Kit Homes, working with building departments and their quirks! Unique sites and neighborhoods and designing your home fit within them. Discussion of zoning issues as well as more details on energy codes and mechanical systems.
Steve Tuma: It’s also good to have the plans clear so that your contractor knows what’s to be built because amazingly, yes, we have seen this, people don’t always believe that a building department will approve a set of plans that can’t be built.
Interviewer: Hey, everyone. Thank you for joining us for Episode 41 of the Panelized Prefab Kit Home Building Show. With me as always is the President and Founder of Landmark Home and Land Company, a company which has been helping people build their new homes where they want exactly as they want nationwide and worldwide since 1993, that man is Steve Tuma. Steve, how’s it going buddy?
Steve Tuma: Excellent. It’s another great day helping people design homes and build homes. It’s always fun.
Interviewer: [Laughs] And it’s always busy. You guys are really busy over there at Landmark.
Steve Tuma: Yeah, but it’s a good time. It’s kind of neat running into and helping customers figure out different things that they want to build, where they want to build, how they want to build it, how it works in the budget, how it fits on land.
Steve Tuma: Then there’s always building departments in there working around their parameters as well.
Interviewer: Always something. So I thought today we jump into some questions that have come our way regarding issues that often arise during the designing and building phases of a panelized home building project. Are you good with that?
Steve Tuma: Yeah, I probably have a few ideas.
Interviewer: [Laughs] Awesome. So start with, give us some background. What are some of the issues that you and your customers have had dealing with building departments? I don’t necessarily mean like major sort of – the kind of issues that would stop a project but I mean just some of the basic issues that people run into.
Steve Tuma: Well, you bring something up there because stopping a project, it’s – Building Department is not there to stop it. They are just there to make sure that it meets codes and safe and works well on the community. But what’s interesting is a lot of people come to us for the help of getting through the building department, understanding what goes on and what they need, when they say something, what does that interpret to. And some building departments are very good at communicating what they want. Other building departments are exceptionally bad. So they can vary where they are at. It really runs into the way that building department decides to communicate. So in some places – first of all, we contact the building department on any of our customer’s projects to see what’s required. But some building departments will say things like, “Well, just get me plans.” I’m like, “OK, well, that’s an interesting one. Plans. You just want floor plans, electric, plumbing, mechanical, energy, what is it?” And then others will give a list of 200, 300, 400 items saying, “We need this, we need this.” And it’s pretty interesting. The nice thing about it is we can work with any of them and go through. We’ve got the experience. We talk the same language. So we can go through and figure out what the situation is that building department needs.
So it’s really just finding out what they need and how it applies to them, because we are all under a code when you are building that covers the nation. It’s that application of the code to your building site and your building department’s interpretation of that code that can be interesting. A lot of people will say, “Hey, how can you engineer a house in Florida? How can you do one in Washington? Don’t you have to be there?” Well, there’s no geographic limitation on the knowledge of knowing a code. You can be on the other side of the world to know the code for Arkansas, for example.
Steve Tuma: So, the key to it is, kind of understanding the application for what’s happening. So let’s just say you take a state like California, just because it’s so varied. There are high mountain communities. There are low desert communities. There are ocean communities. There are cities. There’s flat raw land. That same code that we are in will apply differently. So if you build a house in a desert, on a flat piece of land, the energy codes are going to be different. The foundation would be different and a variety of other things. Then if you took that same kind of house design and put it in a mountain say around Lake Tahoe, same house, different application, Lake Tahoe is going to have some big snow load consideration, different green things in there, there are also different things in the community on top of that that will affect its design.
So the key to it is, kind of understanding what needs to be done in an area and apply it to the building department’s request to make sure it’s put together. Now, we go a little bit more. Sometimes what a Building Department requests is important. Well, it’s also good to have the plans clear so that your contractor knows what’s to be built because amazingly, yes, we have seen this, people don’t always believe that a building department will approve a set of plans that can’t be built. People have sent us plans like that. So we are believers in making sure sets of plans that meet the code, go through, get approved by the building department but also are buildable are important. That’s the key thing. That’s a very important component of what we are able to do. We consider our plans to be a communication method between us, our customer, the building department, and the contractor and then whoever else maybe involved with the home. So the issues in building – dealing with the building department are basically just be understanding of what they need. We have the knowledge base to work with them and get it taken care of. All of our plans get approved, some take a little more work than others but we make it happen.
Interviewer: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s the thing, as long as it happens eventually. But you hear people talk about – some people will say, “Well, building departments in smaller, rural areas or smaller towns are harder to deal with.” And some people say, “Oh, don’t deal with, let’s say, Los Angeles County, they are impossible kind of thing.” Seems like it’s just a matter of whatever you are building and who you are dealing with.
