Austin McMansion Ordinance – Considering the Consequences

Austin McMansion OrdinanceAustin attorney, Chris Bradford, published an interesting article about Austin’s demographics entitled, How Austin’s Rise Became a Tale of Two Cities.  He looked at census data that shows that households with children are more concentrated in the suburban parts of the Austin area.  The reason, he says, is simply that people can get larger, cheaper, and newer homes in surrounding suburbs than they can in the central part of Austin.  I would like to add to his piece with a story from our own experience.     

A family relocating to Austin from another city tells us that they can afford up to $500,000, and would like to live in one of Austin’s central neighborhoods.  We show them homes in our older central areas with their eclectic mix of homes and tree lined streets.  Slowly, they become aware of the degree of remodeling necessary to make these homes suitable for their needs – a daunting task for most folks. 

For example, in one area (W of Lamar; E & N of Lake Austin; S of 2222) the average home between $300,000-500,000 may be described as follows: 

Price – $415,975
Bedrooms – 3
Baths – 2
Built – 1952
Size – 1,583 sq feet
Garage – 0 to 2

Even though they are older, these neighborhoods are suburban in nature, built around the use of a car.  Yet, often the garage has been taken in by prior owners for extra interior space.  Perhaps a carport and some storage could be added, my clients say. 

Next, we consider the house.  What can be done to make the structure better fit their needs?  Should they budget $85,000 to remodel and add on?  This will bring them to the upper end of their range for a home.  Will $85,000 be enough?  No, it will not.  Another 1,000 square feet would bring the size up to 2,583.  At $200 per square foot, this will come to $200,000.  

And what about the nearly sixty year old foundation, plumbing, wiring, duct work, and roof?  What about the new code requirements since 1950?  What about the amateur remodeling done in the 70’s and 80’s?  What about that silver wallpaper, popcorn ceiling, and vinyl siding that made so much sense at the time?  Remodeling is a tricky business that takes skill and experience.  Is this relocating family up to the job?  Or will they burn up a lot of money trying to renew an old structure, and find that their investment has burned up in the process?    

Perhaps this house should be considered a tear down.  Now we are up to $450,000 for a lot, including the demolition.  The usual rule of thumb is to allow about 25 – 30% for the land out of the total budget.  This calls for a $1.5 – $1.8 million total cost package.   

Perhaps a suburban neighborhood around Austin would be a better fit for our relocating family at this time in their lives.  There are plenty of choices – some suburban neighborhoods are quite close-in, others belong to a small satellite city.  Their choice is to adapt to a much smaller home in central Austin than they would prefer, or to move on to greener pastures – a suburb on Austin’s perimeter.  

We bought our first home in central Austin as college students years ago – the only young people on the block.  Over the years we have witnessed the central neighborhoods of Austin evolve.  A variety of people – from singles, to couples, to large family groups – moved in and improved or expanded their homes. Remodeling and revitalization was constant.  Demand was steady and prices moved up.   

Today, more than ever, the entry level budget for a home in central Austin is high.  But, many people would like to do as we did years ago.  They would like to buy a house with the idea of saving for a remodel and addition in the future.  They get their foot in the door, and figure out how to improve the house later.  It is a risk they are willing to take. 

In 2006, moving to central Austin got a lot harder.  The McMansion Ordinance added a new level of difficulty to an already expensive and risky process.  The word McMansion conjures up a cheaply made extra-large house that that is devoid of architectural integrity.  Ironically, this does not describe the mostly modern, craftsman, or prairie style homes built on expensive lots in central Austin in recent years.  

Under the Ordinance, homes are restricted to either 40% of the lot size or 2,300 square feet.  An expert is needed to figure out if your remodel plan complies with this law.  Does your house plan stay within the virtual three-dimensional envelope?  What about the side wall articulation (think of a 10’ chunk carved out of your dining room)?  Can you squeeze bedrooms into an attic or basement that does not count as living area?  And the carport – counted as living area if there is interior space above it, or not counted if free standing.  Do you have the presentation skills to ask for a variance?  How many billable hours will it take to figure out what you can legally do?    

