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Ask the Architect

Houses seem to be growing taller

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Q. A few homes in my neighborhood are much taller. What are the rules for how tall a house can be — like how many floors, and what’s legal? I mostly see only two stories, but the new ones are at least three stories. Is this a new thing that you can build taller? Was it just traditional to only build two stories until now?

A. Recently, influences have changed the thinking on allowed height. Hurricane Sandy’s flooding caused New York to promote house lifting in flood zones. Influence also came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, in essence, is a publicly funded insurance company, covering people in areas where regular home insurance companies avoid the risk of insuring.

To lift or build higher is to avoid huge flood insurance cost increases by building above flood levels, with the lowest level only allowed to be for a garage and storage, not living space. By making the first livable floor higher, above the flood level, insurance rates are kept lower. People have shown me that their rates went from $500 to $5,000 a year, increasing annually since Sandy in 2012.

Some homes are much higher than codes and incentives intended, due to misinterpretation of reasons to build higher and misrepresentation in the review process. For example, a home’s first floor is no longer a first floor if it’s higher than 6 feet above the ground. Over 6 feet high, the floor level automatically becomes a second floor, meaning the next floor above is a third floor, which requires zoning board approval, interior sprinklers, escape terraces and wind strengthening. I’ve seen home plans misrepresented as being two stories by not correctly showing the floor level heights or describing a second floor as a first floor, the next floor as a second floor that is really a third floor and even where a fourth floor is shown as a mezzanine or roof level balcony.

There’s a small country town in Tuscany, in central Italy, San Gimignano, that is famous for its skyline of towers that people built on their homes during medieval times. As the story goes, one prominent homeowner built a tall tower to watch for potential attackers. His neighbor jealously built a tower a little higher, and, not to be outdone, several adjacent homeowners began building towers higher and higher than one another. History repeats itself.

Thirty feet from the ground or the center of the road is your maximum roof height. The safety code intends to protect people from perishing in fires. The first code chapter addresses wind resistance, since the taller you build, the more turbulence from adjacent buildings and wind destruction, not just to your building but also to adjacent buildings. With the 75-mph gusts of wind we’ve been known to have, wind, like flooding, is a real concern. Manhattan towers aren’t wood and nails for a reason. Decisions to build higher have to take community safety and appearance into account, and until recently, they did.

© 2021 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.