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Residential panel approves home renovation variance

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A change in rules being considered for the McMansions ordinance helped a homeowner convince the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission last week to grant a variance for renovations to his home during the commission’s meeting.

The complicated case involved homeowner Brad Benton, who came with both his architect and contractor to discuss the second-floor addition to his home north of the University of Texas on Carolyn Street. Benton’s second floor addition would provide a 15 percent increase in square footage and an exception to the required offset on the sidewall articulation.

Contractor Doug Marsh was looking for an additional 4 feet in length for his second-floor addition, instead of creating an offset at 32 feet for his second floor. He also wanted to construct what amounted to a faux dormer that was tied into the calculation of space but was only used to provide a balanced design for the home’s second floor, which would grow to 2,400 square feet.

“We actually did really try to get this to comply as much as possible on impervious cover,” Marsh told the commission. “What we’ve done is one of those real tall roofs up front. Then the existing house is lower in the back.”

Looking at the residential permit application is a bit like reading a tax form. The applicant goes down the page and fills in square footage of each floor, plus any basement. Elements are added. Elements are subtracted. Then an additional calculation is made – the division of the gross area of the house into the gross area of the lot – to come up with the required floor-to-area ratio.

Benton’s addition actually was designed four years ago, before the McMansions ordinance was in place. To take the dormer out of the picture would make the home comply, but it also would look like “someone took a bite out of our cake at the top,” explained Marsh, adding that the dormer gave the appearance of space but actually was simply framing that provided the appearance of more room.

In the four years since the addition was designed, Benton had taken a hiatus to get his doctorate in computer science, gotten married and had a baby. The neighbors on either side of the lot were supportive of Benton’s addition. For those interested in trivia, the neighbor on one side is Debbie Byrd of the radiocast Earth & Sky.

What made Benton’s variance easy to approve for the commission was the fact that the rules on sidewall articulation were about to be revised so that the actual articulation variance would be 8 inches instead of 4 feet, 8 inches.

Commissioner Heidi Goebel did raise some questions about the efficiency of the design, but those issues were not significant enough to stop the variance. The variance was approved unanimously.

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