A “Code” of Conduct

This is the second installment about building codes. Last time I wrote about why codes are necessary and even a good thing. This time I would like to delve into grey areas and allowances for errors.

If you recall from my previous musings I mentioned that there are a lot of projects out there where at least one code requirement is not quite met. Often, these discrepancies are not discovered until very, very late in the game. Final inspection is a terrible time to discover an error because the cost of fixing it increases dramatically as a project becomes more and more complete.

To illustrate this point, let’s say a bathroom was designed with 5’-0” clear in the accessible stall, but somebody forgot to take the finishes into account, so the stall is short by a ½” or so (the thickness of tile and mortar). If this is discovered during the design phase, correcting the problem is a simple matter of moving a few lines. If discovered during framing erection, the contractor might only have to replace a few studs. But oh, if it isn’t found until final inspection… That’s new studs, drywall, tile, flooring, partitions, paint, ceilings, and the labor costs for both demo and reconstruction. Yikes.

Right here there is a moment in which even the most honest and moral person thinks to themselves (just for an instant mind you…) “I wonder if the inspector takes bribes.” NOW HOLD ON just a minute!! I didn’t say everybody does shady business like that. I’m just saying that everyone who has had to deal with a situation like this has wished that the inspector would just say “Eh, close enough. You get a pass.” Just imagine the sigh of relief! Of course, this is a judgment call on the side of the inspector, and in today’s increasingly litigious world that call gets made less and less.

So why IS that ½” such a big deal? In short, because building codes are a set of bare minimums. There has been actual scientific research and experimenting to prove empirically that a certain physical features and spaces are adequate for a given task. One good example is the set of requirements for ramp slope. Another is fire rated joints and penetrations. There are thousands of UL listings where systems have been tested in furnaces to prove that they actually do their job. All this leads to the fact that any project must meet or exceed the minimum standard.

Before I move on I will concede that there are a few regulations where the reasoning behind them is cloudy at best. Why is the allowable area 12,500s.f. and not 13,000? I guess you could get out the old UBC or BOCA code and look at the historical values if you reeeeally want to….

Generally, when enforcing the code on a violation like the ½”-too-short-mistake above, the argument is that the designer should have designed the space to exceed the absolute minimum just in case such a thing were to happen. Regardless of the origin of the mistake, the fact remains that there is a code violation and it needs to be corrected. When stated simply and forcefully, that argument is pretty hard to dispute. This is where I try to look at things from a more pragmatic point of view.

If I was the inspector I would take into account all of the other errors and violations around the project. No building is perfect, so of course there are going to be a couple of things. Is that ½” the worst of the bunch? If so, I might just go ahead and give the pass on it. On the other hand, if the building is an absolute mess of errors, delinquencies, and hazards then I would probably throw the book at them. The real key here is Intent and Purpose.

  • 104.10 Modifications. Wherever there are practical difficulties involved in carrying out the provisions of this code, the building official shall have the authority to grant modifications for individual cases, upon application of the owner or owner’s representative, provided the building official shall first find that special individual reason makes the strict letter of this code impractical and the modification is in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code and that such modification does not lessen health, accessibility, life and fire safety, or structural requirements. The details of action granting modifications shall be recorded and entered in the files of the department of building safety.  –  2012 IBC

In order to properly interpret and comply with the building code, the intent of the code must be considered. Why is that 5’-0” clearance required at the toilet? Because that amount of space is necessary for someone in a wheelchair to pull up next to the toilet and transfer onto it. Now here’s where the grey area shows up. The code also allows the 5’-0” clearance to overlap with grab bars, toilet paper holders, and the like. Clearly there is a little bit of “wiggle room” built into the clearance. So why shouldn’t that same concept be applied for a small error in construction?

I’m sure that a lot of people will disagree with me on this point. A minimum is a minimum, and a rule is a rule, and so forth. Even in the code section I just quoted, accessibility is not technically allowed to be reduced, regardless of how much or how little it is reduced. I guess it’s just human nature. Everybody sees things just a little bit differently. That’s why we have judges in our legal system. Even black and white moral axioms are open to interpretation. Is it right to steal food if you are starving? I don’t know. I won’t venture any farther into the realm of philosophy because that’s not what I’m after here. All I’m after is a little common sense.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that minor violations should be ignored all the time. I simply want to point out that the intent and purpose of the building code is not to be an obstacle to progress, and it shouldn’t be used that way. The intent of the code is to safeguard public health, safety and general welfare (IBC 101.3). If it really is clear that the designer’s and contractor’s intent was to comply as fully as possible throughout the whole project, then maybe giving a ½” here and there isn’t really so bad after all.

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