Steve Tuma: Right. Well, sometimes what we found in a smaller building departments is they are simpler in their requirements and they are not always as detailed. So they will say, “Hey, we want this.” Then we turn it in and they are like, “Well, we also need this, this, and this.” It’s not a big deal. We can supply it. It’s just interesting that we don’t always …
Interviewer: Do you anticipate that? Do you always go in going in, “Yeah, they will probably going to want something else so we are ready for it?” Or do you just wait until it happens?
Steve Tuma: We pretty much anticipate it because we’ve got a system where we’ve helped customers build all over the country and all different types of building department. So we have an understanding of what’s there. And like we say, it’s not to satisfy the building inspector or the building plan checker, it’s also to make sure the plans are accurate so people know what to build because building departments will ask for their specific components of what they want. Well, that doesn’t encompass the whole universe of situations that may arise.
Steve Tuma: Buildings are generally looking for safety. There are other components to safety. Does it look good? Does it make sense? Will the contractor understand this? That type of stuff that we work with as well.
Interviewer: But it seems to me like what you are saying is building departments don’t always make it all that clear upfront as to their requirements and you just have to be ready when applying for your permit that there may be other questions aside from the initial when you hand in the plans.
Steve Tuma: That’s exactly the case. And in defense of the building departments, sometimes one question leads to another. So they will say, “Hey, provide this.” You provide this and then it leads to another situation. So we have the knowledge to sort that out. We have an understanding of how to do different situations like this. So if a building department communicates clearly or doesn’t, we are able to do it. We’ve just done so many plans in our panelized home projects that we kind of understand the gist of what they are going for.
Interviewer: Well, it’s – that’s one thing, one of the reasons people call Landmark and work with Landmark is because you guys have the experience. Experience is everything I think in any aspect of anything you are doing.
Steve Tuma: Well, it’s – experience is very important but also with the changing codes being resilient and open-minded to approaching that and saying, “Hey, this kind of does make sense. It’s kind of new. It’s a little bit of a curve ball.” The energy codes are the classic example. In some part of the country, they are tightening up tremendously. Fundamentally, it makes sense. No one likes paying the power company or gas company.
Steve Tuma: So let’s do something to make sure the house is designed better to minimize what you have to pay.
Interviewer: You mentioned curve balls just now. And so, what if I’m thrown a curve ball? What if Building Department throws me a curve ball that I don’t know anything about what they are asking? Landmark is there to help me through that stuff I would hope.
Steve Tuma: Well, that’s exactly what we do because what might be a curve ball to one of our customers who hasn’t done this or maybe built one or two or five homes, to us, it’s probably something that we’ve seen before. So in our situations, we’ve got all the different engineers and gurus as I call them that would have understandings of what goes on. So we are pretty much able to deal with anything that gets thrown to us. If for some reason you have that really unique, awfully strange leading edge building department that just comes up with their own ideas, we are fully capable of calling and talking to them, figuring it out, and working through it. I don’t want to demonize building departments. They actually can do a pretty good job. But it’s a situation where we communicate with them and understand the language. And like I say, we’ve had enough experience and understand the gist of what they are getting at so we are able to talk to them and make something happen.
Interviewer: I always throw anecdotal things at you but I really think that it did help us potential builders to see some of the off-the-wall or sort of different things people have had to go through. It kind of prepares us I think emotionally for anything that might happen. So if you don’t mind, give us an interesting anecdote about a building site that was particularly challenging to Landmark and to the customer.
Steve Tuma: Well, what’s interesting is every building site has its challenges, even if you take a simple lot, flat lot with no real issues about it. Sometimes the building site poses a challenge. Maybe what the customer needs to have happen on the building site is there. They need a certain access or they want a certain design or they want a certain view. So sometimes even a simple – theoretically, a simple house and a simple lot, there’s something that has to be worked through just as much as if you are on a very complex home and a complex building site and a complex jurisdiction where the building departments are just sticklers.
I’ve got a variety of different stories about that but one thing which is becoming – this is very interesting, there are a lot of places that are mandating solar. So you figure, “Hey, you just put solar, face your house south, put some solar panels on the roof, around some stands inside of the house.
Steve Tuma: And then you get a customer from Humboldt County which has 200-foot trees on their yard, it’s like, how does the sun get through? So you’re going to have these beautiful and expensive solar panels, you go through and you figure out OK, the states mandated this, how …
Interviewer: Get out the chainsaw.
