Monday, October 3, 2016

Greenhouse Resolution

Last week I was with a friend, fixing an over-heating problem in my car, when I recieved a call from Minneapolis Code Services. It was the lead inspector, who reviewed and rejected both sets of plans I offered to the city, in my application for a permit for my greenhouse. Sept 02 he rejected my second application, I had until Sept 22 to respond, I sent an 8-page detailed response. A rejection of that response would mean an immediate order to tear it down. He was responding within a week.

"The Building Official said that because you didn't attach it to the house you don't need a permit, if it is under 200 sq ft."

A year and a half, two sets of plans rejected, $1460 in fines, two hearings I lost, a dozen visits to code services, 100 hours in labor, 100's of hours occupied about it. To recall, I built a greenhouse out of used sliding glass doors, and reclaimed lumber, 2013-2014, for about $800. In the winter of 2015, Code Services tagged it as an illegal addition. I did not apply for a permit before I built it, primarily because I didn't think I needed a permit because I didn't attach the greenhouse mechanically to the house - a point I informed the city about from the beginning, and throughout the process.

I calculate the sq footage of the footprint @ 162.6'.

It looks like I get to keep the greenhouse. Which is amazing, because I spent most of the last 18 months thinking I would have to tear it down. Especially amazing, because EVERYONE I told about my situation basically took the attitude that my fight for this greenhouse was futile. How many times did I hear, you can't fight City Hall? I fought City Hall with nothing but my wits, and won.

Of course, I did not succeed, thus far, in engaging the City in clarifying the rules about greenhouses, as there is no clarity at all about it, in the International Building Codes (IBC), Minneapolis Codes, or Minnesota Provisions. Indeed, code as it is, and as it was interpreted, could potentially force a homeowner to spend $15,000-40,000 to build a greenhouse; with savings on energy and food, you might recover that in about 50-100 years.

But then, now I suppose, it is legal to build a greenhouse less than 200 sq ft in Minneapolis, without a permit (just don't anchor it to the house with any bolts, screws, brackets, adhesives etc.) Though zoning will still have something to say about where you build it.

Most of my fines will be rescinded. Unfortunately, $220 is already assessed to the taxes. If I weren't basically broke economically I might just let it go; but there is also the principle of it. I'd also like some acknowledgement from city officials that I was right all along. But I won't push for that. Mostly I'm just happy to be thinking about growing herbs and spinach etc for the winter, happy that I get to keep my greenhouse. With a bit more faith in the power of reason and logic in service to the heart, in love.


[This is the response to the city, after the rejection of the second plans. Pictures of blueprints etc follows....]

To:  Community Planning and Economic Development
Construction Code Services
250 S 4th St Room 300
Minneapolis MN, 55415

Dear Minneapolis, City of Lakes,

I built a greenhouse out of used sliding glass doors and reclaimed old-growth lumber, next to the south side of my house at the above address, 2013-2014. Code Services tagged it as an illegal addition in the winter of 2015, because I had not applied for a permit. I applied for a permit in the winter of 2016, which was rejected due to “insufficient plans.” I reapplied with new plans in the summer of 2016, which plans were rejected as of Sept 02, 2016.

What follows is a point by point response to the issues listed in that rejection. It should be noted that IBC/IRC codes do not include any reference to greenhouses, and in the absence of greenhouse codes, Minneapolis is relying on porch codes, which are effectively irrelevant to the actual purpose and structure of a proper greenhouse.

1. “The class V foundation is less than the 42” minimum required by MN provisions 1303.1600.”

The existing class V foundation spans the entire front of the greenhouse, 2’w x 2’d, which has proven more than sufficient for stability of the structure, through two winters. No greater stability would be achieved by extending class V to 42”. Existing foundation is more in spirit of a shallow frost foundation.

Code Services is calling this greenhouse a three-season or seasonal porch, thereby acting as though load issues would be the same. But this greenhouse is considerably lighter than a standard stick-frame porch, snow and people-load (no one on roof, no floor) would be non-existent, which important factors Code Services, IRC code and Minnesota provisions ignore.

2. “The structure is not anchored to a proper foundation per 403.1.6 [IRC].”

If a class V foundation is legal at 42”, there could be no anchoring, so this issue should be negated. This also supposes this structure should have a concrete foundation - post, block or poured - which would be an unnecessary expense, and should not be required simply to satisfy arbitrary code interpretation.

3. The foundation is not in compliance with a “shallow frost foundation” per 403.3”

As the first three issues raised are addressing the one issue of foundation, it should be noted that this structure is not in any way attached mechanically to the house: no bolts, screws, brackets, adhesive, etc. Therefore, even if the foundation is determined to be insufficient in relation to code, and even if there were some kind of compromise in the foundation that displaced the greenhouse, it is impossible to say that the greenhouse in any way compromises the structure of the house.

Compared to say, a garage, the foundation requirements so stated are arbitrary and excessive, insofar as the implicit suggestion that this greenhouse is somehow a greater public safety issue than a typical shallow footed garage.

