Working in Codes

Building codes. If you have been in the A/E industry for even a short length of time you have had to deal with them. If you have been around for a long time then you probably have a continuing love-hate relationship with them (ok, probably more hate than love, but I digress). I would like to address two points regarding building codes. First, are they even necessary? Second, why are they so darn picky!? Here’s the first installment.

At some point in the not too distant past I got into a debate with a code specialist over the concept that building codes actually reduce the level of quality in buildings. I definitely disagree, but it was an interesting discussion. The argument goes something like this: “Building codes define bare minimum standards. If designers are given a minimum, they will always build to that minimum. Designers that would have otherwise used simple good design will instead build the minimum thereby reducing overall quality. Furthermore, the constant search for loopholes and exceptions reinforces the drive towards low quality projects.”

While I could not disagree more, I will admit that there is some back up for this opinion. From my own (admittedly limited) experience, there are almost always attempts to “fudge” at least one small code requirement on any given project. This of course varies wildly in severity. For the most part it would be something like an ADA clearance being short by ½”. However, I have seen projects from other sources (who are un-affiliated and shall remain nameless) that are so clearly in defiance of the building code that I could come to no other conclusion than they had willfully ignored significant and crucial regulations. While in my case I had no way of proving it, it seemed clear to me that this was the kind of move intended to “slip one past” the unsuspecting AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction).

Where I take exception is the concept that minimum requirements reduce overall compliance/quality. I could not disagree more with this point. In my opinion, this is a matter of pragmatism. In the world of architectural theory, a debate exists between “Form Follows Function” and “Function Follows Form”. In the real world, there is no debate. Form Follows Budget. One of the coolest projects I have ever worked on was one where the owner’s representative was tired of the cheap, bland buildings that their organization typically builds. They wanted this project to be a real statement so they let us off the leash so to speak by allowing a higher than normal percent of the budget to go to “non-essentials” like custom finishes, decorative windows, roof overhangs, and custom railings. These features were certainly nice, but probably the most important improvement was space.

Unfortunately, the project I just described is the exception. Many projects (especially public funded projects) are crippled by a shoestring budget and a project manager or owner’s rep who refuses to make any concessions. Of course we tried to be as efficient as possible in our design, but we didn’t have to squeeze every last square foot out of the project to save a few bucks.

So how does that affect code compliance? Without getting into detail just understand that building codes HATE cramped spaces. For the most part I am referring to means of egress and accessibility requirements. “You want to cut 200 square feet out of the building? Well I suppose we can reduce this hallway down to 3’-8”.” Now your comfortable circulation space has been shrunk down to where it feels cramped and just barely meets your minimum exit width requirement. What happens if a problem comes up in construction and you have to add a furr-out or some such? Boom. Code violation. The same is just as true for accessibility. Bathrooms are ideal targets for space cutting (read: cost cutting). This leads to all kinds of problems with wheelchair turn-around spaces, clearances at fixtures, the list goes on.

All of these points are rooted heavily in arguments for “good design”. Is it a good idea to shrink that hallway? No, but the owner wants it done and it’s awfully hard to argue about “airiness” and “movement” and “flow” when the bottom line keeps rearing its ugly head. This is where building codes can actually prove to be a real benefit and where I believe they show their true usefulness. In the hallway example, if the project was not limited by a building code requirement the designer could have very easily shrunk it even farther! They may not have really wanted to, but if the boss (owner’s rep) says do it, then you better get it done. With the building code as back-up there is a legitimate argument as to why you need to keep a wide hallway. From the owner’s perspective, they won’t get a permit unless they do.

This brings me back to my original argument against codes reducing quality. Sure in some cases designs are weakened by crunching things to the bare minimum, but if that minimum did not exist what would stop them from being crunched even more? Building codes are for the most part created reactively based on tragedies of the past. Buildings in the past were constructed without adequate exits, or with flammable construction, or improper ventilation.

Given the original argument, the lack of building codes should have meant that the designers were un-influenced by minimum requirements and therefore built to a better standard. Those past tragedies show that this is clearly not true. It seems obvious to me that building codes are doing their job in forcing the hand of both designers and owners to build safely even if their wallets say otherwise.

Post by Logan Piburn,

Master of All Things Tech and Code

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