GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Code Green

Everyone has a boss…even your Building Inspector

The Building Official is the senior official — the boss — in a building department and supervises inspectors and plans examiners.

The role of the modern building official

So you’ve hired an architect to design a green home and now are submitting plans for a permit. The plans examiner behind the counter at Town Hall casts a jaundiced eye and questions the viability of your proposal. He tells you to get engineering for the newly developed building material you’ve selected.

Or say you’re under construction, and the building inspector comes by to evaluate your footing before you pour. You have installed a frost-protected shallow foundation in an effort to follow green-building practices. The inspector rejects your inspection, citing the required depth provision for footings. So, who you gonna call?

Remember, everyone has a boss, even the inspector. The traditional title for the boss in this case is the “Building Official,” who is responsible for enforcing the code but also has some authority to be flexible. In fact, the International Residential Code (IRC) spells out the building official’s duties and powers.

Authority to interpret the code

The building official is allowed the latitude of defining the meaning of each provision of the code according to its intent and purpose. If there is a vague reference or an unclear term, the building official is the referee who makes the call.

For example, Section 1009 of the International Building Code (IBC) mandates that outdoor stairways and approaches to stairways must be designed so that water will not pool on the walking surfaces and freeze, causing a falling hazard. The inspector may have turned you down for use of a seasonal awning cover that is retractable because “. . . it does not fully cover the stairway landing . . . all the time,” according to the provision. If you explain to the building official that it will be deployed in wet or icy conditions, he/she may be able to decide that your retractable awning meets the intent of that condition.

General authority

Section R104.1 gives the building official most of the necessary authorization to interpret the code and make decisions in the field so long as he/she conforms to the “intent and purpose” of the code and the builder has met the basic requirements of the provision.

Except in the case of small governments, most building officials do not do everything — review plans, issue permits, conduct inspections, issue notices and orders — themselves; they have staff to help. This staff is authorized to conduct inspections, accept reports, and ask for an expert opinion to verify claims or answer questions.

Applications and permits

The building official (or his staff) receives the building applications, reviews construction documents, and issues the building permits. He may also conduct the inspections and issues any notices or orders.


The building official must be allowed access to the job site. If no one is at the site, the building official will try to contact the owner or builder. If you don’t let him in, he has the legal recourse to obtain a search warrant.


The building official must approve any use of building materials, including recycled, reclaimed, or alternative materials. The materials must be constructed and installed in accordance with such approval. Section R104.9.1 specifically covers the building official’s authority over used materials and equipment.

Construction is not a precise science. As such, designs made by engineers, architects, and even designers sometimes don’t work out as planned, and a different method may be necessary. (This subject will be dealt with more thoroughly in subsequent blogs.) A building official has the authority to allow for different approaches as substitutes for any code requirement. It is to be hoped that the official is flexible and knowledgeable about the basis for a code requirement to suggest or accept another approach, whether it be traditional or innovative.


Section R104.10 allows for modifications wherever there are practical difficulties in conforming to code. The building official can approve modifications if he understands and officially notes what makes the code impractical in that case. Of course the modification must comply with the code’s intent and purpose and must meet health, life, fire, and structural safety requirements.

Building officials have a duty to consider requests to use alternative construction materials and methods. If it meets the intent of the code, they are compelled to accept it, according to Section 104.11.

I have discussed this at greater length (see “When You Come to a Fork in the Code, Take It.” For now, know that the code encourages the use of innovations in construction materials or alternative methods.


The building official can require tests to ensure code compliance at his own discretion. In the absence of recognized and accepted test methods, the building official can also approve the testing procedures.


Section R104.8 spells out liability issues. As a public official, the building official (or member of the board of appeals, or employee under the aegis of the building official) is not personally liable for damages as long as he is performing his duties in good faith. If, on the other hand, malice is the basis for an action or decision, he may lose this protection. What’s more, he will be provided with legal defense in the event of a lawsuit.


  1. PRASAD | | #1

    corporate offices adopting green buildibg conept
    seeking more information on green building concepts being adopted / used in govt. and corporate office complexes with a particular reference to power sectror corporate office. cost effectiveness would be quiet habdy

  2. fixithud | | #2

    All of the authority , none of the responsibility
    Check out that last section, liability. No code official, no matter how hard their office makes it for you to perform your work, will stand behind the work or the materials.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |