Austin's McMansion Ordinance: Questions & Answers
The Residential Design Ordinance of 2006 (revised 2008) controls certain aspects of the design and construction of homes in Austin’s central neighborhoods. In this discussion, I would like to ask our panel two basic questions:
What does the design ordinance say? And, how does it work out in practice?
David Cancialosi - Permitting and land development consultant; former city of Austin residential reviewer; member of City staff during implementation of McMansion Ordinance.
Doug Marsh – Former president of Austin Remodelers Association (NARI); member of the original McMansion Ordinance task force; master builder.
What does the Design Ordinance say about house size? How did it change the existing size requirements?
David: Good question. The main objective of the McM Ordinance was to limit overall structure size on a residential lot. Prior to the Ordinance, a structure's overall size was limited by the 45% impervious cover rule. This determined how large a footprint a house could have when combined with driveways, decks and other non-permeable surfaces.
Roselind: So prior to McM, the concern was impervious cover. One could juggle some things – maybe have a short driveway, or no deck, and have more indoor space. Or, have a two story, instead of one story house.
David: The McM Ordinance introduced FAR – floor to area ratio - to residential permits - at a factor of 40%. This means that for every square foot of land, an owner can build 0.4 square feet of gross floor area - GFA. For example, if the lot is 6,500 sq. ft., the maximum gross floor area would be about 2600 sq ft.
Roselind: So this ties house size to lot size. It would be of interest to know what is included in gross floor area (GFA).
David: Basements, attached garages, covered porches above ground level, and portions of attic space count toward your allowable gross floor area. All this significantly reduces the floor area that a homeowner may apply to heated and cooled living space.
For example, a walk-out basement is not visible from the front of a house. These are common given Austin's terrain. Prior to McM, this would not count toward gross floor area. And, for a certain time after adoption, basements did not count. But, revisions have been made to count basements that come three feet above natural grade as habitable space.
What about the impervious cover on the lot? Is that still an issue?
David: The impervious cover still remains at 45% for most residential properties within the McM boundaries.
Doug: When we meet with a Client we request a survey of their property to check their current impervious coverage. If it appears that it is too close to call, we tell the Client to get an impervious cover survey. This is where a licensed surveyor will calculate the impervious coverage and present a stamped survey. This is critical because the City of Austin will require it at final building inspection, and an overage would be a costly fix. Often times we will remove driveways or patios, to gain ground so we can increase the building footprint.
What about height requirements?
David: It is still 32' for single family homes, and 30' for duplexes. The main difference is that now applicants must show on their plans the exact elevation of "finished" and "natural" grade so staff may determine where to measure the building height from. In most cases this requires an additional topographical survey to be performed at the applicant's expense. There are limited exceptions such as chimneys, etc.
Have setback requirements changed? This refers to the number of feet back from the property line for building.
David: The zoning setback requirements are mostly the same, and are based on the zoning district's regulations. On the front setback, "averaging" is now allowed. Before, averaging was allowed only if a neighborhood had adopted it as part of their official neighborhood plan.
Can you explain the setback planes, or virtual tents?
David: One of the most significant changes implemented with McM is the setback plane. The setback plane is used to regulate a structure's impact on adjacent properties by requiring the structure to fit within a virtual tent. The tent is vertical for 15’ on the side and rear property lines; then it slopes inward 45 degrees. The tent is used to determine your vertical buildable area.
Often, many homeowners' only choice is to build 'up' by adding a second or third story. The tent requirement significantly reduces the potential size of any structure that may be built. There are a many challenges associated with tent requirements. The idea is to avoid a 3,000+ square foot two-story box-shaped house overshadowing an adjacent 1,000 square foot cottage. Having two adjacent structures that are not similar in design represents a problem with respect to neighborhood continuity and the overall look and feel of a neighborhood.
Doug: There is also what is called “the remodeling exception” with regard to the tent. The Ordinance states that a new 2nd story structure may be 10’ 6” from the top of the original wall to the top of the new roof. However, this must include floor trusses, roof, and old ceiling joists. So the remodeling exception allows for only an 8’ wall height.
