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Thread: Measuring building height - feet or stories (floors)

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Tobinn's avatar
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    Measuring building height - feet or stories (floors)

    We are having a bit of a discussion here in the Planning Department of my fair city regarding the measuring of building height; whether we should the feet route or stories.

    To put it in context, our Code almost exclusively measures height in feet.

    We are in the process of re-writing our downtown zoning district and it's come up that perhaps limiting height by feet is too restrictive in a way.

    We're wondering if a better way might be to simply decide on an appropriate number of stories and leave it up to the design of the building to dictate the overall height.

    I don't generally trust the "market" to do the right thing with regard to building and site design aesthetically-speaking when left to their own devices but when it comes to parking and floor to floor heights (at least, anyway) I think that the private sector will do what's appropriate most of the time.

    In other words, if you set a limit of six stories I don't think that someone will design a building with 50 foot floors resulting in a 300 foot building.

    I've seen a mix in some of the downtown plans I've looked at between dictating height by feet, stories and a hybrid; a maximum number floors with a not-to-exceed a certain height in feet.

    I'm leaning towards regulating height (at least in the downtown planning area) by stories perhaps with a not-to-exceed clause.

    My reasoning goes along something like this: We know we think that we'd like to see buildings around five stories along Such and Such Street. If we limit height to 50 feet that doesn't leave much room for flexibility to allow for a raised first floor, a taller first floor (say 18' ceilings on the ground floor), etc.. We could assume an average of 12 feet per floor and go with 60 foot maximum height but that might lead some jerky developer to squeeze out six junky, short (not quite Being John Malkovich but you get the idea?) floors. I reckon you can figure 10 foot floor to ceiling with about up to two feet between floors for mechanical (probably a foot or less would do it). I could also see 12 foot floor to ceiling for certain residential products, though....then you'd need to figure about 14 feet per floor.

    Anyhooo, I'm wondering what others in the Cyburbiaverse are doing, thoughts, opinions, what seems to work better or not, reasons to go one way or the other...

    Thanks much!!
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  2. #2
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I like regulating by feet better. It's a definitive number. What constitutes a story. It's common sense to you and me, but there is too much variability without a clear definition and you know some jerk will test it out by creating some weird building. If you measure by windows they'll just slap in a row of pointless windows. If you measure by floors, what about half floors, mezzanines, etc. I would just declare I want a building at least 30 feet tall, but not more than 100 feet, or whatever. Developers will figure out it's a waste to have a one story 30 foot building and stretch it to two stories.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  3. #3
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    I currently have a 'max feet' height limit. I've also worked where it was simply max FAR coupled with max feet height.

    I believe feet measurement is easier to understand and conceptualize for most people that are not in or allied with the building industry.

    Using stories could result in a normal variance of ~1-1.5 story equivalents. You could have a '5 story' limit and that could reasonably range from 55 feet to 70 feet tall, which is about a 1 story (15 feet) difference even though they're both '5 stories'.

    It really depends on what the elected and (by proxy) the citizens are able to conceptualize.

    If you want to test using stories, make some massing models to represent the possibilities. This would be the best or worst way to show the electeds and citizens how it could be physically implemented.

    As for me personally, I would go with stories, because it provides the most chance for an interesting and varied built environment. It likely won't happen, but it provides the developer that wants/needs the ability to increase floor-to-ceiling heights per floor without being constrained on potential leasable floorplates, because of a specific height limit.

    Good luck.
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    I recommend using feet. This is a standard everyone can understand without "interpretations" and future disagreements.

    Also, check with your Fire Marshall about the equipment he has: Height hose can spray vertically, height that can be reached by ladders, and Fire Code requirements.

    Also, consider the possible survival height for possible forced jumps.

    And determine if the height is to the highest point of the roof for visual purposes, or highest floor level for safety and evacuation.

    And determine if habitable spaces inside the structure will be allowed above top floor height (ie, attics).

    "Habitable" space would not necessarily limit total height. You might want an additional total height limit.

    And all this is assuming your buildings meet height limits based on building Construction Types.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    If you use feet make sure you think about how it turns into floors. Sometimes even a few feet difference means the difference between a story. For example, going from 45' to 50' made the difference in one area between three and four floors because the ground level retail wants a high floor-ceiling clearance.

    Call a couple of local architects and ask them what the thresholds are given local code requirements.
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  6. #6
    Cyburbian Tobinn's avatar
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    Feet vs. Stories

    Thanks for the responses - food for thought.

    I like feet as a measurement because it is definitive. I am also worried about some wise-aleck developer doing something stupid with 30 foot stories but I think that cost would outweigh the benefit.

    I agree that going with stories could result in a nicely variable built environment. Especially in the area in question - completely underdeveloped and mostly one story buildings where we want something more along the lines of five story buildings (something between two and five anyway).

    I'm leaning towards recommending maximum floors not to exceed a certain height. We are also leaning towards requiring a minimum first floor height of somewhere around 18 feet. I think that one could figure on an upper story ratio of about 12 feet per floor which should be plenty to accommodate 10 foot ceilings and room to spare.

    Again, thanks for the comments! I'll check back for others in a day or so.
    At times like this, you have to ask yourself, "WWJDD?"
    (What Would Jimmy Durante Do?)

  7. #7
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Tobinn View post
    We are also leaning towards requiring a minimum first floor height of somewhere around 18 feet. I think that one could figure on an upper story ratio of about 12 feet per floor which should be plenty to accommodate 10 foot ceilings and room to spare.
    I'd recommend not having a minimum first floor height. That is just going to seem arbitrary unless you back it up with very specific and extensive modeling on your part to support the regulation and defining the "compelling government interest".
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Every day is today. Yesterday is a myth and tomorrow an illusion.

    You know...for kids.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Your reasons seem "arbitrary." Please consider justifications in order to avoid disregard and lawsuits for being "arbitrary."

  9. #9
    I've seen both done. Setting a height limit in storeys to give flexible but also a maximum height limit in feet to guard against a sly developer that will try to game the system. Then again, I live in a larger city and tall buildings in certain areas are promoted and the redevelopment generally welcomed by the community. (Amazing how much has changed even in the last 10 years).
    The content contrarian

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