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Energy Is Only One Part of the Building Inspector’s World

Health and safety come first, and flexibility rules

Posted on Feb 17 2010 by Lynn Underwood, GBA Advisor

Recently a Green Building Advisor blog post made some statements about the building inspector that, in my opinion, maligned the profession and were unwarranted. It occurred to me that if a professional peer could make such a faux pas, perhaps I should clarify the role that building inspectors play in assuring energy efficiency in buildings.

Building codes cover safety, sanitation, structural integrity, AND energy efficiency
Building inspectors enforce laws that cover everything from flagpoles to communications towers; hunting cabins to high-rise buildings; single-family homes to high schools, hospitals, and NFL football stadiums.

Inspectors enforce codes that cover architectural, fire, and life safety, means of egress, as well as all types of structural materials and conditions for each of these types of building elements. Building inspectors enforce each trade applied to a building: plumbing, electrical, mechanical, fuel gas, and other types of installations. They are certified by examination to demonstrate proficiency in each skill set. An inspector has more than a dozen model code books in his library; some of these are over 900 pages long. Except for the maps and tables, the energy provisions of the IRCInternational Residential Code. The one- and two-family dwelling model building code copyrighted by the International Code Council. The IRC is meant to be a stand-alone code compatible with the three national building codes—the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National code, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) code and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) code. are a mere six pages long.

But that is just the easy part—the prescriptive element—of their job
Because building codes can never predict the circumstances in each and every construction project, building inspectors must use judgment in applying the code. They achieve judgment through years of enforcing the code and considering the intent behind a requirement. Because the code is updated every three years, the spirit of the law is just as valid as the letter of the law. With judgment and experience, inspectors work with builders to achieve the intent of the prescriptive parts of the code.

What exactly is the legal nature of the code?
The code is never law unless some jurisdiction (city, county, town, or state) adopts it by reference. There are normally amendments that the inspector must be aware of—changes from that model code. The nature of this law is that the building official (the building inspector's boss) has some latitude to apply the code instead of always enforcing the letter of the law (see Are Green Building Materials Approved by the Building Code?). So, when someone claims that the energy code requires the use of R-38 in the ceiling, that may be true, generally, but it could be false if there is a circumstance where a similar method or material meets the intent of the code. Much of the IECC International Energy Conservation Code. is written in performance language, not prescriptive. There is no "all or nothing" in any building code! There are only shades of gray.

It's not always possible (or practical) to meet the prescriptive elements of the code
Now, let's look at why the building official has all of that latitude. Builders cannot always meet the prescriptive elements of the code in every circumstance, so the code allows the building official flexibility in interpreting the code. Imagine a contractor renovating a small building with 2x8 rafters. How can the builder comply with the R-38 requirement? By changing the rafter sizing? By finding insulation that fits in a 7-inch cavity while still allowing for ventilation (another code requirement)?

Let's say the contractor researches the options and finds a product that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind for code compliance—maybe some type of spray foam. The contractor installs the spray foam and then is rejected by the inspector. How will the contractor react? Will he be forced to remove the foam? How, and at what cost? Will the framing need to change? At what cost? Think about the cost of embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost. and waste disposal if a hard line is drawn for compliance in a circumstance like this. Or the contractor could visit with the building official and talk about options. "What can I do to satisfy the intent of the code requirement?" he may ask. The building official is likely to accept something like this one time only from a contractor if some additional proof is provided. Why? Because that same building official is using discretion to accept an alternative means of obtaining the intent of the code requirement.

He or she probably attends code hearings and understands how these codes are developed.

The process for code development is a lot like sausage making
Representatives from several interest groups, including building safety professionals, builders, designers, manufacturers, standards developing organizations, and energy enthusiasts, come together in a public hearing with thousands of proposals to change the codes. Some of these proposals are passed and others are not. Arguments made during public testimony give building officials insight into the true intent of a code section and an idea about fairly applying the code in future circumstances like the above scenario. They listen, they learn and they grow professionally in an effort to give the public the best possible decision.

The International Code Council (ICC) has developed the best building safety platform in human history. Think of the natural calamities around the world that can devastate a nation (think Haiti). Then consider the same-size natural event in the United States. There is no comparison. We have the world's best code. In fact, I just returned from Libya, where I was helping that country develop a building code; Libyans currently have none at all.

As a building official, I'm always glad to help!


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1.
Wed, 02/17/2010 - 11:33

Building Code Perspective
by John Brooks

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Lynn,
I am confused about a building code Issue.
I am trying to get answers about spray foam over at Martin's Blog
http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/it-s-ok-skimp-ins...
do you have any answers for my questions from yesterday 2/16/10?
If so could you comment at Martin's blog?


