive water testing beyond what current regulations require and supporting research about bacteria and genes in its water.
“Flagstaff has really been thrown into the spotlight as a real leader in doing this research,” Pruden said. “I’m not aware of any other city that has publicly done this kind of research at this scale and we learned a lot.”