Just over five years ago, the Austin City Council took emergency action to create the McMansion ordinance, a sweeping new set of regulations governing single family and duplex construction. I was concerned that homeowners would be subject to unprecedented complexity so I wrote a critique in the Good Life Magazine to share my misgivings. I won't repeat the issues here, but the article takes a comprehensive look at what's wrong with the McMansion approach.
Looking back at my prescient concerns, every one of them is still valid. As an architect and activist, I believe strongly in neighborhood preservation, but as I stated back then, the ordinance is too restrictive. The McMansion ordinance and its related rules still are an excessive and expensive burden. They have become a disincentive for reasonable investment in our neighborhoods.
My purpose here is not to re-hash the past, but to expand on the earlier McMansion critique in a positive way. What can be built under these laws? How do other City ordinances make it better or worse? What is the impact of the rules the City uses? I believe McMansion can and should be refined and simplified so there can be realistic controls on residential construction without the wasteful and excessive red tape.
With this post, we're initiating a series of McMansion studies to answer these questions and to illustrate the potential for "fixing" the ordinance. We're looking at a range of ideas, from ways to creatively shape family spaces to designing on sloped lots. Feel free to add any suggestions or submit questions - we'll see if they can be included.
Ultimately, the goal should be reasonable laws that are understandable and enforceable. Regular homeowners shouldn't be subject to the same red tape as a multi-million dollar commercial builder. As I concluded in my 2006 article:
"Family homes and residences should be the easiest to build and renovate, to encourage new growth and investment. A family trying to add a new kitchen should not have to worry about the same bureaucracy as a large downtown developer. For this reason, the City Council should carefully analyze the full ramifications of this ordinance, and make sure that any new ordinances are easy to interpret and enforce."
What is this? A two-piece Hohmann and Barnard Masonry Tie!
Why do I care? Keep Reading!
I am sure that most people look at a stone or brick facade and think not only of how aesthetically pleasing it is but how strong and stable masonry must be. Stone and brick are great materials for the exteriors of building—they require little or no maintenance, they are very durable, and the last forever. However, most masonry done today is masonry veneer—where you have a 3”-4” stack of masonry separated from the main wall (usually wood or metal studs with sheathing) by an air gap.
The air gap is critically important to the system as it allows a space for moisture, which migrates through the masonry (both brick and stone allow some moisture to pass through), to be collected and removed through the weeps at the bottom of the wall. Typically the air gap is 1”, but many designers are using larger gaps to make sure the 1” clear is maintained—this is especially important with stone, which has less of a uniform thickness than brick and with masons who are not as careful.
This image from Hohmann and Barnard shows a typical masonry wall assmebly. It shows metal studs, but wood studs are similar. The white is the sheathing and the pink is thew rigid insulation. You can see the air gap between the masonry and the insulation and how the brick tie spans this gap. Note, the wire in the plain of the bricks is a for seismic loading.
Like solid masonry walls, the weight of the stone in masonry veneer is transmitted vertically through the stone to the foundation. The difference comes when you look at wind loads. Wind loading on a building is a very complicated and depends on the speed of the wind, the height of the wall, the area of the wall, the topography, and the surrounding buildings. Wind pressure can easily reach 20-60 pounds per square foot and can either be pushing in or sucking out depending on the direction of the wind. This may not seem like much but when multiplied by the area of a wall it can add up. Say you have a 20’ long two story façade, even with 20 pounds per square foot, this is 8,000 pounds of forces on the building on a stack of masonry 4” thick. To transmit this loading to the house structure that is designed to take these loads, we use small metal connectors called brick ties.
There are many different types and shapes of brick ties but they are all designed to transmit horizontal load on the masonry to the walls. If you are in a seismic zone, which fortunately Austin is not, the brick ties also have further requirements to help deal with the unique loading earthquakes put on buildings. The ties are fastened to the wall and then set in the mortar of the masonry to create the connection to transmit the horizontal forces. The ties must be able to handle compression (wall pushing in) and tension (wall sucking out). To help distribute the load evenly and to keep the loads on each individual tie low, code requires that brick ties be installed for every 2.67 SF of wall.
