Chapter 9: Asking for permission
We know what we want the house to look like. But are we allowed to build it?
Where we left off: Rendering a 3D model of our home helped us envision what it could look like. The next step: Actually getting approval to build it through the permitting process.
This post is written by Ben with edits from Mindy.
Before we get into the adventures of permitting, there was a big, looming question we had to answer: What was below the surface of the property?
In the septic plan, we had seen that there was potentially bedrock right underneath the surface. Now that we owned the land, we could finally find out for sure.
Our GC (General Contractor) arranged to have a local contractor who owned a four-ton excavator swing by the property and dig a few test holes. The day prior, I drove up to the property and marked out the approximate locations of each building with fiberglass rods so we would know important places to check.
We started digging, and…
… we hit bedrock. Barely a foot below the ground. Fuck.
I had mentally prepared myself for this moment. On one hand it was a relief to have the question definitively answered. On the other hand, removing hundreds of cubic yards of rock is not cheap (roughly $30k for the footprint we were building on).
The contractor poked around a bit more at the rock. In one location, it appeared to break apart relatively easily but in other places it didn’t. In theory, you can get an enormous hydraulic breaker to shatter the rock, but only up to certain levels of hardness.
After looking up the local geographical surveys after the fact, it appeared that the rock was a form of gneiss (pronounced “nice”), which has a range of hardness levels but can easily be found past the level breakable via huge machinery.
We would have to blast before building — in other words, drill dynamite into the ground, blow up the large slabs of rock underneath the surface, and excavate the pieces so that we could build a foundation in its place.
But will they let us?
Each town has a unique and often idiosyncratic code governing what you can and can’t build. If you want to build a house, you first need to ask for permission by filing a bunch of paperwork describing the design in detail.
Someone in the town office reviews them against code and follows up with either (a) permission to build the thing or (b) feedback so that you can modify your designs and resubmit. In some cases, you’re asked to advocate for your project in a public hearing in which the town says yay or nay. The process can take quite some time because most townships are in no hurry to approve your plans and generally have zero incentive to help you expedite the project. They’re operating in good faith — and good faith generally means a much slower timeline than you’d like.
Mindy and I both work in tech, so many of our friends live in San Francisco. If you’ve spent time in San Francisco and haven’t bough or owned a home, your exposure to permitting is likely through apocryphal stories about zoning and NIMBYism.
Stories about how it takes a year to get a permit to remodel your bathroom or how a ridiculous amount of San Francisco is limited to single-use zoning. These scared us.
Having recently completed a nine month permitting process in Marin County, our architects had assured us that the East Coast was not nearly as bad. Feeling relieved, I subsequently ceased thinking about permitting until after we had finished purchasing our land.
This would soon prove to be a mistake.
Before we get into the adventures of permitting, let us walk you through the various kinds of permits we needed to build our home:
If you’ve ever played Sim City, you might remember marking map tiles as residential, commercial or industrial. This is the essence of zoning. It’s the set of restrictions that determines how you can use a plot of land.
For example: If you’re building in a dense city, you’d want to avoid intermingling heavy industrial work with families and schools. As you get less and less dense, you’d imagine that zoning becomes less crucial since you’re unlikely to be close enough to anyone to be a nuisance.
Zoning is typically defined at the municipal level. Plenty of municipalities have no zoning whatsoever; on the other end of the spectrum, others have exceptionally strict rules. If we were to do this again, I would’ve paid a lot more attention to the municipalities zoning laws when evaluating a plot of land.
The dark side of zoning laws: An often unspoken purpose is to keep “the character of the town” and exclude people from building homes that are “out of character.” Under this intention, it’s no surprise that they are often steeped in inherent racism and socioeconomic bias.
Building permits are designed to ensure you don’t build a death trap or otherwise unsuitable abode. These are typically thousands of pages worth of rules about things like the ratio of windows to floor square footage allowed in a bedroom or the kinds of pipes you can use for plumbing (i.e. no lead).
Mindy’s commentary: While some sections of building code are there for good reason, others feel highly arbitrary and constrain architectural innovation. See this innovative multi-story home in Japan that would likely be impossible to build in most U.S. towns and cities:
The rules themselves are typically set at a state-level and enforced by your local municipality. The states typically use the International Residential Code as a template and add any specific customizations relevant to the geography (i.e. additional rules around Radon mitigation if you’re in Connecticut).
