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Stories and Half-Stories

We're getting ready to submit plans in Contra Costa County, California. It's a highly developed county, with no shortage of regulations and regulators. But we're having trouble getting clear answers to what seem like simple questions, such as "how many stories is this house?"

Zoning restricts us to 35' or 2.5 stories. Local code defines:
“Half story” means that portion of a building under a gable, hip or gambrel roof, the top wall plates of which on at least two opposite exterior walls are not more than three feet above the floor of such building portion.

The top story we have planned is a gable roof with 3' walls, but with a "cross gable" perpendicular to the main gable. Something essentially like this (unrelated) picture:, with the cross gable extending through to both sides. The preliminary response we got at the counter, based on the interpretation of 2 out of 3 people called in to consult at the counter, was "clearly 3 stories".

The reasoning was that since there are no two opposing walls that are less than 3' in their entirety, this is a full story. It may just be that I want a different answer, but since the 'entirety' part isn't specified in the code, it seems like an odd interpretation. The 3rd person at the counter seemed to agree, but unfortunately she was the trainee.

This wasn't an objection we anticipated. Fighting for a variance is not an option we want to follow. We're wondering whether we should push forward with the current plan, and hope to find an amenable plan checker, or whether we should redesign (and redo structural, etc). Or go forward with what we have and change it only if required. What would those with more expertise interpreting code language advise?

Asked by Nathan Kurz
Posted Fri, 12/13/2013 - 16:37


2 Answers

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Code interpretation is an intensely local matter. The opinions of GBA readers matter not a whit.

The only interpretation that matters is the one you obtain from your local building department.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Fri, 12/13/2013 - 17:00

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The code administrators have probably seen proposals like yours many times before, it has almost certainly been discussed at a senior level as to the intent as well as the letter of the ordinance and the interpretation you have received is likely final. In my experience planning variances are usually only granted in terms of economic hardship, usually meaning the lot would be undevelopable without it, neither would I rely on an 'amenable' (read 'rogue') plan checker at a later date.

I assume the purpose of the cross gable is to create habitable daylit space in the center of the roof space, in which case your best bet is going to be one or more good quality roof windows: Velux USA makes one that is compliant with egress code for sleeping rooms. Two caveats with this approach: depending on orientation solar gain can be a problem, though this can be largely controlled with careful choice of available glazing and exterior screening options, and secondly, depending on roof geometry, it may be difficult to set an effective sill height no higher than code allows for egress. Faced with this problem a few years ago in a Historic District remodel (no dormers allowed) we achieved compliance with a low 3' wide platform below the window, this became a positive and distinctive feature of the room.

Good luck Nathan, and remember what they say: arguing with the inspections department is like mud-wrestling a pig. You both get pretty messed up but after a while you realize the pig is enjoying itself!

Answered by James Morgan
Posted Sun, 12/15/2013 - 09:54

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