is the code cold?
2 September 2013
I run up against building code interpretations quite often. I think our ancestors who figured out the Rosetta stone had it easier.
Since most of my work has something to do with an existing building, I often find myself in murky waters. All too frequently, building codes can be difficult to confidently interpret and maneuver for new construction so with an existing building it can become even more confusing. The instance where the public (and architects) have difficulty in understanding the restrictions is on matters that are narrowly specific to their circumstances. The code is written to address generalizations; this is the dilemma.
Normally I have situations where I need to convince, coerce or persuade a client to do something that they do not want to do. I recently had a client ask me to research a matter related to a voluntary but simple handicap accessibility upgrade. It wasn’t a mandatory requirement.
What the client wanted seemed harmless and quite noble. In fact it was rather compassionate. What I found was the code was mostly silent on this issue making it a bit more difficult to be certain in my interpretations. It became more complicated when life safety code issues overlapped. My research yielded a result that gave the possibility of permitting their request, but it took a disproportionate amount of research and there might not be adequate dimensions to make it work after all.
As designers and architects, we are often the “face” of the code. In other words we are the voice to the end-user, our clients, that is charged with explaining why they can or cannot do something. Some could say that the authors and developers of building codes hide in their ivory towers and dispense regulations. While I have generally been a supporter and defender of building codes, I’m also the one who meets with my clients and has to find various ways to explain the restriction as it relates specifically to them. You many understand the feeling as an architect or building owner.
I don’t think the code is intended to be cold or heartless. I agree it is difficult to be objective and to legislate matters in a way that is equitable for everyone. In my earlier anecdote, adding equipment would be very helpful to a few needy people who use the building (and they don’t use a wheelchair). However, if the conditions of the code cannot be met, the owner will not be permitted to make their upgrade, thus, leaving the building users puzzled.
I often explain to my clients that the reason they cannot do something because of the building code, accessibility code or even municipal zoning ordinance has something to do with the previous guy, the next guy or the person that will take the proverbial mile after given an inch. Face it; it is human nature to make the most of a situation to suit our personal needs. The building code cannot be simply written around the subjective judgment “it is not hurting anyone.” I understand both sides of the argument, but I still have to look someone in the eyes and tell them yes or no. It’s not the ICC, the local AHJ or anyone else who signs legislation who delivers the news.
So what has been your experience? Without going into a code bashing session, I would be curious to collect anecdotes for how goodwill was being attempted, but denied by the letter of the law.