Allowable Size to Meet Building Codes

From time to time we answer reader’s questions. Building codes, and where to live where there are Few or No Building Codes so as to reduce construction costs, is our #1 most popular topic.

Q: I’m thinking about building a 120 sq. ft. structure as a home to get around the building codes. In my area, sheds of this size don’t need building permits. What are your thoughts?

A: I am not at my desk at the moment so not able to view the code, but I’ll take a stab. To get it permitted as a residence under the IBC or IRC you need to have basic services such as water, power, waste disposal, etc. Without these things there is no building dept that will issue a permit for this as a residence. This specific provision is to allow non-occupied structures to be built that are very small. Obviously the intent of the provision is to make it easy for folks to build a shed or unoccupied structure. You guys are not the first to have this discussion. Also, it would make little sense to hook up to utilities or put in a septic for something so small. The minimum costs of those services would lead you to a different conclusion.

Once you add services, it will require a permit. That is my opinion, not what I am reading in the code. Again, there is no building dept that will let you slide without a permit if services are intended to be hooked up.

It is easy to do it under the radar and covert it once anyone who cares is looking the other way. Some places require you to file for a permit for something like this, they just won’t do any inspections. Boulder would strike me as one such place, or most places in the Bay Area, etc. It would fall under planning ordinances even though a building permit would not be required. Does that make sense? They would still want to know about it even though they would not inspect it.

As far as the word “accessory” goes, it applies to any zoned property that allows such, no matter if another primary structure is in existence or not. The word “accessory” is not exclusive of any use, such as living or non-living uses. It is simply an accessory use to what is intended to be the primary use. For example, if a property is zoned residential, sure you can build a shed as an accessory structure without a house there first. However, many zoning/planning dept will not let you build a granny unit as the only structure, acting like it is the primary structure and use. They would require a development plan showing your total build-out ideas. The question here is about uses, not about whether you can put up ten 120 sf sheds and call them all residential. If you are working in a place where there is a weak planning dept you will have an easier time getting away with stuff folks in cities are unable to do. You can’t offer anything like this as a solution that would work anywhere due to a supposed hole in the code. It is not a building code issue as much as it is a zoning and planning ordinance issue. Not everyone can do this, and to lead them to believe otherwise would not be honest.

BTW, check out my blog at It is self-explanatory. Things have changed in my world.
Jeff Ruppert PE
(Jeff is one of the most influential people in the strawbale building movement. He moved to Afghanistan about two years ago to help rebuild the country, and his blog is really interesting.)

3 thoughts on “Allowable Size to Meet Building Codes”

  1. We have moved off the grid on 5 acres. Our plan is to build small structures, each to act as it’s own room (bedroom, bathroom, etc…), to get around building codes. HOWEVER, we had a septic tank installed and have our RV permitted as a residence. This way, we can always say we are living in the RV, if the question were to ever come up.

    Spending the money on a septic tank can save you a LOT of headaches in the future.

  2. Many areas really don’t enforce regulations on portable sheds. If one looks thru the classifieds or Craigslist you will often find prebuilt portable sheds of many sizes and styles. They are offered even in areas where sheds over a certain sq footage should require a permit. Obviously they are selling and placing sheds without permits. I have spoken with a couple of people who build sheds and it seems their businesses have picked up. They both told me part of the jump in sales was that people were buying them as a house replacement. Of course the owners have to install insulation and finish the interior. Of course this is all dependent on location. On a small residential lot one would most likely run into problems. But a large parcel out in the country, one wouldn’t.even be noticed. Another aspect is what the shed looks like. If it resembles an old shanty or coop, authorities most likely will look at it as an eyesore, especially if it is new to the area. If it was a prebuilt unit out of T111 and looks at least semi professionally built, they may not give it a passing glance. Also paint it and keep it looking presentable.

    As for utilities, most likely one would need solar, propane and a composting toilet. A greywater system would also be necessary. So long as a person is respectful of their neighbors and receive no complaints you possibly could live in a shed for years.

    Another low cost situation is the use of tensioned fabric ag buildings. These can be purchased inexpensively and set up in a short time. Because they are supposedly temporary and have little structural weight, permits are often not necessary. If a large enough one was obtained, a shed or small building could be set up within the structure. Out of sight of prying eyes, this solution would not only provide housing, but an ample supply of covered storage. in rural areas it is not uncommon for tensioned fabric buildings to have electrical and propane service. Both are needed for many farm related activities.

    • That’s right. You can get away with a lot of things if you’re in a rural area. That’s why we repeatedly suggest moving away from cities and going to areas in the country with few or no codes.

      I think I mentioned it on the blog post about Few or No Building Codes, but it really helps to have other structures on the land to act as ‘cover’ so your little shed or whatever doesn’t stand out. If there’s an old farm house, old trailer, etc. — even if they’re not livable — would make your shed less conspicuous, especially if it’s out back and out of sight. Most farmers have lots of outbuildings and so most people would never notice your shed or think somebody is living inside.


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