It is my suggestion that this existing class v foundation is more than sufficient for the greenhouse in question, making it deeper would serve no purpose, and adding concrete footings or foundation would be an entirely unnecessary effort and expense.

4. “the structure does not meet a wall bracing method in accordance with 602.10.

The wall bracing methods referenced are about proper sheathing, tying wall studs together. This is emblematic as to how Code Services is ignoring the structure that actually exists: this greenhouse is not a porch. Why would you put sheathing over the glass of a greenhouse? You wouldn’t. This is also ignoring how the sliding glass doors that comprise the walls, still in their original frames, act as wall bracing, tying the studs together.

 This is effectively saying you can’t build a stick frame greenhouse.

5. “the roof rafters are over spanned and spaced, and do not meet table 802.5.1 of the 2015 IRC.”

The existing rafters are 2x4 old-growth douglas fir, reinforced with 2x2 on each side. The span is dictated by the glass. It is true the spans do not meet code minimums, 28”-36” as opposed to 16” or 24” code; but code minimums are assuming this is a porch, with a standard structural roof. Again, none of the load issues should apply for a greenhouse, as snow sloughs off, and no one will be standing on the glass roof. The spanning is dictated by the size of the reclaimed sliding glass doors, and is more than sufficient structurally, based on the weight of the glass.

6. “materials exposed to the elements must be treated per IRC 317.”

There is treated pine, and untreated old-growth douglas fir 2x4, incorporated in this greenhouse. The superiority of the untreated old-growth to the new treated pine is demonstrably evident in the structure. Even if treating of the douglas fir were an issue, it could be “treated” periodically with a variety of sealants.


Also in the letter of rejection, there is the recommendation, many times previously repeated, that I should obtain a letter of support from an engineer licensed by the State of Minnesota. It is clear however, much of the reason this greenhouse has not been permitted, perhaps the primary reason, is liability; the City will not permit this greenhouse, because it does not wish to assume liability for it, by permitting it.

Why would a licensed engineer assume liability for this greenhouse, if it does not conform to code? It is unlikely, though perhaps one would at great expense. One of the reasons I did not apply for a permit for this greenhouse, was because I knew the City would require an engineers assessment, but that no engineer could be found, or none at the “right” price, which is, I built this greenhouse for $800 and do not want to spend a dollar more than I deem appropriate.

I have no interest in paying an engineer thousands of dollars, so he or she can tell the City what I already know, what I have been telling the City, that this greenhouse is structurally sound. Nor do I have the money. I should not be compelled to pay for an engineer, any more than I should be coerced into spending money on unnecessary concrete or “proper” joist and stud spacing or bracing. Liability, I assume, will only be assumed for the right price.

Also, repeatedly, I have been told to move the greenhouse six feet from the house. Then I would not need a permit. But that too ignores most of the actual purpose of a greenhouse: this greenhouse insulates the house, the house insulates it; heating costs of the house are reduced, the greenhouse is partially heated by the house; the greenhouse helps heat the house on milder, sunny winter days; I can enter the greenhouse from the warm house instead of the cold outside, improving efficiency of the greenhouse; if the greenhouse were stand-alone it would have to be artificially heated by wood, pellet, corn, fossil fuel etc.

The city is effectively saying, you can’t have a greenhouse like what I have built, “attached” to your house, unless it is structured like a stick frame porch and costs $15,000-$40,000.

The City then, and IBC code, open up to the accusation that they are acting as a kind of gatekeeper for the big energy utilities, in the spirit of various attempts nationwide to make off-grid living effectively illegal, such as adding extreme fees to solar generation to negate savings, or the code in Minneapolis that states if you have a utility disconnected you have five days to reconnect, or condemnation proceedings will commence.

Code too becomes an act of homogenization, everything everywhere begins to look about the same. Over time all structures appear basically the same, with minor cosmetic differences, like some kind of monocultural field of GMO corn, only the wealthy permitted to be creative, while the buildings of the poor and working class degrade, and the middle descend into greater debt servitude to build like everybody else is building (who have access to credit.)

More specifically, people should not be forced to spend 10’s of thousands of dollars, or go into debt, to build a greenhouse. People should be encouraged, not discouraged, to make their houses more energy efficient, to produce more food on-site.

If the International Building Code regime is incapable of recognizing this greenhouse as legitimate, then there is something fundamentally wrong with IBC codes, and code enforcement.

If the City requires me to tear this greenhouse down, I am going to remove the glass, and then challenge the city to call the frame an addition. I will cover the frame with plastic in the Fall, and remove it in Spring. If I am forced to tear this greenhouse down entirely, I will build a collapsible frame that I can install and dismantle as necessary.

Instead, I believe the City of Minneapolis should write it’s own codes about greenhouse construction, that allow people to install greenhouses inexpensively, using this greenhouse as a model.

I built this greenhouse to show what can be done, using materials otherwise destined for the waste stream, inexpensively, responsibly, creatively. It is a work of art. The City of Minneapolis should be working with me to save it.