Friday 29 November 2013

Variance Required!

Well, it is probably time for an update on the project.  I know it has been some time since I provided specifics on the project itself. On the whole, things have gone quite well.

The work that Heather and Nathan have been doing at Tacoma Engineers has been first rate, and we are nearing the end of this challenging design. I have been so happy with my selection and waiting until I found the right match for this project.  Much of the difficulty lies in my inexperience with structural design and building design in general, and the fact that I am both designing and drawing up my own house plans for the first time.  I have taken blueprint reading and design courses in the past, but there was still SO much I did not know. Tacoma has been great at coaxing a more professional looking drawing package out of me (which I will post soon).

I also appreciate the patience shown by Tacoma as I aim for a dwelling with limited thermal bridging.  Turns out limiting thermal bridging and structural requirements do not play well with one another and this has been trying for all involved.  What has been a pleasant surprise is that my ‘gut-thumb-in-the-air’ engineering has been very close to acceptable.  I personally designed most of the floor truss and beam layout and Tacoma has only needed to size the beams that I proposed.  There have been a few extra beams required in the design, but nothing significant.

Contrary to the demands of the first engineer I hired in March, I actually do have a predominately 2x4 house structure (my taller gable walls had to be converted to 2x6 as did some interior bearing walls).  This was important to reduce cost (a 2x4 is about 60% of the cost of a 2x6), reduce the embodied energy of the dwelling by building in less overall material, and most importantly - would allow me to utilize the salvaged 2x4’s from the house we will tear down.  The used studs will not be tall enough for full height wall studs in the new structure (I have taller ceilings – 9ft first floor and 8.5 for the second floor), but they will probably meet 100% of the need for less than stud height lengths used as jacks, cripples, and general blocking.  This will significantly reduce my costs and divert a very large volume of materials away from the landfill.  The drawbacks with 2x4 framing is that you require 16” O.C. (may have needed some of this even with 2x6 construction based on loads), and a 2x4 stud has a lot less resistance to wind loading and therefore you require a larger volume of king studs around openings.  I am currently working with Tacoma to reduce this (possibly with the use of stronger – engineered wood posts).

Drawing up both the architectural as well as structural plans (Thank-you Tacoma for allowing me to do the structural plans and save some additional costs) has been a monumental task I was prepared for on some levels but not fully expecting.  Not counting the deign work done over the previous 2-3 years, I have put over a 1000 hours into the design, 3D model and 2D Drawings since July of this year.  I have basically been working 15+ hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last three months. Things finally settled down this last weekend when I drafted the final structural drawing for Tacoma and now only need to process drawing mark-ups and revisions.

As we were close to being finished, I contacted the District for my pre-permit review of my plans and documentation.  I was assigned an appointment time of 11:00 AM on November 27.  Heather at Tacoma stepped up yet again and even came in on Sunday to work through the mark-ups on two of the more significant drawings.  I was so grateful!  Well the meeting was two days ago, and because I really did not know what to expect, I was both encouraged and disappointed all at once.  The first few minutes went well although I could tell that the District staff were not overly impressed with the details missing from some of my architectural drawings.

But then I blurted out that I was not in compliance with the zoning bylaw and would be applying for a zoning variance.  You see, I have planned since pretty much last fall’s design iteration, that I would be applying for a variance on the requirement to make the upper floor only 75% or smaller of the size of the lower floor.  I was going to ask for permission to make my lower floor smaller than allowed to ensure I had a more compact envelope (limiting exterior wall surface limits your heat loss), to allow me to more easily comply with the new code required seismic braced wall panel rules (and the need for additional internal braced wall bands when you have the setbacks needed for a smaller upper floor), and most importantly, to allow me to design the house around our 4 magnificent 125ft+ mature cedars that hem in the south and west sides of our build lot.

At first the tone was feeling like, that would be too bad and I would be expected to take the trees down to make room for a larger first floor.  I was told that the Zoning Variance Board was particularly steadfast against any form of variances at the present time, and that my application would probably be refused.  As you can imagine, this was fairly distressing, and due to a family member’s pet emergency the night before, the 4 hours of sleep I had that night did not prepare me well for this enlightenment.  One good idea that was raised during that part of the conversation as a possible plan B, was to build a 300 sq.  ft. veranda on the back of the house which would bring me into compliance with the first floor size requirement needed to meet the ratio. This will probably be what I will do if my variance request is denied.

