“It’s big all right,” said a friend of mine. “Buildings can’t be higher than thirty-five feet in URB. That is a hell of a lot higher than thirty-five feet.”
You may have seen it when going by. The peak of the roof of this solar house off Prospect Street now under construction is forty-one feet. The building on Adare Place looms over its neighbors. The houses on this quiet dead-end street are fairly modest. It makes a statement, of sorts. It is a miniature mega-mansion sited on a postage stamp of land. It has 4879 square feet of floor space on three floors; it has soaring ceilings, windows everywhere, radiant heated floors, and it is shoehorned onto a 73 by 111 foot lot. Costing $490,000 to construct, the house is LEED certified,and will demonstrate, according to the builder, that you can have a solar home in the city. I guess you can, but your neighbors may not be too happy with you.
Windsor Mallet of Templetto Homes in Sudbury, MA. told me the building is as high as it is because of a tree on the corner that keeps some of the building site in shadow. It is a modification of a standard Templetto design. In 2013, their design was one of the finalists in the “Small Lot Big Ideas” contest run by the city’s planning department to encourage innovative designs for small lots. Their design was “Solar for the City.” Here is a link to their website. One of their other prize-winning entries was for a super-small so-called “toaster” house.
Northampton adopted its so-called “In-Fill” housing in 2013. The objective of the zoning was to prevent sprawl, by making it easier to build on in-city smaller lots. What concerned opponents (and yes, I was one of them) was that the zoning changes might lead to unattractive buildings not in keeping with the neighborhood. Our planning board and planning department didn’t lose sleep over new buildings not fitting in. They didn’t want to discourage new homes with modern architecture. In discussing this house with planning staff members, I came in for some criticism as being someone who doesn’t like modern architecture. I’m not guilty as charged, but I am not too innocent either. This design, as one of the neighbors, pointed out, might be really attractive out on Route 66 somewhere, in a development of similarly designed homes. But here, sited cheek to jowl in a line of bungalows and colonial revival houses, it looks institutional. It overwhelms. It says, without really meaning to, that we are well-to-do people with social consciences. We care about the planet. And it says it loudly.
John Hoops of Massasoit Street sent a complaint letter to the building inspector, got his opinion, and the inspector replied to him. Read the conversation here. He’s on the money. The scientific basis of these LEED homes helping the planet is pretty shaky. LEED homes, as a friend pointed out, work best when they are modest, when they have say 1200 square feet of space for 2 or 3 people. We might have a family of 12 going into this home, but I kinda doubt it. Why did Louis approve it when the building was too high? A loophole. Here is Louis’ opinion, quoted in a letter to Hoops:
HEIGHT The vertical distance from the average finished grade of the adjacent ground to the top of structure of the highest roof beams of a flat roof, the deck of a mansard roof, or the mean level of the highest gable or slope of a hip roof.
“The mean level of the slope” is the loophole. It means that a house with a fifty foot peak can end up being rated as being 25 feet high. Louis and I went at it hammer and tongs in his little office. It was certainly not a gable roof and was certainly not a hip roof..
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A gable is the generally triangular portion of a wall between the edges of a dual-pitched roof. The shape of the gable and how it is detailed depends on the structural system used (which is often related to climate and availability of materials) and aesthetic concerns. Thus the type of roof enclosing the volume dictates the shape of the gable. A gable wall or gable end more commonly refers to the entire wall, including the gable and the wall below it.
The hip roof or Hipped roof is a type of roof where all sides slope downward to the walls typically with a fairly gentle slope. Thus it is a house with no gables.
The structure on Adare has a shed roof (illustration courtesy Google)
Houses with hip roofs are given a break, I think, because there is a gentle slope on all sides, which means that the face of the building that the abutters see is lower. But with a shed roof with the high side facing the abutter, you got a sheer wall forty one feet high.. Louis and I argued over what kind of roof it was. I said it was a flat roof, with a pitch. He said than any flat roof with a drop of more than 2 in 10 feet is not considered flat, but a hip roof. He has to deliver an opinion based on his guidelines. Okay, but there was no such thing as a solar house when all these rules and regs were developed. I said he should have kicked it over to the ZBA for a ruling;he disagreed. Our building inspector, I think, is a man of integrity, but has too much discretion. If he finds that a building like this is okay and “built by right” , the neighbors never find out about it until the first contractor drives in. Thirty days is all the time that you have to file an appeal. And how are you supposed to find out that a permit has been issued? Have a friend who works at the building office. You need it.
So we don’t need loopholes. This kind of building doesn’t belong where it is. If the zoning says thirty-five feet, it needs to be thirty-five feet. The Zoning Regs illustrate here what they want, new buildings that fit into the profile and massing of adjoining buildings.
Buildings like this need ZBA or planning board deliberation, there needs to be notification of abutters and due process. The neighborhood has no rights at all, the way the game is played around here. Maybe there should be an investigation? I’m going to do a part two of this story, because I think there’s some interesting aspects of it that I haven’t explored yet.