Tuesday, July 22, 2008

D+R Readers Answer Shackitecture Questions

Previously, D+R posed some newbie questions on shackitecture to satisfy the question: what sort of a shack could we safely build while avoiding the formality of zoning and building inspectors?

Many thanks to our panel of consultants: Eric, Steve, Jeffrey/Jillian and Becky.

This is merely a dinner table conversation with some knowledgeable folks who have considered these issues before. Though we summarize the viewpoints, we are responsible for nothing. To assure future consultations, we will shield our individual participants from scrutiny by presenting an amalgam of the responses.

We have heard that it is against code and illegal to utilize used lumber. Is this a fallacy? Does that restriction only apply to structural wood?

Naturally, our newbie viewpoint posed questions far simpler than the reality of the situation.

It is not against code to utilize used lumber in a broad sense. However, there are code requirements for specific building techniques. So, while framing a wall may call for a specific wood, there would be different (looser) requirements for elements like interior cladding, exterior siding, flooring and, importantly, interior furniture and decoration.

The issue is not used vs. new wood, but specification of type of wood and grade quality. The Rebuilding Center in Oregon seems to have addressed this issue by having an individual trained to re-grade used lumber. If I can find 5 minutes, I will call them and find out.

As a scavenger, I am particularly interested in building from found materials, but there are also material options like Medite II, which is made from ground-up wooden pallets.

Does a building under 100 square feet require a permit?

Yes, it would require a permit. But, if you can keep the size under 64 square feet, there are some interesting options available to shackitects.

From the Los Angeles Uniform Building Code:

101.5. Work Not in Scope. The provisions of this Code shall not apply to any of the following:

1. A building accessory to a dwelling and not located in Fire District No. 1 or 2, provided the building is not more than 64 square feet in area or 8 feet in height and does not contain any heating, plumbing or electrical installation, and is located as permitted by the Los Angeles Zoning Code.

This brings up a critical issue. Building code defines how a structure is constructed while zoning refers to what can be built where. When you wanted to build a 7-11 in your front yard, it was the zoning department that told you that you couldn't. When you wanted to build a 7-11 out of rubber bands and jelly jars, it was the building inspector who killed it.

Therefore, even if you determined you were able to build a 64 square foot 'storage shed' without plumbing or electricity, you would still need to have the zoning department's approval for issues like set backs and fire restrictions. Plus, the LA City requires that a permit is pulled whenever work is estimated to cost over $500.

Other structures outside the constraints of the building code include pergolas and lath houses up to 400 sq ft, oil derricks and movie sets.

What would keep an individual from building 2-3 100 square foot shacks?

This is a zoning issue, but you should be able to build multiple 64 square foot shacks as long as they conform to the standards set for storage (i.e. no plumbing, electrical) and meet the requirements of the zoning laws.

Are there restrictions on what can be in a 100 square foot shack, like no bathroom?

Add a bathroom or a kitchen and you are building a secondary living space on your property. Again, this is a zoning issue first - "Can I build here?" and then a building code issue, "What is required for construction for electrical/plumbing/sewer?"

A sobering point from one of our consultants:
Any second structure on the site would be subject to setbacks and height limits as well as maintaining any fire ratings for walls and openings relative to distance from the property line and adjacent structures. This could be a liability issue if not done correctly without a permit; if something goes wrong and your neighbors house burns down from something in your shack you could be royally fucked. If you have a sizable, unpermitted or non-compliant structure on the property it could affect the future sale of your property as well.
Mobile homes are exempt from building codes, correct? As such, could you buy a mobile home and strip it to a skeleton and use this as a basis for building a code-free shackitecture project?

Not really. Again, this is a zoning issue.

From one of our consultants:
...planning & zoning could make the determination if a mobile home could be set up for permanent connection and occupation. I did renovate a mobile home once and this came up in the planning dept because we put in a permit for a water connection and sanitary sewer line. Planning would not allow it since mobile homes were not allowed to be hooked up in the area.
From another of our consultants:
Actually, Mobile Homes are inspected by the building department in California. You may be thinking about camper trailers, which have a different set of rules that apply to them.
Camper trailers! This is one of the possibilities executed by Tumbleweed Homes.

Considerations for Working with Zoning and Building Departments
  • "What can I build?" - That question will get you NOWHERE with zoning and planning. Even if you present a chicken scratching, show what and where you want to build. No different than any other professional, they will take the time to tell you what is wrong with your plan but will not train you.
  • Good advice from one of our consultants:
"If it would behoove your project, you could always schedule a preapplication meeting with the building or planning dept to review your project and review codes issues that are subject to interpretation. Do this before you submit for permit. This can save you lots of money and headaches down the road on your project. I do this frequently and on larger projects it is often necessary since there will be handfuls of issues subject to interpretation. And always, ALWAYS, keep detailed notes of your meetings with plan checkers and inspectors. I usually will send a copy of my meeting notes for review to those present at those meetings for final approval."

D+R Summary of Possible Shackitecture Options
  • Forget 100 square feet, under 64 square feet is the magic number
  • Think storage - a building under 64 square feet without electrical or plumbing and used for storage is outside the building code restrictions
  • Used wood is OK for many uses and may be OK for all uses when building a 64 square foot storage shed
  • Consider a pergola or lath structure - under 400 square feet is not covered by building code
  • Lack of electrical does not mean no light. It seems low voltage is an option, either solar LED or Malibu lights
  • Zoning laws affect what you can build - this includes ingress/egress, setbacks, zoning classification of your lot, fire safety, etc.
Still lots to research! Check out the California Building Code!