Austinites have lived with this ordinance for three years.  Perhaps it is time to take a look at how these rules are working for homeowners.  Are people happy with it, or are they giving up in frustration on remodeling projects?  Have we weakened demand for central Austin neighborhoods?  And, could this ordinance lead to some unintended consequences, as Chris Bradford points out?



21 thoughts on “Austin McMansion Ordinance – Considering the Consequences

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on McMansion Ordinance Impact - Austin - Texas (TX) - City-Data Forum

  2. Chris,
    Came across your site for the 1st time today – great site. I own a permit expediting/land consulting firm in the area. I’ve assisted many builders and homeowners with navigating the Mcmansion ordinance. As a former city of Austin residential reviewer who was on the McMansion Ordinance development team I can say that in retrospect this ordinance has really done very little except add thousands in costs to homeowners, significantly increase municipal beauracracy (staff and RDCC), and to some extent shut down the remodeling business in w/in central Austin. If you ever care to meet and discuss ways to potentially address this w/city leaders I’d be happy to meet. Thanks! David Cancialosi

  3. David,

    Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you know a lot about the Residential Design Ordinance (aka McMansion) from an inside vantage point. We have heard some troubling stories from friends who have dealt with the design bureaucracy that is now in place. I wondered how this was actually working out for people. My concern is that people – faced with these size and design standards – will just withdraw from the problem altogether and live somewhere else. When demand is withdrawn, so is value.

    Keep in touch.

  4. Hi Roselind,

    Thanks so much for sending your article. I’m not sure how I got on your distribution list, but I’m glad I did! I also really like your website, especially your thoughtful summary of what’s important for people to know when renovating.

    I’m the design director and principal architect at CG&S Design Build, and we are almost 100% specialized in designing and building renovations to Austin area single family homes.

    We are up against the issues in your article every day. Our two biggest challenges are negotiating the always changing, byzantine rules and development processes of COA, and making the economics of doing a substantial remodel work.

    This is especially true right now, with the current economic climate, although I must say, we’ve been pretty fortunate here in Austin.

    I like your realistic cost numbers. Most people, including most realtors, underestimate the cost of doing renovation work. Maybe they are looking for the low bidders out there, but we are not interested in that level. Our company’s tag line is “Inspired design, built to last”, and I can tell you value that. And most folks who want to put down roots, and stay in their homes 10 to 15 years, to raise a family, value that too.

    We have mixed feelings around here about McMansion, but I will tell you that as architects, we resent the sheer arbitrariness and the absurd level of design control it sets forth. We hate the badly designed, blocky, over scaled additions we’ve seen in central Austin neighborhoods, but most of us feel the McMansion rules go too far the other direction. And now I understand a new level of regulation for renovation work is being considered and formulated by city staff that would further restrict what is allowed. This is getting out of hand.

    The neighborhood groups are too powerful it seems, with a few people, who want to live in 1950 rather than 2009, driving a very change unfriendly course. If the city wants to reduce traffic, pollution, greenhouse gases, and all the rest, it behooves us to allow more density in central Austin. Well designed, well built density, however. Now the real question is, how do we successfully regulate good design? McMansion attempts this, but we think, fails. We need a better ordinance, with perhaps similar intent, but with much more flexibility.


    • Stewart, thank you for the kind words. I am glad you appreciated my page on remodeling:

      I often think of the quote by Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

      Thank you for adding your comments to the open discussion on the Design Ordinance (aka McM). You are out there actively working with real people trying to find a balance between the cost and quality of life in central Austin.

      I think most people who want to settle in central Austin do not want an excessively large house or lot. If they did, they could go elsewhere. They should not have to apologize for wanting a house that is energy efficient, has a good floor plan, and some potential to expand. Is that too much to ask for the big price they are asked to pay?

      Thanks and stay in touch!


  5. Very interesting article, and very accurate in many ways about the consequences. It’s a little one sided but being an Architect, I see potential clients struggle with this all the time and at least half the time they give up before starting.

    When they do decide to give it a try, they spend 2-3 times as much on design and permitting. In addition, half the clients I have are ones that tried to do it on their own and ended up with pretty significant issues that they need help resolving.

