To say that building codes are a complex and confusing
body of regulations would be an understatement. Building code regulations are
written, rewritten and interpreted by a legion of builders, manufacturers,
architects, engineers, fire marshalls and inspectors. To complicate matters
there is no common language --- there is no uniform building code in the United
States. Four separate "models" (Model Codes) are used as guides to compose
hundreds of similar yet different local codes. Some communities develop a
unique code while others don't have a building code at all.
The good news is that a trend toward uniformity is
developing. Seventeen states have established state-wide building codes that
prohibit local amendment without state approval (see Table). State-wide codes
provide builders with a consistent book of rules. A builder can work in any
town within a given state and know the score.
Construction is a complicated business: many people
communicate various ideas about related activities. We use many materials in a
broad range of environments. One code can't satisfy all conditions. But how can
a builder deal with a different set of rules in each community? There is hope.
The best advice is understand the system and talk to your building official
before you start any project.
Building codes are legal documents. They regulate
construction to protect the health, safety and welfare of people. If you
violate building regulations, you may wind up in court. Keep in mind building
codes establish minimum standards. They do not guarantee efficiency or quality.
Typically, codes set requirements for sanitary
facilities, electrical, lighting, ventilation, building construction, building
materials, fire safety, plumbing and energy conservation. Anything you do that
involves these areas is probably regulated. And yes, you do need a permit to
demolish a building.
Building codes are local laws. Each municipality
enforces a set of regulations. But very few communities compose their own
unique set of regulations. Most adopt all or part of one of the Model Codes :
The Building Officials & Code Administrators International, Inc.(BOCA), The
International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), The Southern Building
Code Congress International, Inc. (SBCCI) and The Council of American Building
One Model Code is generally favored by municipalities
throughout a given region. For example, some version of SBCCI Standard Building
Code is adopted by the states south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the
Model Codes are updated annually and revised every 3
years. Anyone can submit a code-change proposal. Code-change proposals are
evaluated by a committee at a preliminary hearing. The committee distributes
its recommendations to its members. Challenges to the committee recommendations
are invited at a final hearing. Challengers must persuade 3/4 of the members at
the final hearing to overturn the committee's recommendation. This two-hearing
approach gives all building professionals a voice in the code-writing process.
Unchallenged items are automatically approved at the final hearing.
Finally, the model code agency includes its adopted
changes as part of a revised model code. But the adopted change doesn't
automatically become part of your state or local code. Let's say your state
adopted the 1987 BOCA National Building Code. You will not have to follow any
changes made to the BOCA code after 1987 unless your state actively adopts
either a revised code or the amended changes.
The first step in any construction (or demolition)
project is getting a building permit. You submit a set of blueprints and apply
for a permit at the inspection office. By law, the code office must either
approve or reject the application within a given time limit, often --- 30
Most inspection offices provide a checklist to each
applicant. The checklist includes the different individuals who must sign-off
on the application form: zoning officer, board of health, city planner, fire
marshall, wetlands director, tax collector, etc. Usually within 5-7 days your
plans are reviewed, signatures collected and permit issued. You then have 6
months to start work. The inspection office can issue 1 or more extensions if
your start date is delayed.
Smoothing the way
Building codes are the law of the land. But we are
often left wondering what the heck the law really says. Codes are
user-unfriendly. They are written in broad language to cover virtually all
conditions. And they are written to be legally defensible not easily
The most important aspect of running any business is
the ability to understand and work with people. Attitudes, not technical
expertise, control the outcome of most business ventures. Success pivots around
the line of communication established between the builder and inspector.
The following advice emerges as consensus among dozens
of building officials and builders I know:
-- Get a copy of the local building code. How
can you possibly know what regulations exist if you don't have a copy of the
code book? Builders should identify their geographical market area and
determine what regulations govern that market area. Ask your local inspector:
Does this region follow a state code? Does it have its own individual code?
Where can I get a copy of the code book? Code books are often available at the
State Building Code Office or the State Bookstore. Check with your local
inspectors. They probably won't have a copy to sell, but they will know where
you can purchase a copy of the code book.
