When you need an Architect in Austin

We recently had an architectural firm in our office for a presentation and we were very impressed with the knowledge that Francisco Arrendondo with North Arrow Studios gave us.  Below are my notes from this meeting.  

Evaluating a residential property

Permitting Process

For a basic renovation addition, or new construction, a Residential New Construction and Addition Permit is submitted and while the City of Austin’s official review time is 15 business days, it generally takes 4 weeks. Official permit review times for all permits are published in Section 15.7 of the Building Criteria Manual. 

Submitting for a residential permit may require different services. A civil engineer may be required adding a tap and can cost $3,000. City fees can be around $20,000.

You may be required to hire a certified arborist. Hiring a certified arborist is recommended regardless of whether the city requires one.

A general timeline for a basic New Construction and Addition Permitincludes 15 business days for the city to review your initial application, a couple weeks or more, depending on the extent of comments received and trades requires to address comments, and 15 business days for the city to review your revised application. Once your permit is approved you are given 6 months to purchase your permit before it expires. You are allowed one 6-month permit extension.

The City of Austin's applicable codes are continually being updated.  It is recommended to check with section 6.7.0 of the Building Criteria Manual for code adoption dates.

Code Next Austin

CodeNEXT is the City of Austin's new initiative to revise the Land Development Code. CodeNEXT determines what can be built, where it can be built, and how much can be built. CodeNEXT is a form-based code built around transect zones.  

From the side of an architect, understanding the code is tedious and complicated in its current state. As a test, North Arrow Studio took three projects that have been permitted, and applied the CodeNEXT new transect zones' proposed rules. The existing projects (again, already approved with City of Austin's current codes) would have been denied by the new rules that are currently proposed. The new code appears to be less flexible, and more rigid with the form of a structure when it comes to potential design solutions. 

A few examples that caused the projects to be denied included stricter parking restrictions and building setbacks.

Land Use Commission is set to review a new draft in August. One of the many issues that have been discussed from the draft's current state is how the city is addressing the housing affordability crisis. The final draft of Code Next, if it's adopted, would go in effect in April of 2018. 


When do you need a building permit? When do you need to hire an architect?  

A building permit is required to erect, construct, enlarge, alter, repair, improve, remove, convert, move or demolish any building. A trade permit may also be required (electrical, mechanical, plumbing) depending on the type of work. 

An architect is not required for a single-story new construction less than 20’ in height and/or an addition/remodel less than 20’ in height.


When do you need a residential express permit 

A residential express permit is limited to the following types of projects: 

  • Replacing windows and/or exterior doors, same size and same location
  • adding/removing siding, brick, and/or insulation 
  • Repairing a roof to the extent of replacing decking boards/fascia, or foundation without increasing impervious cover 
  • Bathroom and kitchen remodel without fixture addition or relocation 
  • Roof mounted solar panels 
  • Remove/repair drywall in excess of 32 sqft


Evaluating an Austin property for development

Protected Trees

  • Protected Trees - All trees regardless of species with a diameter of 19 inches or greater are classified as “protected”. 
  • Heritage Trees are certain species of trees with a 24 inch diameter and require a higher level of preservation.   
  • Tree preservation is effectively defined as root system preservation; a Critical Root Zone Area (CRZ) is assigned to each tree, based on trunk diameter size. 
  • A 20 inch diameter tree has a 10'-diameter 1/4 CRZ, 20'-diameter 1/2 CRZ, and a 40'-diameter CRZ. Each CRZ has a set of rules that depict the amount of disturbance allowed in the zone. 
  • Every tree permit is reviewed on a case-by-case basis that may require more extensive protection than the requirements in the Land Development Code

North Arrow Studio has permitted various homes with protected trees and every process varies in regards to requirements for the protection of the trees. Some examples include whether a certified arborist needs to be hired vs. the city arborist visits the site and evaluates the tree themselves, allowing a pier in the ½ CRZ, and amount of work allowed on a tree that’s CRZs encroach on more than one property.

Evaluation Soil Conditions

Soil conditions can affect the type of foundation you use, and can determine a site’s possibility for on-site septic. Soil evaluations are often used on properties that are over the Edwards Aquifer.   

Irregular slopes on a property can bring drainage problems and impact construction costs regarding hardscape and circulation.  

