Compost Toilets and a Theory of Social Change

Dear friends,

As this project progresses and becomes steadily more ambitious, I am faced with somewhat of a philosophical dilemma: Do I compromise my principles and sacrifice most of my current resources, for potential long-term social benefits? Or do I stick it to the man and do what I want, quicker and cheaper, for the good of my own sanity?

Ok, ok. I’ll rewind. (Get nice and settled, this one’s a doozy). It’s been a busy month  searching for parking spots, contacting city reps, and reading up on my building codes. But first and foremost: the frame is done!

tiny house 1photo 1-5photo 3-3

Isn’t it a beauty? I bought some deadbolts for the doors, so whenever I turn the key and step into my very own home, I am filled with equal parts exhilaration, audacity, and sheer terror. I now own a very, very large object… It’s a strange feeling.

So building hasn’t been much of an issue — mainly because I haven’t been involved. The bigger issue is the context in which this home is being built. In other words, where can I park it? For how long? How will it affect the community? Who will insure it? HOW will it be insured? Will I be fined (or worse, expelled)? How can I use this project to push the tiny house movement forward in Canada? Is this even the right way to go about it? WHAT AM I DOING?

At some point in the last few months, this project became bigger than my own tiny house. I suddenly wanted to do it properly (in other words, legally). As I investigated the current legal status of tiny houses in Vancouver, talking with builders, home-owners and advocates around the city, I heard stories of people having to destroy their tiny houses for a lack of parking, or having to move out of the city and find a remote piece of property where no one could find them. It was outrageous to me that people could invest so much to build their home, and not have it acknowledged as such — having to hide seems counter to systemic change. So I figured that if I was going to go through with this,  I may as well try to progress the movement and work towards building the first legal tiny house in the Vancouver area*.

[*I should be clear that there ARE some legal tiny homes in specific contexts: there is already a tiny house that’s legally parked in an RV park on the north shore, and Squamish is doing great things too. I’m specifically talking backyard tiny houses in and around Vancouver, where space is at a premium.]

Ambitious? Yes. But the City of North Vancouver is actually right on board with the idea, and the timing is impeccable. Last summer, North Van held a demonstration of tiny houses at the Shipyards Night Market to encourage residents to build small coach houses as one solution to increasing the accessibility and affordability of housing in this city.

Tiny house showcase at the Friday night Shipyards Market — this one was built by Ben from WestCoast Outbuildings! Pretty sure it’s still for sale…

Unlike the City of Vancouver, North Vancouver does not have a minimum size for coach houses, and I have been talking with a forward-thinking city planner who is keen to help me get my tiny house approved by council and parked in a residential backyard somewhere in the city. Thus, my tiny house could be a pilot project — through a Temporary Use Permit, I could park my house for 3 years in North Van and test it out. The neighbourhood could get a taste, the city could refer to it as a template for others, the landowner could get a supplementary form of income, and I would find a semi-secure piece of land to call my own. Win-win-win, right?

But then the bureaucracy. Because this has never been done before, the city is keen to stick to as many existing coach house standards as possible, such as:

-The owner must reside on the lot (goodbye, potential spot I had in mind)

-The lot must be a minimum of 3,900 square feet with a min. frontage width of 33 feet

-The tiny house must meet aesthetic standards and match certain features of the main house… (tricky, considering its mobile).

Big & little

But the biggest issue is the building code — Does a tiny house classify as an RV or as a coach house? An RV is easier to get approval for because it bypasses certain building permits/inspections, but it requires CSA certification. This means it needs to be specially built by a CSA certified builder.

Fortunately, WestCoast Outbuildings is a CSA certified builder for RVs. Unfortunately, this process is very expensive. To date, I’ve spent over $30,000 (and countless hours) on this project. WCO estimates it’s going to cost me another $40,000 to finish it to CSA certification standards. This is due to a number of legitimate expenses (tiny houses lack any economy of scale), but still… I could buy a fairly sizeable piece of land for $70,000 on one of the gulf islands. Additionally, the city recommends that in order to be approved by council, I’ll need to lose a few of the key features that I was really attached to for my tiny house. The compost toilet, for instance… they asked me to stick to the sewer system, since it’s cheaper and easier (and apparently safer, though I won’t go there now). So the idea of this beautiful compost toilet that I was planning to install is now — for lack of a better pun — flushed down the drain. Ultimately, the city asked me to make my tiny house “as normal as possible” — which I understand, but instinctively reject. One major point of this whole project was to use fewer resources and live a more closed-loop lifestyle.

My less-than-legal alternative is this: I could take the frame as is and finish building in a secret location, live off the radar and hope the neighbours don’t complain. I could probably build it for half the price (not CSA certified, mind you) and could include all the features I wanted. But then… what am I contributing, really? What’s more sustainable? A compost toilet or eventual policy change? And even if policy did change, what kind of solution is a tiny house? The root cause of Vancouver’s housing crisis is so much deeper than the size of the dwelling…

Anyways. Hence the dilemma.

My friend Johnnie sent me this video the other day, of Roberto Unger explaining free classical social theory. It’s a bit dense… but this line stuck out at me:

“change can be structural and nevertheless piecemeal, fragmentary, gradual and experimental. We should not associate radical change with wholesale change, and gradual change with inconsequential change”

It soothed my restless heart. While I definitely hold a more radical vision of social transformation than this tiny house can offer, perhaps these seemingly small, incremental actions will contribute to something bigger. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction, a trigger for deeper reflection of what we think we “need”. I think I’ll imagine it as part of the first stage of a non-violent revolution: Cultural preparation. Alternative living 101.

So anyways, I’m doing it. I’m going to build a tiny house and do it legally. I’m going to pave the way so that others can do the same. It’s going to be expensive, and time consuming, and probably really frustrating at times (over the last 2 days I’ve experienced particularly pronounced anxiety), but I am alive and I may as well try.


Ever grateful for your support,



PS. If this movement and project resonates with you, I urge you to keep following these posts and check out the next phase: A crowdfunding campaign to help me pay for CSA certification and tiny house advocacy in North Vancouver 🙂 Coming soon…




4 Comments Add yours

  1. sean kearney says:

    Sam, I wholeheartedly support (and have mad respect for) your approach! I think in this case, going the legal route IS the radical approach. Don’t underestimate (and I don’t think you do) the power of continuing to just get people talking and thinking about these ideas, especially people who may have never thought about this before. I imagine that onerous permits and seemingly-absurd bureaucracies really did come from people trying to do the right thing to protect the environment and the vulnerable. But if the only people willing to slog through the process and thereby tweak it here and there are developers of fancy condos and urban mansions, well, we just get more of the same. Or worse.

    That said, if you want to put in a sneaky composting toilet after you’ve hooked up to the sewer and got yer permit, call me up and I’ll come help!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. samgambling says:

      Thanks you Sean, I so appreciate your words! And yes of course, I will keep you in the loop re: compost toilet 😉


  2. johnniemanson says:

    Well, unlike Sean I can only offer pie in the sky musings and the occasional video clip here and there. Oh, and encouragement!


  3. Madeline says:

    Go Sam!


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