McMansion Ordinance and the FAR Limit in Austin

By Debra Blessman, C.P.B.D. When I sat down to write this blog post about Austin’s McMansion Ordinance, I thought, “Oh, this will be easy. A few pointers, a few definitions, and . . .” Well, that’s where I had to stop and back up.

Anyone doing residential construction or remodeling in Austin has bumped up against the McMansion Ordinance. You know -- the complex set of rules that keep your neighbors from tearing down their house and building one that’s twice as large, blocks your view, and sticks out like a sore thumb in your neighborhood. The rule that continues to keep everyone doing residential construction work in the city, or who wants to do work, in an uproar because they feel they can’t do anything the city will approve. In the years since it was enacted, the McMansion Ordinace has been a hotbed of issues and problems that plague the construction industry in our wonderful city. It’s a sensitive issue and can’t be taken lightly.

We design professionals in this industry are required to keep up with current city codes and ordinances, deed restrictions, national codes, handicap codes, and much more -- all the things that govern how your house is designed and built. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming just trying to keep current with it all. The McMansion Ordinance is just one example of the things that keep our work lively and colorful.

A little history: In September 2006, the original Subchapter F: Residential Design and Compatibility Standards went into effect in Austin. Many issues arose and ignited the formation of a task force that re-evaluated those standards.  Some dedicated industry professionals and key people in City government worked hard to revamp the standards. And although there are still some who believe the McMansion standards aren’t quite right, they are what they are, and we must work with them.

Let’s cover some basics of the McMansion Ordinance.

First, there’s the “Floor to Area Ratio” (FAR). The floor square-footage you build must be no more than 40% of the square footage of the property. Oh, but the total floor area can’t be more than 2300 square feet, and you have to figure all that area in very specific ways. And then you have to count any part of your garage that’s over 450 square feet of area. But then you don’t have to count porches on the lowest floor; well, unless there’s habitable space above it and then you’re limited to 200 square feet of that porch that you don’t have to count. Oh, I almost forgot, that porch can’t connect to a driveway or be accessible by automobile either. Then of course you have to count the area of all your conditioned space, and you may even have attic space that must be counted. And here’s a tricky one -- any area in your home that has a ceiling height over 15 feet has to be counted twice. What does that mean? It’s all pretty confusing right?

Then there’s the “Buildable Area” of your lot. Seems simple enough, right? Imagine a 3-dimensional tent formed to the constraints of your lot and within the limitations of the McMansion Ordinance. Your house must fit inside this “tent.” Your house can poke out a little, but even that has very strict rules you must follow. Oh, and lest I forget -- all this is in addition to already existing city code issues like the allowed building height and impervious coverage restrictions and any easements or flood zone issues you may have.

It all seems pretty daunting, doesn’t it?

Whether you have a remodel or a totally new construction project in the city of Austin, the McMansion Ordinance might come into play. I say might because the ordinance covers only a certain area of Austin. I would try and give you the boundaries, but even that is a little complicated. See a map of the area covered by the McMansion Ordinance.

I’ve given you just a tiny sample of the McMansion Ordinance rules. The McMansion Ordinance was put into place basically to protect our real estate investments and keep “overbuilding” from happening in central Austin. And like many government rules and regulations put in to place for our protection, it also unfortunately has its problems and weaknesses. If you’d like to do some searching on your own, check out the City of Austin McMansion Ordinance for yourself. You’ll find how to calculate floor square footage (gross floor area) in article 3.3. How to figure buildable area is in article 2. If you’ve already done some reading on your own, you might feel it’s impossible to get what you want. “So what do we do? We just need to add a bedroom -- we don’t want the world.” First off, relax. You might or might not have a problem. Your first step should be to contact a building professional who works on projects within Austin city limits, preferably someone who has McMansion experience. Whether you call a Certified Professional Building Designer like me, an architect, or your builder, talk with us about your project. We can help you answer some basic questions, starting with finding out if your property is within the area governed by the ordinance. After that, we design within those standards, and then dive into what has to be done to gain approval from the city and move forward with your project.