There can be pros to having a steep slope.  The slope can provide great views and land acquisition can be cheaper in some cases.

Floodplain and Erosion Hazard Zone

Submitting a residential permit may require a civil engineer to evaluate the potential impact of the Erosion Hazard Zone (EHZ)

The erosion hazard zone (EHZ) can have significant problems as it can be much more costly.  Anywhere there is a creek or river you should check to see if it's in the EHZ.  

If your property encroaches on the 25 or 100-year flood plain, your finished elevation needs to be above the regulatory base flood elevation determined by watershed protection department.  

Visitability 

Visitability is defined as a very basic level of accessibility that enables people with physical limitations to easily visit homes. There are exterior visitability and interior visitability requirements - this was adopted in 2014 for new construction. There are two ways you can be exempt from complying with exterior visitability and installing a ramp: if your property has a slope greater than 10% prior to development, and if compliance cannot be achieved without the use of switchbacks.

Interior visitability - for this, you need to be able to get from the front door to public spaces.  This affects homes that are on a slope where you want the levels to follow the slope (split levels).  

How utilities impact development or adding square footage to a home

  • Is there an existing power pole? 
  • Do I need to remove the power pole? 
  • Do I need to install a power pole? 
  • Is the existing water meter going to affect if I want to build a
    n ADU? 
  • Will any of my utilities pass through a protected tree's CRZ? 
  • Power lines crossing the property?  If it is crossing the property you can’t build within a 10-foot sphere of that power line.  This doesn’t happen very often but it is something that should be considered. 

These are all issues that need to be taken into consideration when you are evaluating a lot or a home that you want to add onto. Most of these are items that North Arrow has encountered and needed to provide extra work or hire additional services to resolve.

Evaluating a sidewalk

A new build is going to require either constructing a sidewalk or pay a fee-in-lieu. A sidewalk or fee-in-lieu is also required when any addition to an existing building increases the building's gross floor area by 50% or more. There are conditions that will require paying the fee or require building a sidewalk. One example is if 50% of a block face has sidewalks you are required to build one. When you are able to choose between the two options, one thing to consider is the price difference between the two. A flat property may be less expensive to build a sidewalk than to pay the fee. 

Deed restrictions, easements, and standards

  • Especially when you go into a gated community or master planned community.  For deed restrictions may supersede city setbacks.  Deed restrictions are enforced civilly.
  • Homeowners Association- you need to see what they will allow being built if you are building in a neighborhood that has an HOA.  Many times they have an architectural committee where plans need to be reviewed. 
  • City easements show up in plats

Building systems for existing homes 

  • Are the windows and doors up to code?  
  • Are the windows double paned and properly insulating? 
  • Is the roof and wall framing showing any signs of deterioration or deformation? 
  • Is the insulation working properly? Does insulation exist? 
  • If built in the 70’s are the pipes cast iron? 
  • Has the foundation settled? 
  • Was sheathing and waterproofing installed underneath the exterior siding?

Austin Historical Landmark Commission 

If a home is more than 40 years old it will be reviewed by the Historical Landmark Commission to determine whether it can be taken down. 

North Arrow Studio has submitted their fair share of demolition permits on >40 year old homes and have had a few homes that aesthetically may not appear to have any historical significance, but through further research have learned a person the city classifies as historically significant may have simply rented the home at one time.  

Zoning 

We recommend reviewing the City of Austin Zoning Guide for your specific property's regulations including height restrictions, setbacks, and minimum lot size. A few other regulations to consider are you maximum Floor to Area Ratio and Impervious cover for your specific zoning. Using up your maximum

square footage may require additional surveys to provide more precise documentation to the city versus being under at least 5%. Calculation aids and exemptions can be found in the Residential New Construction and Addition Permit Application. 

One example for calculation exemptions includes uncovered wooden decks. 50% of uncovered decks are considered in the calculation when calculating impervious coverage. 

While each zone has maximum height regulation, Subchapter F's McMansion ordinance has additional height and setback regulations, in order to minimize the impact of new development and rear development on adjacent properties.

Parking and Alleys 

A single family residential, duplex, or single family attached requires 2 parking spaces per dwelling unit. Once your square footage reaches 4000 square feet or more than six bedrooms, you need a parking spot per bedroom.