Steve Tuma: Yeah. Well, exactly. So it’s kind of like OK, you want solar but we are going to hurt the environment. So now, there are a lot of situations of people who want solar orienting the house right, making sure the design of their home is right if they are going to put the panels on the roof or there’s enough space on the site. So as people getting to these renewable energies, they throw little issues here that got deeper into – just deeper design, a little bit more thinking. We are able to get through all of them but that’s a situation. There are other situations where people are building on the sides of hills or mountains and they want to have certain access like, “OK, I love this design, let’s put it on the side of a hill.” Then you’ve got to figure out, well, how do you get the driveway up there? How do you get the car up there? Or they will say, “Hey, I want this but how do I know that I’m going to have a view of this mountain range?” Different details like that. There are other challenges. Sometimes you think, “Hey, what’s the challenge of a building site?” You think of the land and the house. Sometimes there are huge issues. If someone has got some mobility restrictions or other restrictions, we could work on those details. There are also situations where the way family live for economic reasons, health reasons, whatever it is, laying out a design so that the home flows. So it can get pretty interesting. And to tell you the truth, a lot of fun, sorting out how we can get into different scenarios and match the customer’s wants with the site, the house, the codes, and other concerns that may come into play. Lately though, it has been people with views. They want to make sure that they’ve got the prime view. They spent time finding a piece of land or it’s a retirement property or whatever it is. And then in some of the beach communities, sometimes these lots are a little smaller and they want to put the biggest house on it. So you’re designing a house, how can we make it an inch bigger? It’s kind of interesting. But either way, those are fun challenges that we just jump on them and enjoy.
Interviewer: Right. I imagine you’ve helped customers design some pretty unique homes. I mean you and I have driven around before and we’ve seen some vertical houses and then we go, “What about that driveway? What happened there?”
Steve Tuma: Yeah, exactly.
Interviewer: But is there a story about a unique design that you’ve helped a customer make it work for the situation when they just couldn’t figure out what they want or how to make what they want work?
Steve Tuma: There have been a lot of situations. Sometimes it’s designs. Sometimes it’s the financial restriction but they still want a certain design. Sometimes it’s the land doesn’t allow for the design or the design exactly the way it is. There are a lot of people getting into ADUs, granny units guest houses. So what will happen in a situation like that, we were working on one in San Diego, where in this particular unit, they could have 1200 square feet of living space, not 1201 but the family didn’t want an 1199. There’s literally 1200. So we worked through to figure out a floor plan that worked extremely well for them, pitched a little bit of roof, made a little steeper, put some lofts up there so they could kind of sneak some extra space because it wasn’t counted as livable square footage. And we were then able to maximize this exactly 1200 square foot home to fit on their land to have a view across a little pond that they had and a view of a mountain range. So that’s happening a lot, is people get into these as we call them ADUs, additional dwelling units, granny units, guest houses and different parts because in-laws or the grandparents are moving in, the kids are moving back in, home offices, whatever the scenario might be. We worked with a lot of equestrian properties.
Interviewer: Oh, right. Yeah.
Steve Tuma: Where people want to have – it’s not just a house, it’s the lifestyle of the house. And amazingly, the lifestyle of the human house seems to be secondary to the home for the horses. So we’ve worked in a lot of situations to make sure that the floor plan of the house works for people and own horses. There are tack rooms in some of these houses. They are little washer rooms where you walk through. Other unique situations, historic communities, homeowners associations, or different regulatory bodies that have very distinct guidelines. We were working with some now where they are trying to match a certain historic look of this community. So they don’t really get into what the floor plan is but they want to know the siding a certain size, it has a certain shade profile that the ease are certain ways, porches are certain ways so that if you were to walk through this community, you might not be able to tell the 100-year-old home from the new home. Obviously, there will be differences, it’s shinier, it’s new, but the features of it. So we’ve run into a lot of situations there with helping. And then amazingly, people building on islands.
Interviewer: Wow! That would be cool.
Steve Tuma: Yeah. So you are figuring out how do you design this? How do you work with certain green situations that might be there, slope lots, restricted lots. Most people that are living on these islands are doing it because of the beautiful views off their front yard. So they are mixing views with family get-togethers with where do I put my kayak and my canoe? So there are a lot of neat design elements that are going on into it. I don’t know that we have like 10 or 20 hours to go over it but I can just go on and on with cool things that we have helped people, different things, people putting different studios in, art studios in their home offices, and then working within the certain footprint or restricted budget or whatever it may be. So, we can do it.
Interviewer: I’m hearing more and more about more and more regions in the country talking about energy codes and it seems to be something becoming much more prevalent than it was say, 10 years ago. The energy, does that just mean putting more installation into your home or what are energy codes? Why are they interesting? Why do I need to know about it?