-- Meet with the building inspector during the
design phase of the project. Build a working partnership with the code
official. If you want to start the relationship right, meet the building code
official before you start the project. Ask what the inspector is looking for
and if the inspector will review your architectural plans before they are
completed. Most will. This meeting sets the tone: I am coming to you because I
want to build a house in a way that this community wants a house to be built!
No building official (well, almost none!) wants to
order a builder to take apart building components after they have been
assembled. Correcting code violations is a expensive no-win situation that can
be avoided. Most code officials I know encourage builders to submit preliminary
plans for review. Some like to see plans as early as the 30% stage of
development. Other inspectors take a look at the 70% or 90% stage.
The time to catch major code violations is at the
beginning of the project. The last thing you want to hear on the day you come
in to get your permit is: "You need to add a second or third staircase." At
this point, the bids have been awarded, the financing is set and the carpenters
are ready to roll. The cost of this change will come out of your pocket.
-- Maintain open lines of communication with
inspectors and subcontractors. Codes often lag behind the cutting edge of
building technology. So if you have good solid evidence indicating that a
particular construction practice is better than that required by the local
code, bring it to the inspector's attention before you act. You can show the
code officer results of research reports that support your view. The "Alternate
Materials and Systems" section of the building code gives the officer the power
to say, "Yeah this is a good idea. Let's go with it." The inspector may require
proof substantiating any claimed performance.
Subcontractors often know less about code compliance
than either the contractor or inspector. And you are responsible for their
work. Stay on top of their work and discuss code options with them.
-- Attend educational programs. Most problems
between builders and inspectors are driven by a misunderstanding not a desire
to argue. Every project is different and codes are evolving. The only way to
stay on top of a dynamic situation is to ride the wave. Education is the most
strongly recommended vehicle
Builders and building officials must upgrade their
knowledge on a continuing basis. Building officials are in the business of
administering codes, so they better understand them clearly. The code
enforcement profession recognizes its need to maintain competency. Many states
mandate continuing education and recertification programs as a condition of
employment for code enforcement officers.
Builders have several educational options. The easiest
way to learn what programs are available is to ask your local inspector what
courses and seminars are being offered in your region. You can also contact the
State Building Office or one of the Model Code Offices to obtain a listing.
I recommend joining the local Home Builders
Association (HBA). Local HBA sponsor speakers, seminars and courses dealing
with building codes. Once you're plugged into the system as a member, you will
receive monthly newsletters and announcements highlighting these important
Many other professional associations like the
Associated General Contractors of America or New England Building Code
Association (inspectors, architects, builders, manufacturers,etc. are members
here) offer similar educational programs. Networking is critical.
The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) has
developed certification programs for builders and remodelers: The Graduate
Builders Institute and The Certified Graduate Remodeler Program offer a series
of individual day-long modules designed to develop expertise in many areas of
the building profession. One of the modules deals exclusively with building
codes. NAHB encourages local HBA chapters to provide these educational programs
to its members. But you don't have to be a member to attend.
Builders who are members of the local HBA get a bonus:
They can tap NAHB's Technology and Codes Department in Washington D.C. for
support documents, research information and technical assistance when trying to
interpret or appeal building codes.
-- Purchase a copy of CABO One and Two Family Dwelling
Code. CABO is the closest thing we have to a nation-wide building code. CABO is
an all-inclusive body of regulations covering building, electrical, mechanical,
plumbing and energy conservation. It is accepted as an option within each of
the other 3 Model Codes. Basically what happened is the other 3 Model Code
agencies, BOCA, ICBO and SBCCI, got together and said, "We have to make this
process easier for the home builder." So a building code for 1 & 2 family
dwelling construction was developed. When a local community adopts any of the
other Model Codes, they automatically adopt CABO as an option (unless they have
written it out!).
