Planning a home’s architectural design is a big job, to say the least! Designs must fit cohesively within a variety of different parameters, including City of Austin regulations that affect the size of the home and its placement on the lot. Luckily, we have a savvy architect like Todd Bennett on the case. Todd is the registered architect at Paradisa Homes, who helps clients create their dream houses while ensuring that the plans meet the city’s permit requirements and abide by local regulations. Buyers often want to know if Todd can adjust his plans to make the home bigger, and while everyone’s goal here at Paradisa is to get you the home you want, certain factors do affect the size of each home and its design. Today, we sit down with Todd to find out more about how the planning process works — and what considerations dictate his designs.
Tell me a little bit about your role in the building process. How do you work with clients?
My first step is to get them involved early in the process and provide a basic list of everything they could want in a house. I walk them through what we can and can’t do, based on city ordinances, codes, and constraints on their lot. We try to provide them with a smooth experience and guide them through the sometimes confusing permitting process in Austin.
Clients often ask you if they can make their homes bigger. What factors affect the size of a home?
The size of the home is based on the size of the lot. For instance, in the City of Austin, builders are only allowed to use 40% the lot’s square footage for a home. If you have a 10,000-square-foot lot, we could feasibly build an 8,000-square-foot house on it if the city’s regulations weren’t in play. But the city will only allow us to build on 4,000 square feet.
It depends on where in the city the lot is located as well. The closer you get to downtown, the more constraints there are on homes.
Another important thing to consider is whether the existing home has any historical implications for improvements of the structure or land. For instance, if a homeowner wanted to remodel the front of their existing home completely and add a second story, the City of Austin might not allow it if they’ve deemed that the house is historical in some way.
There’s only a slight chance that will happen, but the remodel still has to go through historical review if the house is over 40 years old. That’s something that we really can’t know until we get the City of Austin involved in the construction process. We just have to submit our plans and see what happens. But I can say I’ve never had a plan denied in historical review.
You mentioned the permitting process. What makes permitting challenging?
We have to see a lot of people in order to submit documentation and receive approval. Our plans are looked at by Austin Electric and Austin Water. Transportation has to look at the sidewalks, depending on what you want to do there. It’s a very cumbersome and time-consuming process. The city changes roles, departments, and forms very frequently. When the regulations change, it can set the permitting process back.
What sort of environmental factors affect home plans and your ability to adjust the size of homes?
The number-one thing that governs my designs is the trees growing on or near a given lot. The Austin Tree Department is very strict about cutting trees down, so we often design around them. The city has ordinances that protect trees. If a tree is above a certain size, it’s protected. Obviously, we’re fans of trees here and we don’t want to cut them down, but when there’s a tree in the middle of the lot, it’s more difficult to work around.
The first thing we do when we look at a property is look at the trees. We ask ourselves, “Can we design a house on this lot with these trees?”
The root structure also affects our ability to build. For instance, a home plan may be impacted by the trees on the adjacent lot because the roots would be affected by the construction.
Earlier you mentioned that the city places more restrictions on homes in the downtown area. What sort of restrictions did you mean?
They call it the “McMansion ordinance” and it was put in place to prevent people from building what we call McMansions — basically, a house from property line to property line. Those limits extend from between 183 to just past MoPac. That regulation impacts the size of the home, the height and the wall against the property line. There are also some ordinances in some neighborhoods downtown that govern how big a garage can be.
If a client wants to go bigger with their home and the city won’t accomodate that, do you provide suggestions for how to work around that?
Yes. The city does offer some exemptions. For example, if you build a carport, you can exempt more square footage. If you build a garage, you can only exempt 200 square feet of your garage, but if you build a carport, you can exempt 450 square feet. So you could build a two-car carport and not have it count against you at all, whereas you could build a garage and only half of it counts against you. Ultimately, if you want 250 more square feet in your house, you can build a carport instead of a garage.
Also, porches — as long as you don’t have living spaces above them, those won’t hurt your square footage, although there are other restrictions on porches.
The city also restricts us on impervious cover. Only a certain percentage of the lot can be covered by the house or driveways and sidewalks, which can impact our design as well.