2.
Wed, 02/17/2010 - 11:59

Good post
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Lynn,
Thanks for your post; you've made some excellent points.

I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to Lynn and other building inspectors who (understandably) may have concluded that my blog on "insulation skimping" blamed inspectors for lax code enforcement. My words were poorly chosen. Most code officials are professionals who are required to perform a very difficult job. Building departments are rarely provided with a budget that is adequate to perform the herculean tasks before them. When certain code provisions aren't enforced — and it happens — the lack of enforcement is not the local officials' fault. The problem is systemic, and it requires a systemic solution.

Study after study has shown that most newly built U.S. homes don't comply fully with existing energy codes. But local building inspectors lack the resources — and in some cases, the expertise and testing equipment — to fully enforce existing energy codes. This problem will only worsen when codes get more stringent.

I think the best solution will prove to be third-party verification of energy compliance, using HERS raters or BPI-certified inspectors. This system is used for most Energy Star homes, and the system works pretty well. If such third-party verification inspections were required by code, it would remove the burden of energy-code enforcement from overworked building inspectors.


3.
Thu, 02/18/2010 - 06:13

Was my code question out of line?
by John Brooks

Helpful? -1

Lynn Underwood:"As a building official, I'm always glad to help!"

Lynn,
I am not sure about the status of my code question:
Did my question not make sense?
Are you researching an answer?
Would you prefer not to comment?
Is this something that is open to interpretation by the local code official?

Is it OK for me to specify rafter encapsulation with open cell foam on my projects?

confused Architect wants to know


4.
Thu, 02/18/2010 - 09:18

All or Nothing?
by Riversong

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Lynn,

I'm not a code official, but I've dealt with many during my 30 years in the trade, and I had to study the MA code cover-to-cover years ago to earn my Construction Supervisor's License.

I agree that there are no "all or nothing" prescriptive elements of the building code. Rather they are "this much or better". All building codes specify minimum acceptable (legal) standards. Those standards are based on a constantly changing consensus of all stakeholders in the industry, to be sure, but I've found little to quibble with - most code provisions make sense and should be enforced.

While I agree that a code enforcement official must be allowed some discretion in application, and the spirit of the code may be more important than the precise letter (as long as a legitimate case for variance can be made, sometimes requiring an engineer's approval), too much laxness in enforcement only breeds contempt for the code (all too common in the trades) or corruption in application (favoritism or worse).

Any builder who installs a questionable assembly and then hopes for the inspector's approval deserves whatever the consequences. I've yet to find the inspector who was unwilling to review plans and specs for compliance or to offer before-the-fact advice or code interpretation.

Only when designers, builders and code enforcement officials accept that building codes are minimum standards, will our building stock become something to be proud of. Comparing our homes to third world standards doesn't give me any confidence.


5.
Thu, 02/18/2010 - 14:39

My question was a little off-topic for this blog
by John Brooks

Helpful? 0

Lynn,
I plan to rephrase my question and ask it again in the Question section so that it will be easier to follow.
John B


6.
Fri, 02/19/2010 - 11:00

Here is the Link
by John Brooks

Helpful? 0

Lynn,
Here is the link to my Code question
http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/community/forum/building-code-questi...


7.
Tue, 02/23/2010 - 08:18

I agree with Dr. Riversongs'
by Edward Palma

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I agree with Dr. Riversongs' expose. In my career I have found that in most cases building officials are extremely helpful during the planning phase of a project and after commencement of the project. They have always been accessible and when asked a question will provide their opinion based on researched information from the code books that apply. The position of building official and assistant building official not only provides an important enforcement tool to the process but is extremely important as an educational tool and reference for all contractors and the public. Any official who does not understand and perform the position in this manner is, in my opinion ( and that is all that it is) not doing their job properly. I have always found the phrase "minimum standards" questionable. As a registered builder of 32 years and a licensed building official for 20 years it has always bothered me that the building code only enforces the minimum standards. I believe that this only adds to the contractors' confusion between the "prescriptive aspect" of the code, and "meeting the intent "of the code. It does not promote the uneducated contractor from educating themselves to perform higher standards in their product. Also it allows those contractors that practice less than high standard construction methods the ability to slide by as long as they achieve the minimum standards. In the end the consumer suffers, and the quality of our existing and new building stock, especially on the residential scale suffers greatly. In the end it is a tough situation to remedy because of the many "controlling interests" that are involved in writing and publishing the codes. If we are going to reduce the impact that the building sector has on climate change, energy usage, and ecological footprint, while providing a healthy living and working environment for the occupants, we need to raise the intellectual and performance standards for all that participate. Enforcing "minimum standards" does not solve that issue, it only propagates mediocrity in the building product on a long term basis.


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