Some places (usually more rural states) actually have no (enforced) building codes. As a result you can end up with some pretty wonky stuff. A free-for-all initially sounds appealing, but building codes are really a collection of best engineering practices and paying a building inspector to double check your design is a pretty great public service.
Building permits are a lot more involved and require a thorough review of drawings by the local building inspector. These cost some percentage of the estimated building’s value — which will easily be thousands of dollars.
Septic permits are for your sewage disposal system (if you don’t have public sewer access). I described in an earlier post the literal shitstorm that might ensue if you screw this up, so it’s natural that there’s a regulatory process around designing these systems.
Septic regulations are also typically defined at the state level by the state’s Department of Health and enforced by your local board of health.
This is pretty specific to your locality, but in our case because we needed a permit to work on the driveway, because (if I remember correctly) ours is steep and long. Typical rules mandate a maximum steepness you can have and sometimes the types of materials you can use to construct a driveway.
As you can imagine, explosives are heavily regulated and you need a permit to blow things up. We initially feared that this would be a complicated hurdle to clear but there’s a lot of shallow bedrock in Connecticut and in our locality all this required was the blaster to walk into the fire marshal’s office and basically sign a piece of paper saying they were licensed.
Act 1: The Driveway
In our town’s official zoning rules—an unsearchable PDF of a scanned printout of a word document—I noticed the following detail:
The maximum grade of the driveway travelway shall be 15%.*
*Note: The grade is simply the slope (rise over run) multiplied by 100.
Shoot. We’re building on top of a hill and when driving up, it seemed pretty steep (although less steep than before the previous owners re-cut it). But how steep was it?
Fortunately, with our captured drone footage, I could get a first order approximation of the grade of the existing driveway. Using the 3D models from the previous post, I could do some analysis to assess the slope along the driveway on our property:
It turns out there were two chunks of the driveway which capped out at around 17%
I thought to myself: Maybe the drone footage isn’t calibrated and there might be drift along the vertical axis causing error.
So I bought a laser rangefinder and drove to the property to measure the grade by hand — it was bang on.
At this point, I was furiously trying to plot alternate paths up the hill that reduced the grade to acceptable levels. The previous owners had already recut the driveway to make it less steep (you can just barely see the outline of the old road in the image above), but they clearly didn’t do a good job of it. A lot of zigs and zags would be required.
As part of this whole process I had gotten into a bit of a habit calling up the local Planning and Zoning Administrator. Let’s call her Sherry. Before we bought the property, she had been a helpful guide, sharing previous photocopies of plans. Now she was the gatekeeper between us and starting construction.
On a call primarily focused on other permitting questions, I mentioned that we were figuring out how to re-route the driveway.
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“Doesn’t it have to be below 15% grade?” I sheepishly replied.
“Below 15% grade means end to end,” she continued. “I’ve been to your property before and you have that huge driveway, right? That’s definitely less than 15% end to end. You’re fine.”
…what? It turns out that I was over-analyzing the driveway situation. I thought that every point of the driveway had to be <15% grade. In reality, you only had to have an average of 15% grade between the start and end points.
Under that interpretation, you could put an arbitrarily tall tower in the middle of your driveway and require people to drive up once side and down the other and still be compliant with the town ordinances.
Regardless, we didn’t need to (completely) re-cut the driveway! Hooray! Having something work out in your favor unexpectedly is rare when building a home, so we’ll take the the win.
I think the moral of the story is that if you’re writing town ordinances about driveway steepness, consider my humble alternative proposal to clear up any ambiguity:
Act 2: The Guest House
As we’ve discussed in past chapters, we hope to host a lot of our closest friends at our property comfortably. Comfortably, in this case, means that guests have their own space where they can truly relax.
We wanted a guest bedroom and en-suite bathroom that was physically separate from the main house. In building code language, this separate building was referred to as an “accessory building/apartment.”
If you’ve ever pondered the existential question of “what is a sandwich, really?” let me introduce you to the building equivalent: “what is an accessory apartment, really?”
In the zoning laws for our town, we own a “Rural Residential”-zoned plot of land. According to the rules we’re allowed the following:
One family dwelling and related accessory buildings and structures
Signs and parking areas
Non-commercial stables provided there is one-half acre of land per horse
In additional, there are “special exemption” uses subject to a public hearing and additional use-specific requirements.
(15 other random things)
Hmm, might our guest house be considered an accessory apartment?