Steve Tuma: Well, the basic line is I think the world is trying to conserve energy, cost of energies going up, and also my opinion is the more energy-efficient home is more comfortable to be in. If you have a home with the right windows and the right installation, the temperature is going to be more even. You’re not necessarily going to have hot and cold spots as long as your heating and cooling systems are designed right. But it is kind of interesting. Most people say, when it’s energy codes are like, “Well, I just put a lot of installation in.” Well, that’s part of it.
Steve Tuma: A lot of it is also the electric usage, the types of bulbs, the types of switches. You will notice it going in commercial places where people probably see it the most is bathrooms and a lot of the big commercial buildings, they still have occupancy sensors. You have to turn the light on but when you leave, it turns the light off. Or different timers and stuff like that. So that someone doesn’t walk into a bathroom, leave a light on and leave and then lights on for however long before anyone uses it. So a lot of it is in the lights, installation, windows, the design of your heating ventilation, cooling systems, a lot of those details put together. And we can even get deeper into it or someone wants to get an organic design or see how the orientation of the sun affects the heating and cooling. So it’s not always like a mechanical or a physical thing like installation. It could be where do you put a porch? How big is the overhang? Where do you put the house on the land to take advantage of winter sun and minimize the summer sun? So it’s a little bit of work upfront bit it’s while worth it on the long run. But yeah, you asked why they are becoming more prevalent, I think people are concerned about their energy bills.
Interviewer: Well, it makes sense.
Steve Tuma: And in certain areas, there are brownouts or different concerns or power outages. People want to know that they could still operate in their home properly.
Interviewer: You had talked about like an example like bathrooms where it’s on a sort of timer or a sensor where it goes out. It’s almost like a lot of people are bringing things that have been standard in industrial like public bathrooms, restaurants, things like that is now coming – even like some people are asking to put urinals in their bathrooms, things like that.
Steve Tuma: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: So I’m noticing that it’s a lot of stuff that has been standard in more industrial and businesses is coming into the home now, which I find interesting.
Steve Tuma: Yeah, I kind of associate that, a big business, an office building, a big box store that’s open many hours with a lot of people. So if they can cut a nickel here and a dime there and a dollar there, it allows them to run a better business. And that’s filtering down now to the houses where the cost of those switches, the availability, the understanding of different details like that. There has also been a tremendous progress in different installation process and products, understanding of those products and how they are used. And this is a key thing. I think a little earlier today, we were talking about building departments. Well, some building departments do not ask about energy efficiency, which we think is interesting because that’s a bill that people seem to get every month, some type of utility bill. So we suggest, “Hey, let’s make sure your house is energy efficient.” Just because your building department doesn’t worry about it because they are worried more about safety in general, there’s no reason that we can’t help someone work through the process. It’s simple for us to do. We have the system set up.
Interviewer: Yeah. Zoning is another thing I kind of want to get into today, zoning issues, or something. Most of us don’t just think about it. But I’m sure you run into it all the time. And there must be situations where you’ve had to help a customer fit a home on a lot with some serious zoning challenges.
Steve Tuma: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. There will be different zonings for different types of units, multifamily, single family. What we are looking at more is the actual restrictions of the zoning where they will say, “Hey, you need to have a certain setback where the front of your house is before the front lot and there’s so much on each side lot and so much on the rear lot. We are running into more building departments that interpret where the setbacks are too. They have different interpretations. So some of them will say, it’s to the outside of your finish, so your siding. So if someone says, “Hey, I’ve got a 20×40 ranch home, 40 feet wide, and that’s going to bump right up to my lot line.” Well, suddenly, if you put brick on it, the house is theoretically 8 inches wider. You could have just gone over a setback.
Steve Tuma: So we’ve got to make sure that all the finishing details fit there. If you are on a tighter lot, some building departments go to the edge of the architectural finish like the outside of the siding or the outside of the brick. Others will go to the overhang. We’ve even run on a couple that say, the farthest protrusion. So if you put gutters on your overhang, you’re suddenly 4 inches farther. So there are a lot of little details like that. Another thing that we are really coming into is different interpretations of how you calculate the height of a home. So someone could say, “Steve, what’s the big deal? I’ve got this house. It’s a ranch home. From the ground to the peak of the roof, it’s 15 feet. My building department says 20 feet is fine so it worked.” We are running into building departments that take the height calculation from the grade prior to disturbance, to the peak of the roof. So if you are on the side of a hill and someone is moving some soil around, it’s not where your soil ends up being, it’s where your grade started.
