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 IRC 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 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 2×8 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 energy 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!