Post-fire rebuilding – first draft of new County regulations

On Thursday, September 30th, Boulder County government held another update meeting for homeowners and the design and construction community on the status of potential regulations for rebuilding efforts after the Fourmile fire.  The new regulations regarding building permits, site plan review, septic systems and waste disposal were discussed.  Most of the meeting was consumed with discussions and complaints about the State of Colorado’s recent clarifications to waste disposal regulations for potentially asbestos containing material.

Cleanup, Demolition & Deconstruction

The State’s latest directive on this will require that buildings that have been completely destroyed by the fire be treated as assuming asbestos contamination.  Because of the degraded nature of the building materials, no testing will be sufficient to prove, or disprove, the presence of asbestos containing material.  The following procedures will be required:

  • Materials must be wetted to minimize dust; packaged inside a double 6-mil plastic sheeting liner in an end-dump roll-off with the sheeting completely closed over the material once the roll-off is loaded.
  • The roll-off can only be taken to designated landfills.
  • The landfill must be contacted prior to moving the material to confirm waste acceptance and initiate waste profile.
  • Contractors should consult OSHA regulations to determine required training and personal protective equipment that will be required for those handling this material.

These regulations have only recently (within the last week) issued and have come as quite a surprise to homeowners, contractors and the County.  Some folks have already begun filling up roll-offs that may have to be off-loaded and reloaded under the new restrictions.  The number of loads will be significantly increased, greatly adding to the cost of cleanup.  This is an especially egregious regulation for structures built after 1984 when asbestos was no longer used in building materials.

Additional items:

  • In addition, metals can be recycled, but must first be “rinsed”.  I am not sure at this time if this water would then have to be treated or not.
  • Foundation removal will require a State demoliton permit.
  • Deconstruction will not be required although strongly encouraged.
  • No Boulder County permits or fees are required for cleanup.

Site Plan Review, Building Permitting

There will be three-tier system for rebuilds:

  1. For rebuilding in the same basic location, at the same size and height, no Site Plan Review will be required for 2 years, extending the current regulation from 6 months.
  2. For rebuilding in the same location but adding up to 10% of the existing building area, there will be a 2 week streamlined review process.
  3. For rebuilding in a significantly different location or of larger size or height, the normal Site Plan Review process will be required.

Additional planning items:

  • The 2009 IRC code will come into effect in January and will be the acting code at that time.  All rebuilds will have to meet building codes.
  • Sprinklers will be required for any structures larger than 3,600 square feet and this provision may change with the adoption of the new codes.
  • TDCs (Transferable Development Credits) will be available for properties rebuilding under the size threshold.
  • The County’s BuildSmart program will apply to all rebuilds, although there may be some modification for properties requiring renewables because of a building area trigger.

    These planning provisions are not final.  A draft of the provisions listed above will be issued next week, presented to Planning Board on October 2oth and the County Commissioners on the 21st.  These are public meetings and you should attend if you would like to be heard.

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Boulder lot sizes and regulations

In conjunction with last Fall’s debates over the new City of Boulder Compatible Development regulations, the Planning Department posted a lot of information regarding the studies that were done in support of this legislation.  One of the most interesting maps made available was a color-coded map of the city based on lot size.  The largest lots were red to orange and the smallest blue to purple.

What struck me about this map was how the distribution of lot sizes across the city corresponded with the topography of the city.  Below is my version of the map, with the predominant high ground or mesas circled.  With some exceptions, the largest lots tend to be on the high ground.  Anyone who has lived in Boulder for any time would certainly recognize the map as also a fair approximation of house cost as well – larger lots, nicer views = more expensive.

What I found most interesting are the consequences of topography for the development of single-family houses.  The mesas and high ground areas were often the most coveted and were the first to have large private homes built, for the most part individually designed houses.  The larger sections of relatively flat land between mesas and sloping down from steeper slopes were more easily subdivided into smaller parcels.  Most importantly, these often developer-driven sections of the city were laid out with predominantly north-south running streets as opposed to the east-west streets of the mesas (which are more dictated by the topography).  In central and north Boulder these north-south streets were arranged in normative north-south blocks with few houses on the east-west connector streets.  In south Boulder, the north-south streets were subdivided into very long blocks.

I think that this development pattern was arrived at fairly innocently, without many of the current regulations as to building coverage, bulk planes, solar shadow regulations and house size in place.  However with the increasing overlay of each new regulation, even with a sliding scale of application with regard to lot size, the implications of the initial development pattern, north/south vs. east/west, has lead to a disproportional impact of regulatory restrictions.  Of greatest importance is the implications of the overlay of the new Compatible Development bulk plane ordinance with the Solar Shadow regulations on the smaller lots in the areas of the city with the north/south street orientation.

A combination of small lot size and shadow casting prohibitions on quite close neighboring properties makes additions to these properties significantly more challenging than other locations throughout the city.  That the overlay of multiple city regulations have a greater impact on lower cost properties may be of no surprise to conspiracy theorists, but I do not think that these impacts have been recognized by Planning staff, City Council or the public.  I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but some reconsideration of not just the Compatible Development regulations but also the existing Solar Shadow ordinance ought to be undertaken with regard to street orientation.  I wouldn’t advocate an even more complicated set of rules parsing these properties but some consideration ought to be given to the implications this map reveals.

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder’s Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder's Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder’s Compatible Development regulations, Part III

In an ongoing series of a cursory analysis of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulation slated to take affect January 4th, here is another set of consequences of part of that regulation – bulk planes.

This study was looking at a generic south Boulder Ranch located on a north-south street.  It assumes flat topography and a fairly standard size lot and existing ranch type house.