The CABO One and Two Family Dwelling Code is a
must-buy. It's inexpensive, clearly written and well illustrated. Contact:
Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA)
What You Don't Need
First of all, the building code book you purchase from
the State Book Store is not the whole code. Code books cite an incredibly long
list of reference documents. For example CABO Section R-217.2.6-Interior Trim
deals with foam plastic interior trim. It cites, "The flame-spread rating does
not exceed 75 when tested per ASTM E 84." --- SAY WHAT?---ASTM E 84 stands for
the American Society for Testing and Materials standard test procedure for
Surface-burning Characteristics of Building Materials. Do you want this ASTM
reference and another 1,000 standards on your bookshelf? Hardly.
You don't need to create a library that holds every
document used to develop the body of building regulations. If you bought all
the codes and code-related reference documents you would need to drag a 60-foot
trailer behind your pick-up. Most inspectors don't even have a complete library
of reference documents
Purchase the code book that is used in the
jurisdiction in which you are working. But save the aspirins: don't read it
cover-to-cover. Preview the index and get a feel for what kinds of things are
included in the book. If your business involves concrete forming, read that
section of the code thoroughly. You might want to consider purchasing the
American Concrete Institute (ACI) standards as a supplement, because most
inspectors will enforce this standard when checking concrete forms for oil and
spacing of reinforcing bar. However, you wouldn't purchase the ASTM spec on the
grading of reinforcing bar --- you will merely purchase the particular grade of
rebar that is required and be done with it. A little common sense will go a
long way here.
Nose to Nose
Builders and inspectors don't always agree about how a
code should be interpreted. No surprise. But how do you resolve these
differences effectively? You can always appeal an inspector's decision. Every
code includes a section that outlines how an appeal is carried out. But use
that card sparingly.
Typically, inspectors will prohibit the use of
materials and practices not prescribed by the code. However, inspectors are
empowered to be flexible under the Alternate Materials and Systems section of
the code. You may win an argument with an inspector involving a code
interpretation if you:
- demonstrate that your
interpretation of the code follows the spirit and intent of the code
- prove that your plan will deliver
equally good results
- maintain a cooperative attitude
during the negotiations. Solve the problem with the inspector not in spite of
For example, an inspector may not allow you to build a
"hot roof". Rafter bays are completely filled with insulation and roof
ventilation is eliminated in a hot roof system. A strict interpretation of the
building code indicates that roof ventilation is required. However, some
progressive roof-building systems eliminate the need for roof ventilation. One
case is a stress-skin panel roof that is overlaid with light-colored shingles.
In an attempt to win approval for this system, follow the advice outlined
above: Provide your inspector with research reports that document the
performance of these systems. Have a registered engineer approve the detail as
one that will work equally well. And provide a list of houses that have been
built this way. This shows that a track record has been established and that
other building inspectors have allowed similar construction.
There are other ways to resolve disputes. Arrange a
conference call involving a representative from one of the model code agencies,
the local inspector and builder. You can get an interpretation directly over
the phone or you can wait a few weeks for a written opinion. You can also
involve other building code officials in your attempt to interpret a sticky
code. It all has to do with attitude. If you are working together, chances are
you`ll reach a reasonable solution.
Poor workmanship raises a red flag that few inspectors
miss. Experienced inspectors recognize quality in a heartbeat. If the job lacks
professional character, the inspector anticipates that the administration of
the project will be rough-shod as well. In other words -- the inspector will
look under rocks to find cut corners! But confusion exists even in the best-run
Problems most frequently encountered by building
inspectors who deal with light-frame structures involve: stair and handrail
construction; decks and open-sided walking surfaces; egress windows in
bedrooms; new smoke detector codes; firewall details; handicap access; and tar
paper on roofs. These items should be on your checklist when you discuss the
next project with your building inspector. Clearly describe construction
details involving these areas.
Wondering about tar paper on roofs? Even though you
perforate the paper with nail holes every 6 inches --- its use is clearly
required by manufacturers and the building code! Many builders don't use it.
Will inspectors let it go if you discuss this option openly during the design
phase of the project: Pre-permit? Probably not.