Then the real shocker kicked in as we continued to check the plans, my overall roof height was too high!  On the surface it looked like both my north and south upper roof ridges were too high.  As I had worked a month on these roofs to make them work with the thickness needed for structure and the insulation levels planned, and to ensure enough room for the smallest height windows Cascadia make in an operable lite for the Clerestory, this was very upsetting and for a while I just did not want to accept it.  I had met with District staff in March and thought I had a clear understanding of the bylaw rules, but obviously I did not.  Now things were looking very grim as to any chance of approval by the Zoning Variance Board.  The staff member I was meeting with brought in others into the conversation, including some from the planning department.  They discussed possible options that may be available to me.  They agreed that as far as my floor ratio violation,  my design met the intent of the bylaw (which is to promote interesting – non box architecture) even though it did not meet its technical specifics.  I also had the impression they felt the roof infraction was fairly minor in nature.  

This below PDF shows in yellow the portion of my roof assembly that is not in compliance with the bylaw.  The other hatched lines show the larger massed roof I would be allowed to build if I went to a steeper pitch.  Fortunately, when I got back home and measured, only the steeper north roof was not fully in compliance with the bylaw.

I was thoroughly deflated by this point until a suggestion was made to go for a Development Variance instead of a Zoning variance.  Development variance decisions are made by the elected Council, and the Councillors have greater leeway to grant exceptions in the light of special site conditions or design goals.  The application states "Development variance permits are normally considered where specific site characteristics or other unique circumstances do not permit strict compliance with the existing regulations."  This was sounding promising and I got the feeling that the staff felt my chances of success with this process would be pretty good with a comment from the planning staff that they would have no concerns passing the application to Council for their approval.  SO, it seemed that I was already through the first gate.  Things were looking up.

The final checks focused on the existing shed we have at the back of our property.  It is larger than allowed by the zoning bylaw and also a bit to close to two of the property lines.  In the spring, I was counselled by staff to confirm this on the plans as an existing accessory building that was not being changed in any way and that it would probably be fine. The staff went away to discuss this and when my reviewer came back, she advised that I should include this in the variance request to 'legitimize' the existence of the building and that if for some reason, I did not go for variance or my overall variance was denied, they would figure out another method to allow it to stay in place.  I have maintained it over the years and I was going to use it to build a plane with my neighbour a few years back.  I then was going to use it as a very small wood shop but now that I will be building a full sized wood shop into the basement of the new house, I will probably just use this shed as a garden shed to store my law tractor and other yard tools and garden equipment.  It used to be heated with a gas boiler, but this was recently decommissioned.

I left the, close to two hour, meeting yesterday feeling a bit beat up but at least optimistic.

I spent yesterday morning updating details on the drawings of concern to the staff and emailed that over to her.  I then received the Bylaw Compliance Checklist back from her late afternoon on the same day identifying the 4 items I need to get a variance for.  I spent yesterday afternoon and evening drawing up the PDF shown below and drafting a letter I will send to the neighbours, once again asking for their support.  All 8 neighbours that are adjacent to the front and back of my property will be sent an official survey by the District and asked to indicate their support or opposition to my requested variances.  I have been encouraged to contact them in advance to explain the rationale behind the variance requests and ask for as many letters of support as possible.  I will distribute my info letter to them this weekend and will aim at applying for my variance on or before Dec 13 so that I have the best chance of being able to present my case to Council at their February meeting.

I was told that staff could possibly look at starting to process my building permit application in advance of the Council approval on the assumption that it would be approved.  I was also told that I could apply for the demolition permit at any time and it was recommended I do this about 4 weeks before I wanted the services disconnected.  This was very good news that gives me a good chance of not only being able to stay on schedule, but possibly even being able to start earlier than planned.  As we plan to move out March 1, we could have the service cut anytime after that and start the dismantling of the existing structure during March instead of after the planned April 8.

Next few weeks/months will be exciting as I finish off with Tacoma and prepare the full drawing package for submission with my variance application.  I will then need to move on to the plumbing, electrical, and most important HVAC design.  These are all a separate permit process and therefore a different time requirements.  The plumbing will be the first permit application needed right after the building permit (the drains need to go under the footings) and then the electrical application would follow my  rough-in construction inspection.  Then would come the HVAC.  At this point, I do not plan to connect gas to the house which will save us connection fees, permit fees, and monthly utility connection fees.  This may change after the HVAC design, but at this point I hope to utilize an air source to water heat pump for both my space and domestic water heating needs.

Well, now you are all caught up.

Wish me well and thanks for reading!

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