reviously we talked about a site’s potential based on each homeowner’s individual personalities, the various views a site has to offer, and how best to frame or mask those views. In this post, we’re talking about specific site restrictions, one of the least favorite issues to discuss, but important nonetheless.
One of the first things architects need to think about in site design are the constraints. What do we have to work with? What are the boundaries? I would suggest working with an architect on determining what these restrictions are before land is even purchased. Most building sites have basic general constraints you should be aware of. These may include building setback distances (from property lines, lake high water marks, etc.), easements, and maximum building height.
A few years ago we were working with a client who wanted to add on to their house to the east, as far as they could go to the property line setback. After briefly looking into it, we had to tell them that they couldn’t go any farther, as they were already in the setback. We were able to come up with a different design solution, but if they had known this before they bought the house they might have thought differently. By the way, if your house is over the setback, and has been for several years or decades, you can often be “grandfathered in”. However, if you built it yourself a few years ago, then you're most likely out of luck.
Architects can verify the restrictions with the local planning department, neighborhoods, and any other applicable jurisdictions, codes, bylaws, etc. Once we know all of this we can creatively work within the limitations. That being said, you can also apply for variances. If there are instances where you are a little over a regulation and your options are limited, where it is a hardship to you and does not cause hardship to others, then you may have a chance to be granted a variance.
Some areas, including gated communities and other neighborhoods, may have design guidelines, which are added restrictions on top of the governing jurisdiction and applicable building codes. These may include maximum and minimum floor areas allowed, engineered drainage plans, and maximum exterior lighting allowed. Other non-allowable items may include certain exterior materials and colors, visible skylights, and flagpoles.
Cities and towns in general have more stringent requirements than rural areas. One example is the Town of Telluride, which has its own Historic and Architectural Review Commission. This commission strives to maintain the historic integrity of Telluride, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark District.
Waterfront lots typically have more prerequisites as well, mainly to keep the water pure and the scenery pristine. An example of this is the California Coastal Act, which regulates land use in the coastal zones, such as development activities, construction of buildings, and public access.
Every state in the United States (except Wisconsin) adheres to the International Residential Code (IRC), as do the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the IRC deals with the internal requirements of residences. A few things to be aware of in reference to site design include wind speeds, snow loads, earthquakes, and coastal high-hazard areas. The International Building Code (IBC) relates to all other buildings, including multi-family residences, and regulates allowable building heights and floor areas based on fire-resistance. Your governing jurisdiction may have additional or more defined requirements. Some states and cities have their own additional codes.
It should be noted that you might also consider the constraints of your neighbors as well. If there is a neighbor downhill from you, and there are no height limitations, there is a chance that you could have your views blocked in the future.
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John Hendricks, Architect AIA, NCARB. Hendricks Architecture has designed residential homes throughout the US. We have designed in various states, cities, towns and neighborhoods with most of the requirements named above. John Hendricks has also served on architectural review boards in the past, so has experience on both sides. Please visit our selected projects page for some of our more recent projects.