Earlier this year I got to know a woman who was in the process of building a tiny off-grid shop she’s calling the Locastore. See here. Back in May she was working with local authorities to meet all the necessary regulations and code compliance parameters in order to make the building legal. A couple of days ago I returned and was very excited to see the Locastore open and looking great. She’s always been motivated to get everything to code and properly certified because this is meant to be a replicable prototype for other shops that she intends to franchise as an alternative to national chain convenience stores. She plans to offer fresh seasonal produce, honey, baked goods, boxed lunches, healthy snacks, natural cleaning products, garments, potted plants, and other items all sourced within the county and produced by local people – many of which are taking advantage of the new California Cottage Food law here. Like any business she’ll see what sells and adjust over time based on supply and demand.
She intentionally created an 8′ x 12′ shop that doesn’t need electricity, running water, or a permanent foundation. The basic building itself only cost $12,000 and she served as her own general contractor. The fact that these fancy sheds are easily moved and don’t require utility connections means they can be set up on marginal rented land at low-cost without a lot of up-front money. The Locastore is intended to be so simple to build and operate that the bar to entry for would-be entrepreneurs is reduced to the point where many more people could move forward without bank loans and the sort of debt that dooms many potential shopkeepers before they even start. While her vision is for a convenience/grocery store, I think this building type and business model would work just as well for a variety of other businesses. Underused suburban parking lots, vacant lots in city neighborhoods, and rural roadsides would all work with this kind of building. In fact, most of our grandparents would recognize this concept from their childhoods when it was common for people to sell pies and produce from simple stands like these. It’s only lately that every shop has been a fluorescent flood lit million dollar corporate chain store with seventeen acres of parking out front.
She’s bright-eyed and relentlessly optimistic about her project and the Locastore reflects her attention to detail and high quality. She grows much of the fresh produce in her own massive garden. Other greens are from nearby small farms. I was excited to buy one of her impressive beets and made a fabulous borscht with it that night. The beet greens were incorporated into a green salad. Delicious.
So here are a few of the regulatory difficulties that she faced and ultimately overcame – at no small personal expense. After she was given initial permission to build the structure with all sorts of government-induced modifications the price was driven up an additional $85,000. This necessitated a loan from the Small Business Administration. But then there was an additional round of code compliance imperatives that started to kick in as construction proceeded which boosted the cost and complexity of the project even further. I’ll run through just a few of the particulars.
The original plan was to have a corrugated metal roof facing south to keep the summer heat off with large segments of a similar corrugated translucent material facing north to flood the interior of the shop with natural light. The building code for retail establishments requires a minimum amount of foot-candles/lumens of light in order to be legal to conduct business. The clear roof would have easily accomplished that goal at a very reasonable price point. However, another part of the building code required a roof that had other qualities so an asphalt shingled roof was installed instead. Now the interior was too dark so skylights had to be installed. Because of the California energy efficiency code the skylights had to be double glazed and filled with an inert gas to meet the performance minimum. Keep in mind, this is a building that has no power, no furnace, and no air conditioner in a part of coastal California where the temperature never rises or falls much beyond a comfortable range throughout the year. The skylights also needed to be made with safety glass due to the earthquake safety standard. They cost $1,000 each and she installed four of them with the expectation that they, plus all the ordinary windows in the walls, would do the trick. By the time she was done with all the moving target construction conformity dictates of multiple agencies over nearly a full year it was mid-December and the inspector with the light meter was scheduled to arrive on one of the shortest most overcast days of the year to determine compliance. Big fun.
The Americans With Disabilities Act has transformed the built environment in a way that has radically improved the quality of life for many people and I’m all for it. Sooner or later nearly all of us will find ourselves in a less mobile situation and I’m glad the needs of the elderly, blind, et cetera are being addressed in public accommodations. But the way the ADA is often administered is sometimes troublesome. The Locastore was originally meant to sit very low to the ground so that physical access by wheelchair could have been provided with something approximating a curb cut or tiny ramp a few inches high. But the county authorities insisted that the 8′ x 12′ building be jacked up and fitted with an elaborate foundation that elevated the structure just high enough that ADA mandates kicked in. After thoroughly researching her options she realized that purchasing a $6,000 prefabricated access ramp was the best way to go – not because it was cheaper than building something herself, but because code compliance would be ensured with an off-the-shelf federally pre-approved product. Her decision was motivated entirely by the uncertainly of what the county inspector would do in a cover-your-ass bureaucratic system. The ADA ramp is physically larger than the Locastore itself in terms of square feet.
Next in the ADA line up was the reserved handicap accessible parking spot with a smooth concrete pad and obstacle-free walkway leading to the federally approved ramp. The concrete was poured at some expense on land that she rents, so this is a sunk cost that she won’t be able to take with her. It’s a simple cost of doing business. Fair enough. But here’s where I scratch my head…
This is the context in which all the handicapped provisions are being enforced – the intersection of a state highway and a county road with no sidewalks where you need to stand in a mud puddle to push the “walk” button on the traffic signal and then sprint across the high-speed lanes to safety on the other side of the road. The assumption up and down the regulatory command structure is that everyone, including the frail, elderly, blind, deaf, and wheelchair-bound all have a car to arrive at the ADA compliant parking spot in the first place. This is in spite of the fact that all of the above are the least able people in society to afford and/or operate a private vehicle. And what about all the able-bodied folks in the county? Children, bicyclists, healthy active seniors, and plain old regular folks who either can’t or don’t drive? There are no public pedestrian accommodations for them at all in this (and most) locations. I suppose if you pressed officials at the Department of Transportation and asked why there aren’t ADA compliant sidewalks and curb cuts up and down all these roads they’d say something along the lines of “value engineering calculations” and “cost effectiveness considerations with scarce public funds”. In the end everyone needs to risk their lives on the road in order to get to the gold-plated wheelchair ramp with grab bars and textured anti-slip surface.
I’m just sayin’.