Ask the Architect

A zoning variance for a bigger den?


Q. I wanted to add on to the den on the side of my house. The den has been there since 1930. The problem I’m having is that if I want to make the addition so that it’s in alignment with the current den, the side distance to my property line is too close, by 12 inches, according to my building department. They say that I have to match the code requirement that was adopted in 1938, so instead of having a straight wall going all the way back, I either need to make a jog in the wall or go for a zoning variance. It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not adding a monster-sized addition, just 10 feet by 10 feet on the side of my house, behind tall hedges. My neighbor doesn’t mind, so what can I do about this?

A. Not much, except decide whether you want a ridiculous-looking room with a jog in the wall or want to spend the money and time to go through the zoning variance process. When I see cases like this, I understand the intent of the law, but not the “spirit” of the law. The intent is to prevent the construction of buildings too close to a property line, based on historical catastrophes such as the London fire and the Chicago fire, both of which saw hundreds of lives lost and tens of thousands of buildings destroyed, mainly because of their closeness to one another and their ability to burn easily.
We live in a modern age in which materials have been tested, analyzed, certified and regulated to limit flame spread, and communities have been set up with strict guidelines to leave spaces between buildings for safety and appearance. But knowing, or not remembering, this, communities may invoke the strictness of the law like a stern punishment, or look at the separate conditions and merits of each case, deciding that your straight wall versus a jogged wall isn’t going to hurt anyone and, being located on the side or behind your house, isn’t going to detract from the character of the community.
Some building departments have been given the flexibility to make these decisions, to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and have the authority to give approval for minor issues. Some municipalities have even gone so far as to pass ordinances allowing the discretion of building departments to allow for the alignment of built structures, previously approved, on the first story. It makes sense not to put homeowners through an unnecessary hearing process, sometimes costing thousands of dollars and many months of delay, just so they can have a straight wall.
Allowing alignment with a previously approved part of a building isn’t the same as having a flammable wall too close to a property line or another building. In the long run, a variance will be worth it. Otherwise the weird wall shift won’t be understood or be beneficial to you. Good luck!

© 2024 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.