Prior to the regulations, any second floor addition was limited by the solar shadow (see the diagram below).  This is not a particularly beautiful addition, but it is the simplest kind of construction – building a simple addition that mirrors the roof of the existing ranch, has an 8′ high ceiling and is built as much as possible over the existing exterior walls.  (new bulk planes shown in red, existing house is green, addition in white)

You can see the shadow cast to the north has limited the location of the north wall of the second story.  The south gable end of this typical type of addition is in violation of the new bulk plane.

To bring this kind of addition into compliance, the south side of the second story addition would have to be move to the north by approximately 5′, resulting in:

a strange little addition

To more easily comply with the bulk plane regulations, a gable-fronted second story addition could be added on:

a bit of a monster on top of the original ranch house and very different kind of style

There is an exception to the bulk plane rule that would allow a larger, second story addition that still mirrored the roof line of the ranch.  It has to be at least 40′ long to allow for the exception to violate the bulk plane, resulting in:

a frightening looking thing – note that a significant portion of the second story at the back of the house is hovering above the ground.  The width of the allowed second story has to be 40′ – deeper than the typical ranch it sits on.

In part IV we will look at the part of the new regulations that will restrict the length of the new side walls and their articulation.  (In the example diagram above, the second story addition has to be 40′ exactly, not an inch less or the bulk plane exception would not be allowed, nor an inch more or the wall articulation regulation would be violated!)

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder's Compatible Development regulations, Part III

In an ongoing series of a cursory analysis of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulation slated to take affect January 4th, here is another set of consequences of part of that regulation – bulk planes.

This study was looking at a generic south Boulder Ranch located on a north-south street.  It assumes flat topography and a fairly standard size lot and existing ranch type house.

Prior to the regulations, any second floor addition was limited by the solar shadow (see the diagram below).  This is not a particularly beautiful addition, but it is the simplest kind of construction – building a simple addition that mirrors the roof of the existing ranch, has an 8′ high ceiling and is built as much as possible over the existing exterior walls.  (new bulk planes shown in red, existing house is green, addition in white)

You can see the shadow cast to the north has limited the location of the north wall of the second story.  The south gable end of this typical type of addition is in violation of the new bulk plane.

To bring this kind of addition into compliance, the south side of the second story addition would have to be move to the north by approximately 5′, resulting in:

a strange little addition

To more easily comply with the bulk plane regulations, a gable-fronted second story addition could be added on:

a bit of a monster on top of the original ranch house and very different kind of style

There is an exception to the bulk plane rule that would allow a larger, second story addition that still mirrored the roof line of the ranch.  It has to be at least 40′ long to allow for the exception to violate the bulk plane, resulting in:

a frightening looking thing – note that a significant portion of the second story at the back of the house is hovering above the ground.  The width of the allowed second story has to be 40′ – deeper than the typical ranch it sits on.

In part IV we will look at the part of the new regulations that will restrict the length of the new side walls and their articulation.  (In the example diagram above, the second story addition has to be 40′ exactly, not an inch less or the bulk plane exception would not be allowed, nor an inch more or the wall articulation regulation would be violated!)

banned by Boulder County

Given the Boulder County’s Site Plan Review process, both the explicit and implicit rules within, there are a number of really great buildings that would never be allowed to be built in Boulder County.

banned houses

starting at the top left, clockwise:

house at Riva San Vitale, Ticino, Switzerland, by Mario Botta :  clearly violates  the height rule.  This house sits on the steeply sloping mountainside above a lake.  The design is meant to minimize the footprint of the house and, as a “tower”, presence the experience of the slope, the lake and the mountains beyond.  It is actually not that tall, but from the lowest point on the downhill slope, the upper part would have to conform to the angle of the slope.

Villa Malcontenta, Italy, by Palladio:  is not “compatible with surround topography”.  Like most of Palladio’s villas, this design is set off against the flatness of the land.  It is a mark of occupation, like a stick in the ground, taking in the landscape but clearly not merging with it.  Traditional villas occupy the land and maybe even dominate it.  But they also give scale and proportion to the land.

Villa Savoye, France, by LeCorbusier:  color not acceptable.  This house is a bit restless, looking to possibly move across the landscape.  But, by doing so, it makes the connection between the land and sky, it establishes this place of occupation in the sun and on the land.  It is not a ‘natural’ element of the landscape, but white, and sufficiently abstract to draw attention to the beauty of the landscape.

Gugalun House, Switzerland, by Peter Zumthor: incompatible with Wildfire Resistant materials and construction.  The is a forest house, extending a vernacular building built of the products of the place, wood boards and planks, logs and panels.  It is as flammable as the surround forest, as fragile, but also as timeless.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for protecting Boulder County’s magnificent wilderness views.  But sometimes the landscape is actually improved by a building, brought into focus, given a scale.

alps

Boulder County is not a wilderness.  It is occupied.  It has been mined, traversed, settled, abandoned, and re-inhabited all over the county.  If we had more respect for the land, for a sense of a common occupation of the land, we may not need the burdensome regulations.

However, so many people’s desire to build the biggest possible house on the tallest possible peak or ridge has corrupted the entire prospect of making meaningful architecture.  Maybe we do need to keep the regulations in place until there are enough good architects and responsible owners and builders.

In the meantime, since there is a process that requires individual, site-specific review of every new building, maybe the reviews could do the same – close, individual consideration of overall impact, location and siting, not generic rules applied without consideration to locale.

Regulations of this sort are always difficult to administer, even worse to create.  The ultimate authority on these sits with our elected County Commissioners – to approve or not all projects.  Is the will of the people clear on these issues?  Try coming to an approval meeting and see the range of comments from the public on any given project.

photo credit:  Gugalun House by Marloes Faber, Swiss alps photo from Wayfaring travel guide