Traditionally, residential ties are 7/8” wide corrugated strips of galvanized steel that are nailed to the wall (hopefully to the stud and not just the sheathing) and then bent to fall into the masonry mortar joints. These ties are inexpensive and easy, but there are a couple of issues that must be addressed before using them. First, they are not recommended for air gaps larger than 1” and since air gaps by code are not supposed to be smaller than 1”—you better have a 1” gap. Second, if the bend in the tie is not right on the fastener to the wall, the loading can develop (especially with a sucking pressure) so that the ties bend rather than transit the load. Third, I have read that there are concerns with these ties being more susceptible to deteriorating over time than wire ties. Fourth, these ties were not designed for rigid insulation applied to the sheathing. On the plus side, the ties are mostly used on residential structure which have smaller wall areas and more ins and outs that allow the masonry wall to be able to support itself.
Residential tie on right, simple commercial tie on left.
Commercial ties usually are two part systems where there is an anchor that attaches to the wall and then a wire triangle that is mortared into the masonry. There is usually some sort of height adjustment between the two pieces so that the wire ties can be in the masonry joint and still be perfectly horizontal with the wall fastener. This ensures the loads are transmitted horizontally. These ties are more expensive that residential ties because the have more material and multiple parts. Many of the ties have been designed to accommodate rigid foam insulation.
Here is a Hohmann and Barnard Tie that install before the insulation. The advanatge here is that you can see the nail patern and make sure the ties are attached to the studs and not just the sheathing. The tie easily spans the rigid insulation, but the insulation must be pieced around the ties.
One of the biggest changes to masonry veneer has been the increasing use of rigid insulation on the outside of the walls to help increase the R-value of the walls and to decrease thermal bridging in the walls (it is code required now for metal stud buildings). This rigid insulation complicates the brick ties because it is putting a semi-compressible material between the load and the wall that receives the load. If you use residential ties and just nail through the insulation, the ties will compress the foam when the wall is pushed and this can cause the ties to loosen with time. There are a number of commercial ties that are designed for rigid insulation. If you are using rigid exterior foam insulation, I highly recommend you use commercial ties that are designed for the thickness of the insulation or at least consult your structural engineer.
At my house, we have tall (almost 30’ in places) masonry walls, ¾” rigid insulation, and a 1.25” to 1 1.5” air gap depending on the individual stones, so we are using a Hohmand and Barnard tie that has a screw that is applied through the insulation and sheathing into the studs and a wire ties that attaches to a slot in the screw assembly. Timing is very important with the masonry ties. If you have rigid foam outside you walls, it makes it difficult to see where the studs are located. This is further compounded if your dry wall is on the interior of the wall and you cannot inspect from the inside to make sure the ties are hitting stone. Some of the commercial tie systems are designed to attach to the sheathing before the insulation, which may a good idea -- though sequencing who installs the ties and fitting the insulation into the ties may be an issue.
"How I stopped hating the permitting process and learned to live with the codes." I've given this lecture many times in the past. This post is one of a series of articles on how to deal constructively and successfully with building codes.
Recently, I've looked at on-line sites to see what advice is available for getting a project or building permit. I was amused to see some overly obvious answers:
1. Go to your building department.
2. Fill out the form.
3. Pay your fee.
Wow, wouldn't it be great if it really was that simple! It may work for a small project in a particularly helpful jurisdiction, but it's been many years since we've encountered any permit that easy.
So what must you do to get a permit? In many cases, your architect or builder may have the experience necessary for your project. In other situations, an expeditor or facilitator may be helpful. In any case, for a small or large job, I strongly advise owners to educate themselves about the process. Even with an expert representing you, a good understanding of the process can make all the difference.
