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Know your building codes, bylaws

FOR those of you who've had the pleasure of dealing with a municipality regarding zoning and building code requirements, you've no doubt discovered what a frustrating and confusing experience it can be.

FOR those of you who've had the pleasure of dealing with a municipality regarding zoning and building code requirements, you've no doubt discovered what a frustrating and confusing experience it can be.

One will often find themselves wading through a quagmire of limits and boundaries that appear, at first glance, to exist simply to confuse and restrict the process but a closer look will reveal a far more coherent explanation.

In a descriptive broad stroke, zoning requirements are unique to a given municipality and are the means by which that community can control and shape the development that takes place within its jurisdiction. Building code requirements work on a provincial and national level and are created to control design, construction and material use in the building process based on health and safety standards.

Understanding the regulations that govern a given site is an essential first step for anyone embarking on a residential project on that property, no matter how small.

In general terms, building code requirements are set in stone. They're the law.

Building code requirements need to be met or you don't move forward. Truth be told, there is a means to argue unclear building code requirements if what's being proposed meets the intent of the specific contravened code regulation but arguing such a point is a long and difficult process and is not something one would normally do. For the average homeowner, assume code requirements to be unchangeable. Zoning requirements are a little less succinct.

Every district and municipality has their own set of zoning requirements. Something allowed in the District of West Vancouver might not be allowed in the City of North Vancouver, or vice versa. Be it commercial, multi-family or single family residential, a particular piece of land will be governed by zoning regulations that define its place within a community plan. These regulations dictate the size, shape and location of the building on its site in order to ensure that what's being proposed is in keeping with its context. By setting restrictions on fundamentals such as setbacks from property lines, maximum building heights and permissible built areas, zoning bylaws quickly define what can and cannot be built.

Zoning bylaws are there to shape a community in a positive, predetermined way. On occasion, these bylaws move beyond being reasonable rules and thwart the best and most sensible design solutions. Unlike with building code requirements, one has recourse. Through a variance application process an individual can plead a grievance before a building committee and if their case is deemed justified, the contravening design will be allowed. The key for success in a variance process is for the appellant to successfully demonstrate that undue hardship would be caused by the application of the zoning bylaw requirement.

Here are a few key zoning regulations a homeowner may need to address before embarking on a building project:

Setbacks define buffer zones around the edge of a property in which a building is not permitted. Most bylaws allow certain elements of structure like overhangs and chimneys to protrude into the setback but not always. Accessory buildings such as garages and storage sheds are generally permitted within the main building setbacks but fall under their own individual requirements.

The height of your home is calculated differently within every zoning district. Some measure from average grade height while others measure from the highest façade up. For sloped roofs, maximum heights might be taken to ridgeline or to the median height of ridge and roof spring line. Regardless, this is something that should be established from the outset otherwise the repercussions could be disastrous.

The floor space ratio, or FSR, dictates the maximum amount of floor area permitted on a given site. It includes all floors but often has exceptions for areas below grade. The calculation process can vary widely between municipalities.

If you have intentions of undertaking a residential project, big or small, drop into your local planning authority and get a full explanation of what building code and zoning regulations might affect you.

Kevin Vallely is a residential designer in North Vancouver. His website is

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