Interviewer: Oh, right. Yeah.
Steve Tuma: We’ve run into situations where they take the average of the four corners. We’ve run into situations where they have taken the average of the midpoints of the highest cable on each side. So height restrictions, how they calculate it, things like that have really, really affected some designs. And we really got to pay attention to it upfront.
Interviewer: Right. It seemed like we all think about the fun stuff of designing and building a home. I mean of course, it’s just human nature. The stuff that we really enjoy are the stuff we are going to put the most time into. But we rarely think about the nuts and bolts, not so sexy parts of building, plumbing, electric, or heating and air conditioning design. We want to think about building our man caves and our kitchens and bathrooms and our family rooms and garages and all that stuff. But what are some of the mechanical designs that you guys have had – maybe even had to push on people or say, “Hey, you need to spend some time thinking about this.” Don’t just turn the facet on and the water comes out. And I’m sure that a lot of builders, they want to spend a lot of the time on the kind of cool parts of the house but they don’t think about these very important other aspects of building.
Steve Tuma: Right. It is interesting and more and more building departments are asking us to do electrical engineering, plumbing design, verify the size of pipes for water and gas, and it is kind of interesting. And if you look at today’s world, you go somewhere, there are all these different electronics that are being plugged in, there are big TVs even though they are more energy efficient, there are big refrigerators. There are people that we have – we have customers that are – they have their own wood shops or wielding shops, thing that take power or they go through and they restore cars or have different projects or pottering sheds that need certain lighting.
Interviewer: You mean you can’t just plug into a regular wall socket?
Steve Tuma: Well, you can. It’s how many times are you plugging into it, that’s the issue that this all works out to be. So yes, so people will go through and say, “Oh, I’m going to have this beautiful kitchen and we are just going to entertain or we are going to have this and that.” Well, sometimes you got to make sure the building department will ask us or we suggest to the person and say, “Hey, let’s make sure that all the electric works.”
Steve Tuma: We are getting more people putting elevators in houses.
Interviewer: Well, that’s cool.
Steve Tuma: They take certain power. You need to make sure that everything is there. You don’t want to jump into your elevator and push the button and suddenly all the lights in your house dim.
Steve Tuma: So that’s something where we can work whether the customer desires it or the building department dictates that something like that goes because people are just getting more active, the way they work. They’ve got grills, outside guest grills that are connected – piped into their gas system. Well, you don’t just want to turn your grill on to find out that your hot water tank is going or find out that your stove is going and suddenly, there’s not enough gas coming through to serve as those items. So yeah, it’s not as cool as sitting back and talking about your man cave but making sure that your man cave works is what I’m suggesting, making sure that when you are turning on your 120-inch TV and you got the air-conditioning going and your big stereo going and your fish tank with everything to make sure that there’s enough juice to make it work. And that’s for water. That’s for sewage. That’s for electric, gas piping. And we are able to take care of those details. Oh, and also, there are also new changes. A lot of people are going to mini-split heating and air-conditioning systems. They are a lot easier to use, a lot easier to control temperatures in different rooms. So yeah, that’s kind of like that thing that no one thinks about until it doesn’t work.
Interviewer: Exactly. Right.
Steve Tuma: So we say, “Hey, let’s look at it now to make sure that it works.”
Interviewer: Well, a lot of great info as always today. That’s – yeah, I walk always from these podcasts learning something new. And today, I think I learned a hundred new things. So, well, that’s going to do it for us today. But before we go, Steve, as is our usual habit, let’s tell the listeners how to get a hold of you guys over at Landmark Home and Land Company.
Steve Tuma: The best way is take a look at our website. It’s the initial of the company. The company is Landmark Home and Land Company but it’s LHLC.com. LHLC.com. If you look at our website, there are these podcasts, there are videos, there are different discussions on how we can help, there are plan selections, and you could contact us through there. You can also just call us, 800-830-9788. You can also – I mentioned the website already. You can send us an email. You can email me directly at Landmark@LHLC.com. We are very responsive. We are on top of it. We will answer your call. If for some reason you do get a voicemail, we will call you back right away. That’s the key. We are very attentive to it. And then we are also on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter for people that look at it. The bottom line is we are available. We want to help you with your project and we want to enjoy the process of helping people get the best house they can.
Interviewer: Cool. And give us the website one more time. We will just drill it into everybody.
Steve Tuma: LHLC.com.
Interviewer: Perfect. OK. So for Steve Tuma and myself, we want to thank you again for listening to the Panelized Prefab Kit Home Building Show. Be safe out there, everyone, and we will see you next time.
Steve Tuma: Happy home building.