Massing – A Big part of Zoning Codes
My engineer, Richard, and I sat at the Starbucks at Parmer and MoPac in Austin. I sipped a cappuccino and he his hot cocoa. We had just rolled up two sets of blueprints we were studying for upcoming projects. Our small talk eventually turned to our latest projects and interesting encounters we had experienced dealing with the new crop of neophyte builders filling the local markets.
He shared with me one in particular where a home owner was taking a shot at becoming a general contractor. He had paid an architect to design a two story house he intended to build. He contacted Richard so he might obtain an engineer’s seal for the project. Richard pointed out to the owner that he thought the building might exceed maximum height restrictions for the area. The owner had no idea what he was talking about. Richard recommended the owner contact a civil engineer and conduct a topographical survey for his lot. He referred him to a friend who specializes in the field. Later the owner called back in a huff. He complained that the cost for the “topo” was in excess of $2,500.00. Richard assured him the pricing was standard in the industry. The owner complained that he had already paid the architect $3,500.00 for the plans and he didn’t want to add more cost to the design. He asked if he could use topography from Google Earth. Richard and I got a good laugh out of that one. By the way, hire an architect at your peril if you have not enlisted a builder to help you identify potential zoning and code hazards for your project site.
Austin Does Not Require Licensing for Builders
Ultimately, the owner signed a release alleviating Richard of any liability if the city declined the permit to build based on Massing restrictions. A month later, the project was rejected on the basis of height restrictions. Our conversation was interrupted when he received a call from a client. I heard only one side of the conversation, but I was clear about the topic. In my career I have run into a number of owners who watch too much HGTV or DIY TV. Most of the builders I encounter are no better versed than the typical home owner in the specifics of my industry.
There is a very real danger in Austin, and many cities throughout the United States that are like Austin. Remodelers and home builders are not required to obtain a license to practice here. Austin is the fastest growing area in the United States based upon the latest statistics. The demand for builders is unprecedented and the result is that “everyone” is in the construction business. I have lost bids to ‘builders’ only to be called a few months later to complete the project started by an amateur trying to get rich quick in a desperate market.
The call I overheard involved Richard telling the home owner that the 2×12 header in his 16′ garage door frame in his new garage was not strong enough to carry the weight and it was sagging. Richard had issued a correction letter to the builder and the owner as to a remedy for the structural error. The owner complained that the builder had done the work and he was not answering his calls to fix the header. The owner offered Richard more money to change his findings and pass the header. Richard told him he had been an engineer for more than 30 years and he would not risk his reputation nor his practice to pass the header no matter the bribe offered. When Richard hung up I asked him incredulously, “A builder installed a 2×12 header in a 16′ garage door?” He shook his head and admitted that was the case.
A quick note for the inexperienced builder: When rating a structural component, more than the ability to support dead or live loads is considered. The structural member is rated for its ability to withstand wind load to the opposite side of the structure. Deflection range and structural sustainability are also a big part of the solution.
With so many untrained in the industry, it is easy to be considered an expert. An expert used to be someone who excelled at a discipline. Now it is the one who lasted the longest in the trade.