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Ask the Architect

Up against one-size-fits-all zoning


Q. Our architect showed something in our house plans that our contractor refuses to do, and we need an opinion. For some reason, the architect wants the new floor for our new second story to be built in between our existing ceiling beams and not over it, like the contractor wants. He called it “jumping the box.” The architect says that if he put the new floor above the existing ceiling structure, the house would either be too high or our attic would be too low to even use. We want to put our utilities there to save room in our basement, so the attic is very important. Does anyone really care if the house is 10 inches taller?

A. This is the age-old dilemma of reality versus regulation. The architect will never get your plans approved if he or she can’t show the height at the code-compliant level while also trying to find the solution to making sure you have a workable attic height for all the boiler and cooling equipment. The contactor could care less about the code if it can be avoided and wants to make the job simpler, easier, faster and more profitable by building over existing ceiling joists, which are generally too weak for people to furnish over or walk around on. Since the whole system is set up to never punish builders for defying the rules, and actually enables and encourages them to do so, you’ll go down a much longer, more frustrating road to complete your project.

The real problem is that you’re in a community that has a one-size-fits-all set of zoning requirements that has not been adjusted to real-world conditions. While many municipalities have recognized that living space is much more expensive than it was two generations ago, when the rules were adopted, your town prefers to keep things the way they are and forces homeowners to spend more money and take many more months of added time to appeal to a zoning board over this simple and practical problem of 10 inches more height.

Adding to the conflict, contactors often bypass the whole issue and ignore the plans, setting off a downward spiral when the stairs have to be longer and don’t fit, so rooms get moved back, the structure load paths change, floors sag, the house is higher, but the contractor doesn’t realize or possibly care that he or she has left you with a stunning problem that everyone else involved tries to solve.

In the end, the contractor succeeds, the municipality gets more of the money you hoped would be spent on your project, your architect is thrown under the bus for trying to balance the permit process versus construction, and many people say, “If I’d known it would be this difficult, I would just as soon have moved to a place where the taxes are lower and there’s more freedom to do what I want.” If you find that place, let me know.

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.