  6. I think this ordinance is classic Austin – passed by the few to affect the many. It is an encumbrance on city development and should be changed or repealed.

  7. I appreciate the article. I believe that the ordinance is bad for Austin. However, as long as Austinites continue to elect neighborhood strong ‘men’ such as Laura Morrisson to the City Council, we are not going to change anything.

    Things are about to get worse, they are going to pass an ordinance that changes the definition of ‘remodel’ and make things even more difficult.

    Its my personal opinion that things are going to have to collapse as far as downtown property values in order to run these protectionist politicians out of town.

    Good luck!

  8. Roselind,

    Thank you for your very interesting article and offering up this subject for discussion. As an architect who designs homes primarily in central Austin I deal with the McMansion Ordinace all the time. It’s a bit of a challenge that takes some knowledge to overcome but it’s not a real hinderance in my opinion, just another code issue architects need to be aware of in my opinion.

    The case study you describe doesn’t seem to be particularly compounded by the McMansion Ordinance. Rather, it’s a common case in all growing cities that the cost of inner city land and housing is constantly increasing and you can always find bigger, cheaper houses in the suburbs. In my experience, if someone wants to live central they just need to sacrifice space or pay for it. Or live in a less costly, maybe more edgy neighborhood than Tarrytown.

    That’s my two cents. I hope it helps.


    Nick Mehl, A.I.A.
    Nick Mehl Architecture

    • Nick, thanks for your comment! You made a good point – people can live in a more edgy neighborhood than Tarrytown or Pemberton. That will bring down the price of admission to the area.

      Yet I have noticed that in all neighborhoods the same basic issues come up – aging structure, delayed maintenance, poor floorplan. The new owner often has quite a lot to take on.

      You are saying that the Design Ordinance (aka McM) does not necessarily make things more difficult. That is the question that I am posing.

      Is it the straw that breaks the camels back?

      Or should we find ways to encourage people to come into central areas and invest their savings in renewing homes here?

      Thanks and keep in touch!


  9. As a UT Architecture School graduate with my own practice in residential design, I do most of my work OUTSIDE the City of Austin simply because of the complexity of the process that the City has in place.

    As a UT Architecture School graduate with my own practice in residential design, I do most of my work OUTSIDE the City of Austin simply because of the complexity of the process that the City has in place.

  10. This is why I live out in the county (3 sons, 1 wife, on 2.5 acres of beautiful oaks). Well written, good article in the link as well. Agree 100%. Also like Chris’s observation on the “hip cities”. Having spent time in Boston, San Fran., always have felt like an outsider as a family man (I think those people used to call us “breeders”, but that probably isn’t the term now). Austin has become same way I am afraid. I grew up but Austin did not.

    Thanks for the article.

    Patrick J. Riordan, AIA

  11. Yes I am surprised by how limited this ordinance is.

    On the surface I thought it was a good idea so we did not have these giant 2 story homes on small lots next to cottage style homes.

    But, as I am now trying to add a single story family room addition to my home – where we are considering a 500-600 addition to a 1600 sf foot house – still a small house by McMansion standards, I am finding the this ordinance is quite limiting.

    If I were to add the addition, as I understand it, I may have to change brick paths and decks to gravel and remove brick landscape curbs as they all count against the allowable too.

    Can you help me by directing me to how people have been successful with variances?

    Thank you for sharing your concerns.

    • your problem seems to be related to impervious coverage, which was not changed, or very little by the ordinance. Check in with the city on the gravel, they go back and forth about it counting as pervious or not. Decks count as 50% imprevious.

  12. Roselind,

    Thank you for your thoughts on the McMansion Ordinance. I do think that the ordinance restricts creativity but understand that it is a reaction to the ridiculous thinking that more is better. As an Architect I try to educate my clients that “big size” does not relate to “quality of life” issues. It is often my experience that families stay closer, both literally and figuratively, within a smaller home. I try encourage people to analyze their family values and build/occupy only what they need. Do we really want the kids to have a wing of their own? unsupervised?

