Zoning and Permitting

My good friend and colleague, a gentleman who I believe to be one of the most talented young architects in Minneapolis, had, in graduate school, an architect of world renown critique his project in the following manner:  “Steak is delicious.  Ice cream is very good too…but together they are awful.”  This is a wonderfully succinct way to tell one’s students or colleagues that what they are presenting needs work.   I was not given the opportunity to critique my design for the studio and determine whether it resembled a concoction of steak and ice cream.  The zoning ordinances in Minneapolis did it for me.

The design of the studio is rather simple.  This is not due to the lack of desire to create something unique, but rather, a consequence of strict zoning regulations for detached structures in the city of Minneapolis.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, my wife’s paintings are quite large (usually 6′ x 6′).  She also needs a substantial amount of storage space, as she is constantly producing new work.  Therefore, in developing the design, I wanted to provide as much height as possible inside the studio, both for ease of maneuverability of the work within the studio, but also to allow her to store paintings in a two-tiered storage area at the back of the space.  The studio is 24′ x 24′ (sized for a two-car garage for a future owner and for marketability if/when we move on to greener pastures), utilizes scissor trusses that give a high vaulted interior space and features two large windows and three skylights.

The clear height that I needed was the source of the constraint to the design.  In Minneapolis, a detached garage can only be twelve feet high, either to the highest point of the roof (for a simple shed or flat roof) or to the midpoint of the rise in a more traditional gable design.  I needed to break the rule and go higher.  There is, thankfully, an exception in the zoning ordinances that allows one to increase the height to sixteen feet to the midpoint of the gable.  Unfortunately, the exception requires that the roof slope, siding and roofing materials of the detached structure match the primary residence (in our case, a 10:12 slope and asphalt shingles and steel lap siding).  This was not my hope for the first structure I would design and build.

I will give a quick glimpse into a conversation that I had with the zoning review office regarding these constraints.  As described above, in order to be granted a variance to build higher than the zoning code allows, I needed to match the exterior materials of my primary residence.  The siding material on my house is dated, dented and dilapidated steel lap siding (recall from an earlier post that, this, our first house ever, was a “flipped” house  – the gentleman we purchased it from arrived to the closing with a fake tan and Bermuda shorts on his way to Mexico with the proceeds from the sale – I am confident he looked at the siding, thought about his impending trip, and figured he would rather have a a few extra bucks to blow through on cheap souvenirs than update the siding…I cannot blame him).

I proposed, on the drawings I submitted to the city, to install a superior type of siding on the studio – James Hardie lap siding to be exact.  It lasts longer, looks better, and does not incur damage as easily as steel siding.  From a distance, it looks the same as the metal siding – that is, it has the same profile, same face exposure, etc., etc.  The zoning reviewer at the city said it was unacceptable, since it did not match the original siding.  I explained, patiently, that while it was indeed a different material, it looked exactly the same, was more durable and was an upgrade from what exists on my house.  In all aspects, it met the intent of the zoning ordinance (to ensure that a headstrong designer doesn’t create a secondary structure that destroys the neighborhood aesthetic).  There was a long pause, enough of a pause to allow me to hope that the reviewer understood my reasoning, and then he replied,

“…yeah, but it doesn’t match the house, and that is what the code says it has to do.”

I replied that I fully understood that the code didn’t explicitly allow my proposed change, but, again, I argued that it met the intent of the code and I would be making an aesthetic upgrade to the alley.  As if on auto-reply, he repeated,

“…yeah, but it doesn’t match the house, and that is what the code says it has to do.”

Recognizing that the city officials were only trying to do their job and were charged with implementing a zoning ordinance that they did not personally write, I reluctantly changed the note on my drawings to indicate that the studio siding was to match the inferior siding on my house, and decided to take up the argument again at a later date.

Vernacular housing in the Faroe Isalnds of the North Atlantic. Regrettably, this image does not reflect my true backyard.

Given these constraints, I decided to shape the design expression in other ways that would still allow me to be granted a building permit.  I have always admired the austerity and workaday sensibility of vernacular Nordic and Danish  housing, similar to those found in the Faroe islands in the North Atlantic.  Harsh weather conditions dictate formally taut exterior designs to minimize exposed surface structure (and therefore heat loss) and the roof eaves and rakes are held tight to the structure to allow the full strength of the low sun to warm the walls and access the interior spaces.

The traditional New England saltbox house responds to its environment in a similar manner.  On the north face of saltbox structures, the two-story roof line is carried down to the windowless first floor.  The frigid New England winter wind blowing in from the north has no leaky windows to infiltrate and is carried up and over the house by the roof line.

While the overall studio design I proposed to the city satisfies the building code language for me to be granted a variance on the height, the execution of key details in the design will speak a different dialect than my house.  The house and studio will both grasp just enough of the other’s language to understand that while they come from the same country, they do not come from the same region.

With permit in hand, I could begin framing.

In response to a wonderful suggestion by a talented former classmate, as I begin writing about the construction in earnest, I will indicate how long each phase of the construction process takes me.  As I am doing most of the work on the weekends, I will do my best to accurately capture true effort.


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