As residents walked by construction at the northwest corner of 40th & Thomas on a recent weekday, several stopped and stared. A house that had been framed up to the second story at 3940 Thomas Ave. S. was taken down.
City staff issued a stop-work order June 5 upon learning the house was standing 1.5 feet too tall. After a summer’s worth of exposure to the elements, the framing was deconstructed in August and the developer is working toward city approval of revised building plans.
“We’re just trying to enforce the rules evenly and fairly,” said Emily Ziring, policy aide to Council Member Linea Palmisano. “We’ve already required two or three other developers to lower the foundation height when they were out of compliance. … Regardless of circumstances, we need to enforce the same set of rules evenly.”
The house was originally approved to stand just under the maximum height of 33 feet, according to Brad Ellis, interim manager of zoning administration. He explained that the maximum above-ground floor area of a new home must be no more than half the size of the lot. That excludes the basement, so long as half the perimeter of the first-story floor is no more than 3.5 feet from the natural grade.
At 3940 Thomas, the basement was constructed taller than plans called for, he said.
“When you added that height in, plus the roof pitch, it ended up being taller than code allowed,” Ellis said.
Andrea Corbin of Contract Design & Co. said her surveyor made a mathematical error that resulted in an incorrect basement height. She said she discovered the mistake after hiring an independent surveyor to investigate why the building was standing too high.
“A simple mathematical error turned into a very large disaster. Everybody missed it,” she said. “Nobody questions the survey, the city even approved it. … It was a simple, honest mistake.”
Vladimir Sivriver of Engineering Design & Surveying said his survey was correct. He said that in his 35 years of experience, this is the first claim of an error he’s received.
“We provided the right measurements,” he said.
The home had been presold, but the buyers decided to walk away after too many sleepless nights over the property. Corbin estimates damages at $75,000. She’s hoping to pursue an insurance claim.
At the time of the stop work order, the house was entirely framed and awaiting windows and completion of the roof. During the months of stopped work, she said, the floor trusses were trashed, the boards were warped and the stair treads were ruined. The city released its stop-work order on Aug. 13 to allow deconstruction.
The damage could have been worse, Corbin said. A submittal verifying that construction matches approved plans triggered the discovery, she said, and that application can be submitted at any stage of construction before occupancy.
“This really should be something the city requires at the foundation wall inspection, before they allow the home to progress any further,” she said. “We need a check point of safety that eliminates the vulnerability to this kind of damage.”
Corbin could have applied for a variance to ask the city to approve a taller height, but said she decided against undertaking the lengthy process.
Now she is waiting for city approval of revised plans. She’s proposing to reduce the roof pitch and shorten the floor trusses and recess them into the foundation.
Since the moratorium on teardowns last year and the creation of new zoning code regulations, Ellis said the city has allocated more resources to handle the uptick in single-family home construction. Staff have tried to be diligent about making sure contractors are building according to their plans, he said.
Job sites have been shut down in the past, Ellis said, including a duplex at 1208 Como Ave. SE that went beyond the scope of work. Contractors might hit groundwater and build higher than planned, he said, or homes are simply built too tall or too close to a lot line. In the past, he said, contractors have lifted up the framing and cut away the basement block to reduce the height. But changes are usually minor without the need for a stop-work order, he said.
Corbin lives with her children in an Armatage home that she designed and built. She completes about six-eight projects per year focused on Southwest Minneapolis, and said she intentionally keeps her business small, working with the same subcontractors for years.
“There is a give and take here for everything. If we flat out decided to chart our own course and break the rules that would be a different story. This is a unique situation that could have been solved a lot better,” she said.
Bottom photo: The house at 3940 Thomas Ave. S. as it appeared before deconstruction. Submitted image