Dear PoP – Advice for Building a Pop Up

Tasteful pop up from 13th and Kenyon St, NW.

“Dear PoP,

A longer-form question/submission for the Ask PoP or the readers who might have experience dealing with the DC bureaucracy:

I am considering adding a pop up to my house near U St. and was wondering 1) what readers experiences have been trying to get permission for that, and 2) how people have dealt with seemingly inconsistent rules enforcement in the city.

The reason the second question is that four of my neighbors have built full pop ups – four complete walls making a completely new floor – while another has only built a half-pop up because, they say, District zoning rules prevented them from doing a full one. They skirted the rules by saying that the half-pop up is actually the maximum sized landing for the stairs, and then they built a deck for the remainder.

Thus, I guess the crux of my question is how come four of the neighbors got to “break” code rules while the others had to follow them? Any advice for how I should approach this project if I wanted to remain legal yet build a full pop up? I would rather not start getting official rulings on things before doing my homework!”

It sounds like you’ll need a variance which we recently spoke about here. Any advice for someone who’s looking to build a pop up?

8 Comment

  • Related to the linked post…

    Richard, if you’re still reading PoP, I appreciate your response and have posted a longer reply on the original post.4b

  • “Any advice for someone who’s looking to build a pop up?”


    • Why dont you come and buy the owner the house next door so he has enough space for his kids/family etc. and doesnt have to build an additional floor?

  • If a house is too small, move to a bigger house. Leave the smaller house for some new, smaller family behind you.

    It’s a big picture thing. If everyone maxed out the size of their houses, we’d have nothing but $800,000 houses and no starter homes. That’s a great way to destroy the homeownership ladder that all sellers rely on.

    That scenario also undermines one of the three legs of Sustainability. Sustainability depends on environmental, financial and cultural sustainability. Turning all houses into a max sized house is not financially sustainable. It’s probably not environmentally sustainable either.

    • If everyone in DC maxed out their house, we would have a ton of space for everyone and prices would go down instead of paying 300-500 bucks/square foot.

      They would just divide their 6 story house into three 2 story big residences that are both big and affordable.

      For example of this, check out some densely populated big cities in other countries with more libertarian approach to zoning.

  • Well, seeing nobody is really helping. I can attest to varying rules etc. The guy who built the pop up I now own… well, he was kind of a jerk and broke rules etc, that resulted in animosity in the neighborhood and a lot of things that he had to redo eventually costing him a lot of money.

    First, talk to your neighbors about your intentions and any concerns they may have. Seriously, if your neighbors don’t have a problem it somehow makes the permitting process easier. Keep in mind, many pop ups are slowed due to things like shade studies and neighbors that don’t want you to do what you are planning on doing.

    The risk, well, your neighbors might not want you to put on the addition, but at least you know the scope of your battle before going into it.

    The investor that built mine didn’t do this, tried to get away with things that weren’t kosher and DCRA nailed him requiring a lot of structural changes that cost him a lot of money.

    After the neighbors, I’d honestly go down to DCRA and sit down with whoever will speak to you. It is hit or miss some days, but if you have a decent attitude someone will sit down with you and talk the project through with you. Be aware of the regulations so you aren’t completely lost… but don’t argue with them use this to learn what hot buttons they are currently enforcing on pop-ups. I, and others, have had some luck getting good answers this way.

    Finally, two more things – make sure it is pleasing to the eye, or if possible not seen from the street (like mine – yeah me!) and don’t cheap out on the structural build. Don’t put a vinyl sided monstrosity up.

    My expansion was very expensive because it was both an addition into the backyard and above the original home. The expanded footprint is actually larger than the original home with a deeper basement and a total of 3 stories above grade. To do this correctly, the basement work escavation, proper water control and total brickwork for just the exterior was over $150k. To the naysayers, we love our neighborhood, didn’t want to leave and there are few large enough homes for our needs/desires. We were able to snatch this one up before it was fully completed and make sure problems were fixed… our house is now awesome and with some goodwill on our part all the neighborly issues left with the builder.

    To those that say don’t do it… think of paying 6% to the real estate agents when you sell… then transfer taxes, then the reality that 6% is built in for realtors on the other end and you can see why reasonable expansion is a better deal.

    • pop-up owner — I was the original submitter and thank you very much for the advice. One day, when I have $150k 🙂 I will go down to DCRA and test the will of the gods. Until then I just hope no major anti-popup regulations come into plan.

      For all the rest of the commenters – thanks for your opinions and I respectfully disagree. I love my house and want to make an amazing place even better with more space. This is a beautiful city to see from above and having the higher perspective is a great way to do that.

  • Dear pop-up comtemplator,
    My advice for adding a floor to your house is simple: make it look original. If you have a two story brick house capped with a flat roof, then use matching bricks to add a third floor and build the roof as it looked before. If your neighbors are three stories and have a certain design, then copy that so you blend in. The important thing is that it looks ORIGINAL.
    There have been quite a few homes (e.g., 11th St) in the area that have not followed this advice and have depreciated the neighborhood. Adding a floor covered with vinyl siding to a brick house does not look original. Building a glass box on your 100 year old house does not look original. Neither does stucco.
    As far as the zoning regulations go, everything you need you can find on-line at the ZBA’s website. It may take a while to read the pertinent regulations, but they are are there and you don’t need to hire a lawyer to do your homework. Also the people at ZBA are very nice if you politely ask for help.
    Remember your neighbors care about the exterior of your house, so if you make it pleasing tho them, they will support your project.

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