We work within this constraint. However, for new 2nd floors this dimension definitely limits the design. This can create issues regarding window sizing for egress, tempered glass, and the operable window rule - since the windows would be more than 6’ above grade.
Also, there is a fair amount of difficulty, as David says, in getting the required documentation to show that the 2nd floor does comply with the Ordinance. This is because a lot of surveyors are not used to providing such a document, and are unaccustomed to using a tape measure on site rather than an instrument.
Sometimes the only way to document it is to measure the components and provide a drawing to show the calculations. Surveyors are not used to drawing this type of detail. I have heard that there is a possibility that the City will be implementing a checklist that will give the onsite inspector a procedure to aid in this area.
However the net result of the tent and the remodeling exception means more cost to the Consumer: (1) Line survey for confirming existing footprint relative to property line; (2) topo survey for sloping lot for measuring height; (3) tent survey for confirming height of built structure for 2nd story buildings, (4) stamped drawings for 2nd story additions.
The side wall articulation is a new idea introduced by the ordinance. What is this?
David: There are side-wall articulation requirements where an exterior wall must bump "in" or "out" at different wall sections. This creates potential design problems on the inside of the house, such as a large bump-in located in the dining room, for example. If you do not want a bump-in in your dining room and cannot comply otherwise, you must seek a waiver.
Doug: We can see why this is in place, since the “maximize square footage on the lot” approach will often create long, tall walls. The unintended consequence comes into play when it starts driving the design process, on some projects, in an artificial manner.
Is it possible to get a variance from the Ordinance rules? How often are these granted?
David: There are limited exceptions in the McM ordinance. If a homeowner cannot comply with a McM regulation, he or she may request a waiver by appearing before the Residential Design Compatibility Commission, and explain why the design cannot comply. The RDCC is a city commission made up of volunteers. They generally try to work with applicants on a case by case basis. The problem with complying with the more arduous McM code sections is the application of a one-size-fit-all rule to the variations of small inner-city lots.
Doug: I believe the maximum deviation that the RDCC can administer is 25% say, for example, in a case of an additional FAR request.
How do you see this ordinance working out in practice?
David: The city appears to be struggling with interpreting aspects of the McM code, as are many of my clients. I think this says a lot about the complexity and practicality of the ordinance. The city has a multi-layered, confusing review process that can result in significant and unnecessary delays. Plus, the homeowner's costs for architects, consultants, or carrying costs associated with a property may result in thousands of dollars before a single permit is issued.
And in some cases the McM rules actually increase the size of a structure - making it look more like a castle than a mansion. In my opinion, if the city is going to require compliance with very complicated rules, then it ought to implement very clear, concise review procedures. Frankly, that just hasn't been done.
Doug: When we were in the middle of the Task Force effort it was very clear to me that there would be unintended consequences for us all. The main issue I see is that it is a one-size-fits-all ruling that drives design and increase costs to consumers. The implementation of the Ordinance in the field and in the permit office has been difficult because of the technical and legal aspects involved.
It seems that the City pushes something like this through in a hurry to stop abusive building practices but fails to put the training and staff in place to handle the increased load to the Staff. I think we are all adjusting.
Are there any other concerns that you have about this ordinance?
David: One concern I have is that the McM ordinance may be actually driving potential inner-city families out to the suburbs simply because it is too expensive and frustrating to comply with the existing rules. In a state that supports individual property rights and a city that promotes new urbanism, why is it so hard to see those two ideas codified?
My hope is that as long as the McM rules stay on the books the city will do its part to implement permitting processes that is less challenging to navigate. And I think that starts with adopting a pro-customer service attitude. There are a lot of bright, talented folks working for the city. If the city will think outside the box about how to deliver their services, then I believe they can implement the changes necessary to facilitate inner-city density, adaptive re-uses, and a unique, eclectic look and feel throughout the entire central area.
Doug: I do believe that the Ordinance needs to be revisited. I think that with proper training for the City staff, including the inspection department, the intent of the Ordinance could be applied more on a per property and building basis. This would be fairer to the citizens, neighborhoods, and honest builders while, at the same time, stopping the abuses we have witnessed in different neighborhoods.