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Community and Q&A

Thoughts on Building Regulations

gstan | Posted in General Questions on
I personally had the experience (MANY YEARS AGO) of living in a county where the county mandated the use of plastic water lines (PEX or similar products).
This was one of the larger counties in the United States (geographically) and contained a medium sized city – the population of the city exceeded the total population of the unincorporated portions of said county by a considerable margin. The city regulations mandated the use of coper water lines. There were, of course, many other conflicting regulations regarding the construction of single family housing. Woe be to the owner or builder whose property happened to lie  across the city/county boundary.
Another one: A State I used to live in (MANY YEARS AGO) refused to allow an Engineer/Architect to construct low income housing out of adobe block on an Indian Reservation.  He had gone to the trouble of setting up a factory on the Res. to produce the block (and to provide local employment for the Tribe) as well as to produce low cost housing. Why the refusal? Because the building regulations  adopted by the county did not have anything in them covering adobe construction – therefore it was illegal!
This went clear up to the state supreme court – he lost!
 It has been my experience that these types of problems are pretty much the rule not the exception across the entire U.S. Anyone who has been a staff member of a local government can think up many many other similar situations. One
mitigating factor is the adoption of International Residential Code by many local jurisdictions. The downside of this is that every jurisdiction maintains that it is their right to modify the code in any way they see fit and will fight to the death over any question of their authority.
 Although, most questions on this site don’t involve things likely to provoke conflict with the authorities, some do, especially those involving new and creative ideas. This brings up the question of how those who are knowledgeable and involved can provide realistic advice and answers to some
questions in a forum such as yours? That said – I find your site provides useful advice, interesting questions, and entertainment – THANKS!

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  1. plumb_bob | | #1

    I would say that yes, we need creativity, but in the correct context. Building codes use "tried and true" methods and systems that have resulted in ever safer (if ever more expensive) buildings.

    The problem with experimentation is that there will be some failures. This is acceptable in the right setting, but completely unacceptable in most situations where failure can result in life, health or financial ruin.

  2. Expert Member


    The way to start any project is by finding out what you are allowed to do. The initial phase involves a survey and consulting the applicable zoning bylaws. You then need to clear up any ambiguities by consulting the regional planners, and if the project has things that fall outside what's allowed see what the chances are of a variance.

    The same thing applies when designing the building and choosing assemblies. I agree, there are a number of details championed on GBA that don't meet our local codes, or that require an engineers approval. Everyone wanting to use them on their project has to decide whether it's worth trying to get them passed, or simply choose more conservative ones that don't involve conflicts with inspectors.

    That''s why I am very grateful to the innovative designers and builders who do take on those battles and drive building science forward. But I'm not sure that innovative methods or assemblies are that useful for most one-time or novelist builders.

    As Bob said: There is plenty of cope for creativity when designing a building without it being necessary to move outside the approved standards that ensure its longevity and performance.

  3. creativedestruction | | #3

    Countless code battles go undocumented and are never written about. Even things that comply with code get fought (typically won) by inspectors if they are outside of common practice. What may read black and white can be grey to the next set of eyes. And even the codes leave important things out or get them outright wrong. Precedent projects, scientific articles and case studies can be gold in making a case for a better way of doing things.

    All this is to say the status quo is neither the only way nor necessarily the best way to do things, only the most expedient. I've had to learn the hard way to 'choose my battles'.

  4. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #4

    As a consulting engineer, I've been involved in a fair number of code disputes. Best is to have a reasonable inspector who you can work with and explain things. There are actually a good number of reasonable inspectors out there. You do run into problems with new stuff, since the entire building industry likes to stick with "what we've always done". Some of that is because of a reluctance to try new things and possibly get burned, but some of it is because a lot of people just don't really understand what they're doing -- they just keep churning things out the same way.

    The big reason I'm not a fan of putting everything "in the code" is you end up with one size fits all codes that are overly restrictive and require things that are unnecassary and often counter productive. These can be difficult problems to deal with. I've had to override inspectors before in these kinds of situations (which we engineers can do), but it does add a lot of, um, "excitement" to any project to do that. I've also sometimes requested the state level inspectors to review a local inspector's decision on something, which is a simpler way to deal with things when you can -- the state level inspectors are usually a little more knowledgeable than the local guys, but not always.


  5. plumb_bob | | #5

    Here in BC there are possible routes to take if you are wanting something "outside the box":

    1) A P.Eng or Architect may sign off on something that is not strictly to code. However, these registered professionals do have an obligation to generally conform to the building code.

    2) Alternative Solutions- there is a process in which a owner/agent can have a registered professional prepare a solution that will achieve at least the level of performance as specified by the building code. This still needs to be accepted by the AHJ.

    3) Building code appeal- there is a board that will hear the position of the appellant, as well as the position of the AHJ. I read through these and the board seems to agree with the appellant at least 50% of the time, if not more.

  6. dfvellone | | #6

    I worked with a design engineer who was on the N.Y.S committee/board for the purpose of building code updates and modifications who expressed no small amount of frustration with NY's snail-like review process. Bureaucracy and efficiency, unfortunately, often have an opposing relationship.

  7. andy_ | | #7

    I was having a friendly chat with an inspector (after the inspection!) and we got to talking about new techniques and materials. The gist of what he said was a little philosophical but basically that since they don't know everything and can't know everything that will happen in the future they're kinda stuck depending on what they've learned from the past. This tends to make them comfortable approving things the way they've always been done and being a little skeptical of the new stuff. The way he looks at it is if the new thing meets the intent of the code and has some third party verification, then he's likely to pass it. He also said he rarely encounters anything that falls outside the right/wrong paradigm. Mostly it's just "hillbilly engineering" that won't stand up or is outright dangerous.

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