The words may be the same, but our understanding is poles apart…
Imagine you’re in another country where no one speaks English, and you just want to find your way to the hotel. How do you communicate? Carefully, right? You’ll have a similar problem if you are a first-time homebuilder communicating with a building inspector…especially about green products or materials.
Communication is key
The first thing you have to do is to learn the basics. Good communication depends on a common understanding of the terms and procedures. An inspector will be more accustomed to working with a production builder, who generally uses conventional materials. A green home will be a curveball for the inspector, so the responsibility for successfully communicating your plans will fall on you.
You communicate with an inspector in the same way as you do with anyone else; with courtesy and respect but always by trying to listen. The inspector understands construction and is mandated to ensure safety. Most inspectors have construction experience, and a few will completely understand your world, but some will need some tutoring on green building practices. So, start by explaining the principles of sustainable building and green building practices. Then, segue into how this relates to the building code. It does so in many ways:
- Chapter 4 specifies wood foundations and frost-protected shallow foundation design and unvented crawl spaces (green building).
- Chapter 6 specifies numerous alternative framing techniques decreasing material usage and modern innovations in energy efficient materials such as insulated concrete forms (green building).
- Chapter 7 specifies modern building science techniques of avoiding moisture accumulation to prevent material damage and unhealthy interior conditions (green building).
- Chapter 8 specifies conditioned attics as optional (green building).
- Chapter 11 of the IRC establishes energy efficiency requirements (green building).
The International Code Council (ICC) provides an evaluation service (known as “Sustainable Attributes Verification Evaluation”) that verifies claims of green-building attributes. You can learn more about the SAVE program here.
The ICC also developed (along with the National Association of Homebuilders) the only green-building program recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which oversees thousands of norms and guidelines that affect the building industry.
Know your code
Understand that an inspector wants one thing: building safety. If he/she is unsure whether your project meets that level, it will be your job to convince him. An inspector’s perception of “safe” is tied to a building code that is generally written in prescriptive requirements [see “When You Come to a Fork in the Code, Take It”].
However, as I have pointed out in previous commentaries, performance codes relate to the result desired; a material’s ability to satisfy the intent of a code requirement. So you need a code book that has the locally adopted amendments to understand and adequately respond to any issue posed by the inspector.
You can buy an International Residential Code (IRC) at iccsafe.org. However, to ensure that you have the right code requirements, check with your locality for any local amendments (see also my earlier post “Local Adoptions”).
Keep your cool
Sometimes, misunderstandings can cause friction between a builder and an inspector, so be sure to remain objective and rational. For example, the inspector may stop your work at a pre-concealment concrete pour because the footing depth is insufficient has to be 12 inches below grade. He asks you to dig the footing deeper, but you think you know better. You once read that the code says you can use a shallower footing. But then, after talking it over with the inspector, you find out that you were wrong and that the jurisdiction has amended the code to prohibit this type of footing. Avoid this type of faux pas by researching your assumptions before you challenge an inspector.
There will be cases in which an interpretation causes strife. For example, Section 703 of the IRC says that an exterior wall must be built so that it prevents accumulation of water within the wall assembly with a weather-resistant barrier and draining water from entering. But your opinion of how to achieve that may differ from the approved manner. However, you still have a few options. Even if you disagree, do it agreeably.
Build a partnership
Remember, your inspector is an ally; his knowledge and experience can spare you a lot of trouble later. Regard him as a partner in the safety of your project or a coach who will help you achieve your goal. Ask questions and really listen to his answers. Be prepared for the inspector. The following checklist will help you get ready for his visit to the job site:
- Always clean up your site before the inspector arrives. A clean, well-organized project almost always passes the first time.
- Post the permit and have the approved plans available for the inspector
- Be respectful and courteous at all times
- Be professional in your demeanor and objective
- Prepare for the meeting
- Make sure you are ready for an inspection (or plan review) so that you don’t waste his time.
- Call the inspector ahead of time to confirm and coordinate the meeting.
- If there is a standardized inspection checklist, go through it and make sure that you are ready for the inspection
- If the inspector turns down the inspection, get a good understanding of the reasons and the methods for acceptable fixes. Get a written list of changes that must be made, and work from that list.
- If you honestly disagree with the inspector, ask politely if there’s any appeals process (there is—clarify this somewhere else below, this is important!) you can pursue.
- Even if you pass an inspection, ask the inspector for advice. Learn the next steps in the inspection process.
- Exchange contact information; business cell phone numbers, e-mail, etc.
- Threaten, coerce, bribe, or intimidate an inspector.
- Brag about how you “know people.” It does little to influence an inspector who knows both “people” and the building code!
- Respond with, “I’ve been doing it that way for 15 years.” The inspector doesn’t care how long you’ve been making the same mistake. He won’t approve something that he believes to be unsafe.
- Respond with, “The other inspector said it was okay.” He won’t believe you and will feel intimidated.
- Respond with, “My neighbor passed an inspection with the same condition”. The neighbor’s case may have been a little bit different, or it could have been an innocent oversight. Two wrongs sure don’t promote safety.
- Become emotional, angry, or defensive.
Overall, a good relationship with an Inspector will develop over time as your partnership demonstrates mutual respect. Be thoughtful, considerate and objective about your interests. Remember, communication is not as much about winning but more about understanding each other.
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