    In regard to speculative builders, I don’t know how it will happen, but appraisals need to move away from a basis on size to a quality of life standard. That will be a hard one to measure but the change will be necessary as mindless consumption is no longer an option.

    Thanks for giving me something to ponder early on this Monday morning.

    Tim Cuppett, AIA, IIDA

    • This is making me smile, it’s the same conversation we have with our clients, although the people coming in seem to be more and more aware.

      Bingo on appraisals. They need to change in a big way…

  13. Interesting article as well as your prospective on how the MacMasion ordinance impacts the Austin real-estate market.

    Are you aware of the currently proposed changes to the Historic Preservation Ordinance working its way through boards and commissions toward council this summer? I contacted the government relations person at Austin Board of Realtors and their response was luke warm. Seems like the McMansion ordinance really wore them out.

    I’m really concerned about the accumulative impact that the various ordinances are having on affordability, sustainability and long term viability of Austin as a place to live. Where any one ordinance may not seem to be that bad, together they become a major obstacle to maintaining a home and certainly to that home evolving to meet our needs in the future.

    R. Larry Halford, aia

  14. Hello Roselind,

    Please find below our position about the ordinance at the time it happened:

    Dear Mayor and members of the City Council:

    Regarding the issue of the Zoning and development ordinance we, M. J. Neal, AIA and Viviane Vives, would like you to consider the following:

    (1) We ask that you give the architectural profession the say it deserves in this pertinent matter, so we have the time to address the unintended consequences that we all without a doubt, foresee.

    (2) We’ve heard from dozens of local contemporary architects in the last days, and not one has been in favor of this ordinance as it is written.

    Although some, including ourselves are possibly in agreement with the .4 FAR (.5 for duplexes) everything else in the ordinance has encountered opposition, shared privately.

    You have to understand that no person in the service industry likes risking their livelihood by taking an unpopular position in public.

    (3) We all want the curbing of McMansions, especially when, in essence and from our point of view, the issue boils down to irresponsible design; at what price is the issue at hand. A rash action may affect thousands of individuals for years.

    This is an ordinance that needs study and discussion by professionals. To have one of the most restrictive zoning codes in the nation is not something to be decided at this speed and in this fashion.

    It affects too many people, may create enormous expense and consequences and we all need to sit down and discuss from many different angles. What the rush is, is beyond our comprehension.

    (4) Al York is giving you a proposal that reduces the map to a lesser zone, we think that’s a step in the right direction, and we support it as a last resort, but we also think that it is NOT thorough enough solution.

    (5) A concerted response by the profession to the specifics of the ordinance needs to be drafted. It is my belief that neighbors fueling this ordinance don’t really understand its consequences. We all need to understand how this ordinance also:

    Curbs proper massing flexibility

    Interferes with solar orientation issues

    Interferes with other site particulars (placement of trees, creeks, boulders, neighbors) and so many other design issues.

    Indirectly causes increase of impervious coverage – the very reason that was given as an excuse to begin the process.

    (6) Is this it worth clipping the wings of worthy designers even further, considering the painfully slow evolution of aesthetics in our town.

    (7) Maybe food for thought is that the City of Barcelona, where Viviane is from, has code AGAINST imitating the old. They want modern structures next to the old ones, as to not lose the truth of both. Makes a 100% sense. As for remodels, they don’t allow changing the massing in an imitative style. They allow, however, modern additions to traditional structures.

    (8) Acknowledging and celebrating the passage of time was always the thing that showed us our own evolution. It has always worked aesthetically, where matters are in the hands of rigorous professionals.

    The old and the modern coexist and enhance each other. The same is true in Venice, Italy, and many other cities with some history to speak of. We have ruins there that are 3,000 years old, not 70. I love the past as much as anyone, I want to preserve it, but to let it hurt our future is just plain dumb.

    (9) Please GIVE this ordinance SOME TIME FOR RESPONSE. Take it to the professionals, and show please due deference to the responsible designers in this town. There are so many. And please consider that this is a step that may have to be taken in private, in order not to hurt their business any further.

    Many thanks for your time and consideration to this important matter.

    All best,

    Viviane Vives
    MJ Neal Architects, LLC

    • Just to clarify, this letter was sent to city council members in 2006 at the time when the ordinance was about to be approved. I also gave a speech at city council at 3 AM. As a result, Betty Dunkerley and I exchanged emails, she asked my opinion on the design committee issue, and later, the design committee was reinstated into the ordinance.

      [The ordinance had been drafted with the committee as a safety valve to address design issues and “unforeseen circumstances” but it had been stricken down at the last minute because of disagreements within the task force members.]

      • Vivien,
        I was very pleased to re-print your letter to the City Council in 2006 when the Design Ordinance was passed. It was interesting to hear how very old European neighborhoods bring in new modern construction beside the old. The old is re-invented and renewed.

        I would like to see the Design Ordinance discussed openly on all levels, coming from this question: How can city ordinances affect the following in a positive way?


        Character – keeping old established look

        Vibrancy, renewal, and attraction of new people.

        Sustainability – from bungalow to expanded house to empty nester.

        More density.

        Improves services, schools, parks, walkways, etc.

        House design:

        Re-use of existing structures.

        Reduction in cost.

        Passive solar.

        Smaller footprint.

        Works with unique features of the lot.

        Interesting and innovative.

        Permitting process:

        Less complex.

        Does not hinder development.

        Does not lead to excessive requests for variances.

        Recognized the cost and risk for individual homeowner.

  15. Why the Mcmansion Ordinance is not good for the environment
    Elliot Johnson, AIA, Residential Architect

    The Mcmansion Ordinance has had some unattended consequences that are not good for the environment.

    Urban Sprawl
    The Mcmansion Ordinance severely limits the density that is permitted in most of central Austin. By reducing the density, the ordinance is forcing prospective homeowners who want a larger home for a larger family to move outside the affected area. This severely limits the long-term livability of the home. Density is critical for the long-term health of Austin.

    Long-term Livability
    One of the prime tenants of a sustainable home is to design it to accommodate the long-term needs of the homeowner. If the family has plans for growth, a three bedroom home may not provide the needed space for a larger family. By limiting the size of the home based on FAR, the ability for additional bedrooms is eliminated. Square footage in and of itself is not the enemy or bad for the environment. A small third floor that consist of one/two bedrooms is not inconsistent with the intent of the ordinance.

    As the square footage of a home is limited by the Mcmansion ordinance the home’s affordability declines. The price of land in Central Austin is not going down. No one wants the value of land and homes to decline. However, with the cost of land where it is, a 1,500-2,000 s.f. home could cost $300k-400k or more. That is certainly not affordable.

    Aging and inefficiency
    Older homes are inherently less efficient then modern built homes. There have been numerous energy code changes since most of the homes in the affected area were built. Some significant energy code changes occurred in the 1980’s and most recently in 2001. Further, the City of Austin is striving for Zero-energy homes. Older homes in the ordinance area will never come close to attaining Zero-energy. They would have to be totally gutted to get close, this would include all new windows, insulation in the walls and roof, new HVAC equipment, solar PV and solar thermal equipment, etc. To justify the additional expense, the sales price of the home and the accompanied square footage have to be commensurate with each other and their prospective homeowners.

    By limiting the square footage of a home, the ordinance limits the redevelopment of older homes. Not every older home is historic or worth preserving. The character of the community is very important to maintain, and the two are not necessarily linked. If older homes are not redeveloped, they remain inefficient, directly in conflict with the City of Austin’s goal to improve the efficiency of the homes in the City.

    Homes built in the Mcmansion ordinance area could be built to a higher level of design and ascetics than is currently being constructed under the ordinance by being more flexible in the implementation. There could easily be a third story on a home, which would allow the square footage to grow by 300 s.f. +/- yet still maintain a reasonable height (most likely under the current height limits, or very close). If the sidewall articulation and gable wall exemptions were more flexible the projects could also be increased in square footage, yet easily maintain the intent of the ordinance.

    The character of the home is not defined by its square footage. A larger home would still be consistent with the character of the neighborhood with the right design.

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