I began to look into what an “accessory apartment” required and uncovered the following:
Must be at least 500 square feet
Must include a full kitchen and bath
Must have a public hearing
Let’s talk about each of these in turn:
Must be 500 square feet—this would add some cost, but is ultimately not a huge deal. The guest house is basically one big room with a bathroom so now it’d be a slightly bigger room with a bathroom.
Must include a full kitchen and bath—we definitely wanted a bath in the first place but a full kitchen (for which a definition is ambiguous, but generally assumed to include a sink, stove and refrigerator) seemed wholly unnecessary. We bond over food, it’d be super bizarre to invite guests over and then have them make ramen alone.
Must have a public hearing—this would not be fun, but wasn’t the end of the world except: we’re amidst a pandemic and all public hearings are cancelled until further notice.
I called up our friend Sherry, and she said that if someone was going to stay in an accessory building, that would make it an accessory apartment. Sometimes people try to get around this by building a “breezeway” between buildings—but in the past few years, Sherry shared, they’ve really started to really frown upon that (whatever that means).
What’s really breaks my brain here is that if we built an odd enclosed hallway between the main house and guest house, we could avoid all this drama. Instead we require consent from our neighbors (and the rest of the town) to avoid building a couple walls. Might I remind you: We can’t even see any of our neighbors from our secluded property! Nonetheless, code is code, even if no one is there to witness it.
Sizing up planning and zoning
To make a decision about the guest house, we needed to figure out how much the town was going to hold our feet to the fire on compliance with all these rules—and if we would ever be able to have a public hearing before 2022 when we’re all vaccinated and life has hopefully returned to normal.
Fortunately, the minutes from the monthly planning and zoning committees are posted online. To get inside the heads of the people who’d determine the fate of our home, I skimmed minutes from the past year and came away with a couple insightful anecdotes:
There’s a public square in town where plays and movies are shown outside. The town officials patrol the perimeter of the area with a decibel meter to ensure they stay within town rules around noise levels.
Amidst the pandemic, one business requested the ability to put a tent on the lawn in front of them so that people could be protected from the elements while customers ate outside. The town decided that because this tent was attached to the ground, it qualified as a building. But since no tent could fit in with the “historic nature” of the town center, the request was denied.
So screw local businesses, I guess? It was clear we weren’t going to squeak anything by.
Getting Plans Together
In order to get a zoning permit, we needed to submit a site plan. The scope of a site plan is basically everything outside of the walls of your house—the location of the building(s) on the plot, the driveway, any sort of drainage.
Surprisingly, the person to put this together is not an architect but a civil engineer. I never cease to be amazed at how ‘distributed’ the skills are required to build something. You’d think that perhaps people might “double major” in civil engineering and architecture—but both require separate (multi-year) apprenticeships to become properly licensed.
I ran a quick process to find a civil engineer and ended up going with the same guy who designed the septic plan for the previous owners. This ended up being a non-trivial expense, but I’d like to believe we saved a bunch of time because we didn’t need to acquaint the engineer with our property.
There were two meaningful hurdles in putting together these plans:
When you have two buildings that share a septic system (read: two poop pipes into one tank), this is called a “central sewer,” and is normally not allowed by the Connecticut Board of Health. The town itself wasn’t familiar with how this works (there’s a random form you need to fill out and send to the state first), but our civil engineer shepherded us through this 🙏
In order to get around the seeming impossibility of a guest house zoned as such, we came up with a plan to call it a “home office.” To mitigate against the risk of having it classified as an accessory apartment in the end, we built large enough that we could get it formally approved via public hearing, if needed. This bit of risk mitigation increased our cost of the guest house by >30%—an unexpected dent in the budget, but worth it (plus our future guests get a bigger place to stay). We flip-flopped a bit on whether we could sneak in a shower & bath (the civil engineer thought our chances were better without it) but after talking with the town, they seemed fine with a full bath in an “office” so we left it in.
Who knew that not building a couple walls would prove so complicated?
After wrapping up these decisions, we handed everything off to our general contractor to submit the formal application on our behalf. A month or so later we got a couple random emails from the town out of the blue.
The zoning permit:
I was kind of taken aback at how simple this is — it looks like a hall pass from elementary school? We stressed about a guest house for weeks to get… this?
The building permit was a little more formal:
So end-to-end this whole process took three months, with one month of planning upfront. Not as simple as we had hoped, but it was done — it was finally time to break ground!
Up next: We break ground with an explosion, and I do my best impression of MacGyver.