KNOW THE JURISDICTION
The most important issue, for starters is to know your jurisdiction. When I work in a new area, I like to get a copy of the development codes for a preliminary review. Many cities and townships have their codes on-line. Austin is one of the earliest cities to have its development codes and processes on-line. But not everything is available. In Austin, some critical pieces, including the transportation standards, have only recently been posted electronically.
A local code still can only tell you so much. Various groups, agencies and departments may have specific standards or requirements. Why the agency exists, and what it regulates seem obvious, but they are important to know. I often find useful information by reading the enabling language or a statement of purpose for any new jurisdiction. But often, knowing one jurisdiction isn't enough.
Get used to it, regulatory agencies overlap and at times contradict each other. Generally, most requirements are from agencies or departments at the local level. But some permits come from regional or state agencies. Over the last few decades, even the federal government has gotten into building regulations, most notably with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Don't these agencies work with each other? Some do, but most are organized around the primary issues they regulate. For example, we've had a site reviewer in our city approve a driveway based on the anticipated parking load. The fire department, however, was ready to reject it, based on the size of emergency vehicles. We quickly negotiated a compromise that both agencies would accept.
Many conflicts require a variance, change or waiver to resolve. These may be handled administratively by the staff or require a public hearing. Once again, the requirements are likely to be spelled out in the documents.
Knowing the agency's purpose and guidelines can make a huge difference, especially for a public hearing. More than once, I have listened from the dais as petitioners have made impassioned pleas for something that was simply impossible. They were asking the wrong group! It would have been so much easier if they only had known what was required and where they were supposed to go.
And there are many overlapping regulators, so there are lots variances or waivers. Several years ago, our region studied its jurisdictions and discovered there were up to 60 different agencies or departments that may potentially be involved with a building project. The study noted that in some California regions, there were as many as 120!
Sadly, very few states or regions have a system for dealing with multiple agencies. I was impressed to find clearinghouse systems established in several areas in the Northwest. Our firm hasn't had projects in those areas to test their effectiveness.
It may seem by now that the wild maze of codes it just too much for any mere mortal. If it is any comfort, I believe that a good project, with the right approach will get a permit. The time, aggravation and cost, however, can vary greatly. What's the right approach? How to lessen the risk? That's for a future post.
"How I stopped hating the permitting process and learned to live with building permits and develoment codes." I've given a lecture with this title several times to graduate school planners and even to a law school class. This entry will begin a series of articles on how to deal constructively with the impossibly complex codes and the equally confounding permits needed to meet them.
Let's start at the beginning. When discussing building permits, the first question I hear is: "Why do I need a building permit?" The next question nearly always follows: "It's my property, can't I build without a permit?"
The answer to the first question is, "Yes." You must deal with building permits and development codes for just about any building or construction. There are all kinds of laws and regulations that come from local, state and even federal statutes. Building permits are a crucial step in meeting these requirements.
The answer to the second question is a simple "NO!" You can't afford to build without the right permits! The costs and consequences of violating building and development codes are severe. Punitive fines, project delays or outright cancellation of a project are possible consequences of getting caught without proper permits.
Equally scary are the risks of using a shady builder to avoid the permitting process. In Austin last year, we had a terrifying reminder of why building regulations are often called "life safety codes." An un-regulated balcony collapsed and resulted in a number of serious injuries.
But the permitting process is often confounding and appears to make no sense. It may seem like one project is approved quickly and another is stopped for months or years for no particular reason. I've met people who've been desperate for answers. "Why are they trying to stop my project?"
Some people may be trying to stop your project, but most code conundrums, in my experience, result from an ignorance of the codes and how they relate to a particular project.
The reality is that each rule exists because some group or constituency put it there. There is no "They" trying to stop you. When trying to get a permit, you will be facing a jumble of well-intended regulations. Just be aware that no one has organized them into an understandable system. To quote Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the unflappable hedgehog, Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."