I have been remodeling homes in the DC metro area since the 1980s. I meet with hundreds of homeowners each year to discuss their remodeling needs. Each is unique. Sometimes the homes are more interesting than the homeowners – and at other times the people are more interesting than the house.
Despite the need for customized design/build services, each remodeling project requires resolving issues surrounding zoning, building codes, historic districts, structure and budget.
Let’s start with zoning, which was first implemented in DC in 1920 and revised in 2016. If you are planning to change the footprint of your house, it will require checking the zoning codes. Get a copy of your House Location Survey drawing that you paid for at settlement. It was called “survey” on your settlement sheet, and most lenders require one. Some of the House Location Surveys I have seen are quite detailed and others have very little information.
It may be worth paying for a detailed survey if you are planning a home addition. The survey drawing must show the dimensions of the lot, dimensions of the house and how the house sits on the lot. Whether planning a porch, deck or room addition (up or out), someone needs to explore the zoning code. Zoning is, at times, simple and straightforward. Other times it’s a mysterious puzzle not so easily solved. Don’t assume it’s simple.
For many Capitol Hill homes the front yard is actually public space and not privately owned. Regulations regarding public space are to be taken seriously, so don’t assume you can build on it. There are provisions for special circumstances such as outside stairs to a basement, bay windows and other on-grade issues for which a public space permit is required.
Digging deeper, DC has the curious issue of Tax Lots (typically 800 numbers) and Record Lots. I have even seen “900” lot numbers which have specificity. When it comes to building an addition, it is necessary to convert the Tax Lot number to a Record Lot number before applying for a building permit. The process is called a “subdivision” and can take many months, require numerous signatures and necessitate payments to the DC surveyor’s office.
At times, easements have been placed on a property for access for trash, fire or utilities. If you want to expand your home beyond the zoning limits, you can apply for a zoning variance, but be prepared for a year-long process. All can inhibit what you do with your land.
Additionally, don’t assume because your neighbors house has an addition, deck or third floor that you can do the same. It may have been done years ago, without a permit, may have been built with a zoning variance or was built before 1958. Many of us have heard of real estate investors on Capitol Hill who have built without proper approvals and had to remove the third floor or take down a rear addition. A 50-floor skyscraper under construction in Manhattan just got a court order to remove the top 20 floors!
Hire a professional. It will save you time, heartache and money.
There is a reason for building codes: life, safety and health issues. Don’t want your rowhouse to catch fire when your neighbor’s house is in flames? Thank the fire walls. Don’t want your deck to collapse when you have a crowd for a party? Thank the structural code requirements. Like to be able to have natural light and ventilation or crawl out of a bedroom window during a fire risk? Thank the building code. Need access to your electrical panel in an emergency? Thank the code that requires three-foot clearance in front of the electrical panel.
Stuff happens. Be prepared. Don’t be a smarty pants scofflaw. Hire a building professional for your remodeling project.
If you own a house, know if you are within an historic district. Read up on the requirements for the pleasure of living in an historic district. Capitol Hill is one of the largest historic districts in the United States, comprising over 11,000 buildings. If you own a house on Capitol Hill and are planning any significant changes to the exterior (not including paint color), you will need to be aware of the following organizations.
The DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO), Office of Planning, is the organization that will review the alterations you are planning and make recommendations to improve it, reject it or approve it. The process can take a few months, and approval will be required before moving along the building permit process. If your proposed alteration is simple, such as door or window replacements, it will often be approved by an HPO staff member, and you can more quickly get a permit.
Working in tandem with HPO is the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS), the local citizens group, which may be asked to review the proposed remodeling/addition. CHRS approval will usually help you gain approval from HPO. Occasionally, if your home is adjacent to the Capitol Hill complex (land or buildings), you may bump up against the Fine Arts Commission, which will also require approval for the permit process.
Most homeowners get frustrated with the historic district approval process because it can take a long time, is added expense and is mysterious. An experienced design professional can make it easier. The upside is that the Capitol Hill historic district continues to be a desirable and visually pleasing place to live. It is worth it.
Homeowners often overestimate the structural complexity of some alterations and underestimate others. I wish I had a dollar for every time a homeowner tells me, “This is an interior load-bearing wall, so I guess we have to live with it.” Duh. No. Let’s put in a simple microlam or steel beam and open the wall.
Other times I’m told they want to dig out a crawl space where there are masonry walls to make more basement space. Well, no, because the masonry walls around a crawl space do not descend as far as the basement walls.
Other concerns homeowners have is for underpinning foundation walls when digging out a basement. Occasionally, foundation walls are deep enough to dig down 8-12 inches and gain more ceiling height, and other times they are not.
Homeowners often decide to build an extra floor on top of their house, which has numerous structural issues.
Each old house is unique and needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Because we are working with old buildings that were built in a different time, and often altered over the last 100 years, it’s important to fully study the house and all its quirks.
Structural changes may be simple or complicated, but in DC it is advisable to get a structural engineer involved. A structural engineer’s stamped drawings will expedite the building permit process and provide authority on the changes being made to your home. Your architect and structural engineer will work together for the optimum solution and properly document their design for the contractor. It is a smart investment, and all is well.
Budget is a complicated and emotional topic for homeowners. In my experience, homeowners estimate their remodeling project will cost about 60% of what it will really cost. Sometimes less and sometimes more. Most homeowners have a scope of work that is too ambitious for their budget.
It’s necessary to establish priorities. Occasionally, homeowners get bad budget information from an architect or contractor. I find it’s important to be able to visualize the completed project to get closer to a proper budget figure.
Remodeling is more complicated than homeowners realize. It’s like doing surgery. The bad portion of the house must be carefully removed before building the new. This must take place while protecting adjacent areas from damage, often while the homeowners remain in residence.
Remodeling is a specialty trade. The architects/designers who specialize in remodeling have a different skill set than those that do new construction. A carpenter skilled at home remodeling is especially valuable. Good remodeling carpenters are highly compensated, and they are the surgeons of the building industry.
At my firm, we price each remodeling project three times. First is an initial ballpark range based on a design concept and written scope of work. Second is pricing based on the client’s preferred design that is within 10% of a final price. And third is the final fixed-price based on completed and thorough construction drawings ready for a contract signing.
The process works well for all parties to be informed and track the changes. Use this checklist to make sure you have covered all the bases. Hire design and construction professionals who are experienced in remodeling. Have a realistic budget and time frame. Pay attention to the design details. Be patient. A place to call home will be waiting.
Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is a licensed architect and contractor in the DMV area. He has been designing and remodeling homes since the early 1980s. His first office was on Capitol Hill, where he got intimate with old houses. Visit www.wentworthstudio.com to learn more about the firm’s large body of design/build work.