coming clean on codes

25 May 2012

Apart from discussing building codes as they relate to existing buildings, I’ve been silent about this issue up until now. Maybe I should stay that way, but something from earlier this week is triggering my rant.

Please don’t stop reading yet, I promise some sarcasm.

First, let’s establish some balance on this issue because people in my region (and I’m sure yours too) are incessantly complaining about the building codes and zoning ordinances being too strict as if it’s my fault. Really? I will be the first to say that building codes (and zoning ordinances) frustrate me often and I work hard to interpret them. The ambiguity can make designing difficult and common sense seems to be elusive. However, I found that the more I fought them, the more frustrated I got. So my new attitude is to stop apologizing for them.

Safety first :: It’s pretty obvious that codes are in place because of public safety. Let’s face it, people do stupid things make poor choices. In addition, codes have developed over time as firefighters and other scientist gurus have studied the after effects of building disasters. Based on extensive studies the codes were updated to address the lessons learned (of not smoking in bed). Yes, they can seem arduous at times, they are often poorly written wordy and they get mixed into political situations. Nevertheless, we must do what’s good for the public even if it tastes bad at times. What most people don’t see are the unsafe situations where buildings or parts of buildings are built substandard and unsafe. I’ve seen my fair share and have been mortified that someone would do this to an unsuspecting homeowner or business owner. Without a regulatory environment in place, I believe this type of work would be rampant. The biggest complainers would be equally angry if shoddy work occurred on their project.

We must because others won’t :: Nobody would intentionally build something unsafe or at least I’d like to think not. Ok, I’ve made some contractors redo things because their workers were lazy. However, if we look at the process whereby people make decisions, it is often guided by selfish, but reasonable desires and of course money. In other words, if something isn’t mandatory, many people will not choose to do it unless they see an immediate personal benefit. (Wouldn’t you drive 100 MPH if there were no speed limits?) I can’t completely fault people for that since we are all prone to that type of decision-making. However, most people are also unaware of the myriad of issues that are involved in building and design that relate to safety. Therefore if there were less or no codes, people may make tragic decisions not out of ill will, but ignorance. Fortunately, there are architects and other design professionals who are required to be knowledgeable about the codes. We must comply with them, so call us. I’m serious, pick up the phone…right now.

One size doesn’t fit all :: Although my purpose is not to malign building codes, here is where I make my complaint. In many cases, aspects of them do not fit with small (renovation) projects. More specifically code upgrades often capture a greater percentage of the project budget than with larger projects. Most of my work is with existing buildings and often ones in small urban contexts. This is where we must be creative and guide our clients to understand how this investment is of benefit to them both now and in the long-term. I would like to see more exemptions occur for small projects, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it. I suppose my logic of cost doesn’t make the building safer. This leads to the next item.

Equity and Added Cost :: Building codes generally have no sympathy for cost, expenses or money of any kind. They are simply seeking safety and accessibility codes are simply seeking access and equivalent opportunity. I’ve lost track of the number of times people have said to me that they “can’t afford to do all of those code things.” Unfortunately several projects of mine never made it off of the ground for that reason. It’s a real issue. All I can say is safety is number one and no one’s life or safety can have a price tag put on it. Perhaps that’s a trite platitude, but what other answer do you want? Have you ever heard someone ask for relief because they can’t “afford” to include that feature, and then turn around and spend more money on something trivial? To be honest, I’d like to see the government put more money into grants and credits for small businesses for these types of improvements rather than the ridiculous money spent on election campaigns simply to throw mud at each other. (Did I say that out loud?)

Enforcement (Fair is fair) :: In Kindergarten we learned that someone should not have to do something unless everyone does. Children are quick to point out when something is unfair. Well, contractors (and architects) are quick as well. As designers we must comply with the codes and the plan review process is our first “exam” to check if we are doing it. There are some zealous code officials and some who are more laid back. That’s all I’ll say. Once construction starts there are intermittent inspections to ensure that the work isn’t just an academic exercise, but an actual one. However, this is where (I’m told) that the uniformity of the code often breaks down. Inspectors are not perfect, but contractors are quick to find out when an inspector of one municipality is not consistent with an inspector of another. Anytime there is the potential of human error, there is the potential of inequitable decisions. Again, “fair is fair” and enforcement needs to be that. I believe all of us would accept the codes better if we all had to play by the same rules. If I can’t eat my snack before lunch, neither can you.

Wow, are you still reading? All of that is to say what? I think we spend too much time complaining about things we can’t change and we need to refocus our energy into something productive. Codes are in place for our safety and they’re not going away. It seems the people who complain about them the most are often the worst offenders. Then they want relief. Wouldn’t you hate to be the guy that did something that caused a code to be written to address your bad behavior?

I suppose this debate will go on forever. I’ve got better things to do.

photos are from Boston Public Library’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

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14 Responses to “coming clean on codes”


  1. Great Post Lee! You articulate things so well. Much apreciated!

  2. jane Says:

    Yes, well done.
    I would have said that some building inspectors have more understanding of historic framing systems than others – I like it when they come on my job.
    And I always tell a client to only repair the stair or railing, as it may be impossible to rebuilt it to code.

    • leecalisti Says:

      I do work on older structures and I wouldn’t expect many inspectors to know how to deal with them. They just expect us to sign off on it.

  3. Ted Rusnak Says:

    You have highlighted one ot the more difficult issues to deal with in a project.
    My most common response to an irate client is that there is a high probabllity that someone died because the issue was not addressed, by Code, and the Code goes to preventing another occurence of the same type.
    (The ADAAG requirements often create the same reaction).

    A high percentage of my projects also involve older structures and if you get in front of the plan review, usually by way of the Building Commmisioner, to let them know that you will comply to the highest possible degree I’ve found a greater willingness to work with you…..a creative interpretation if you would…..and not creating a dangerous environment mind you.

    Somehow I didn’t expect to spent this much time with Code interpretation but it is a critical part of what we do….Oh, that we could have clients understand that.

    Solid thoughts….T

    • leecalisti Says:

      I liken it to our American spirit of “don’t tread on me” or don’t tell me what I can do on my private property that leads people to be so offended by them. It’s as if they are not willing to spend money on keeping the very people safe that they are inviting in to buy their wares or use their services.

  4. Ted Rusnak Says:

    Indeed.

  5. Jeremiah Says:

    Reblogged this on r | one studio architecture and commented:
    This is an awesome post. I had to share it. Remember that while building codes are not perfect (don’t even get me started on the new Florida Building Code) they are designed to a minimum standard in order to preserve the health, safety and welfare of the public…that means YOU.

  6. Jeremiah Says:

    awesome post. I had to reblog. :)

  7. deCamville Design Says:

    I appreciate your comments on codes. Nice blog. I visited your website and see that you are at CMU. I spent 2 years in the School of Arch before I transferred to Design. ~Patricia


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