Mini Cabins and Building Permits

Zoning and building permits are both good ideas. They keep Vermont pretty so New Yorkers can enjoy it. They also help ensure public health and safety. Worthy objectives.

The problem is that most zoning codes can’t distinguish a nice little cabin for relaxing in the woods from a vinyl-sided shack inhabited by a band of misfits running a meth lab. But while the literal interpretation of codes can sometimes prevent you from doing nice things, it can also allow you to do what you want if you play by those literal rules. My solution was to read the zoning code very carefully and to find a building classification that literally matched what I was building. My local code defines an “accessory building” in a way that includes my little cabin, specifically “a shed that lacks utilities.” (Note that some building codes do not allow accessory buildings to be constructed on sites that do not include a residence. However, my code does.) So, I applied for a building permit for a “10′ x 16′ shed” and that permit was issued without any problems. (Never just ignore the permit issue. Your municipality can issue whopping fines…usually several hundred dollars per day…and you could potentially have a problem selling your property.)

When a nosy neighbor (who really had to go out of  her way to even find my project) objected that it didn’t look like any shed she had seen before, I invoked Websters:

Shed (Noun)

1.a slight or rude structure built for shelter, storage, etc.
2.a large, strongly built structure, often open at the sides or end.

Without taking offense at “slight” or “rude” I happily accepted the definition of a “structure built for shelter, storage, etc.” as befitting my project. My kids thus dubbed my cabin “Le Shed.” There are actually some very nice precedents of writing sheds and garden sheds.

A garden shed is displayed at the top of this post. Here is a  nice writing shed built by Michael Pollan and described in his book A Place of My Own.

A final note on building permits. You may not need one. In many municipalities no permit is required for an accessory building of less than 120 square feet (sometimes this is 100 square feet). At one point when navigating the building permit issue, I considered a pair of 100 square-foot structures, each on their own boulder, possibly with a bridge connecting them. In some ways I’m sorry I got my shed permit as that would have been a fun approach.

3 thoughts on “Mini Cabins and Building Permits

  1. AL

    I am really undrstanding zoning and pemits. The President wants to end homeless in 10 year. So All the big city Mayor get on the band wagon also. But we are trying to make a village like did in Portland, OR. but you go to the zoning department and they say there is not a code for you to do it. So now they make up on from bits and pieces. Bottom line now you have a $2600.00 bill before you hammer a nail into your project. It’s all about money to these City’s how much can we get out of people that do a good think for the City & State to help with homelessness. I dont want to end it I just want to build a small shack to get them off the ground and in a dry place. But it is a dollar game to the City & State but we don’t have the money to do it budget cuts, ect. excuses. Help me out if you have an awnser to my e-mail.


  2. Mike

    Yes, health and safety are and should be the number one consideration on anything especially places where people live and a plan approval and building permit can be used for that purpose. The other purpose is data to be entered into a data base for property tax purposes.


  3. Tony Galliart

    I agree with you. During the depression thousands of mini homes were built and they were a great help. I have land in Texas zoned so you can build a house on it without a permit. No water, sewer, power or phone. I am looking for plans to build a mini house and outhouse out of dimensional lumber. I want to do a 15 or 20′ X 25 or 30′ with a single pitch roof. Have not been able to find any advice or plans. Say a prayer for me. Take care. Tony



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