Decoding the Building Code
Please note: This older article by our former faculty member remains available on our site for archival purposes. Some information contained in it may be outdated.
Common sense and open lines of communication unravel the tangle of regulations that restrain many construction projects.
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 Officials (CABO).
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 Mississippi River (see map for regional bias).
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 days.
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 understood.
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 sessions.
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: Building 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 the inspector
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 jobs.
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.
American Concrete Institute, P.O.Box 19150, Detroit, MI 48219
American Institute of Timber Construction, 11818 S.E.Mill Plain Blvd., Suite 415, Vancouver, WA 98684
American National Standards Institute, Inc., 1430 Broadway, New York, NY 10018
American Society of Heating Refrigerating and AIr Conditioning Engineers, 1791 Tullie Circle, N.E., Atlanta, GA 30329.
American Society for Testing and Materials, 1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Architectural Aluminum Manufacturers Association, 2700 River Road, Suite 118, Des Plaines, IL 60018
Brick Institute of America, 11490 Commerce Park Drive, Suite 300, Reston, VA 22091
Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc. 4051 West Flossmoor Road, Country Club Hills, IL 60478-5795
Council of American Building Officials, 5203 Leesburg Pike, Suite 708, Falls Church, VA 22041
Gypsum Association, 1603 Orrington Avenue, Suite 1210, Evanston, IL 60201
Home Builders Institute, 1090 Vermont Avenue, Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20008
International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, 5032 Alhambra Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90032
International Conference of Building Officials, 5360 South Workman Mill Road, Whittier, CA 90601
National Association of Home Builders, 1201 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005
National Bureau of Standards, Gathersburg, MD 20760
National Conference of States on Building Codes & Standards, 505 Huntmar Park Drive, Suite 210, Herndon, VA 22070
National Fire Protection Association, Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269
National Forest Products Association, 1250 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036
Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc., 900 Montclair Road, Birmingham, AL 35213
Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., 333 Pfingsten Road, Northbrook, IL 60062
Western Wood Products Association, 1500 Yeon Building, Portland, OR 97204
Last updated: September 7, 2016