is the code cold?


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.


photos are from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)

is the code cold?

12 thoughts on “is the code cold?

  1. I’ve always had a positive outcome if I plead my ‘case’ to the ICC and get them to provide their interpretation… with that, I than meet with the AHJ, usually results in the outcome I want.

  2. Great post, Lee. And, yes, this could easily turn into a code bashing session *I will not bash the code I will not bash the code*, but we as imperfect people (and greedy as hell too) need at least a minimum set of checks and balances with which to operate in for the Health, Safety and Welfare of the general public.

    OK, that’s where my public service announcement ends. My own little anecdote is actually a cautionary tale for why codes are a necessary evil (very very very evil). I have a client that is in the process of building their own home in Panama (the country, not the city). A home that I helped them design and detail for construction. And, during the design and construction document phase the question of sanitation came up. Specifically what to do with their waste (I’d say poo, but it makes me giggle…oops, too late *snickers*). They had a soils analysis and a percolation test done on the property which came back…..less than favorable on the perc side of things. Bearing capacity? No problem (+/- 40,000psi – basically bedrock). But that basically means water will NOT percolate into the soil…Ever.

    So, they ask me “what do we do about a septic system?” To which I honestly answer “Uh….you need to call someone who does that kind of thing down there.” To which they reply “well, what if we just run a pipe downhill to the river that heads away from our property?” Not. Even. Kidding. *straight face*

    In Panama, there are no real building codes. Well, there are, just no where near where this guy is building, so he can basically do whatever he pleases and no one will say boo. My response, of course, centered around questioning whether or not they intended to kill hundreds of people down river from them, to which they luckily answered “No.” But, what they ultimately ended up doing for their property…I shudder to think.

  3. Lee, i enjoyed reading this. I am fortunate that i have a good relationship with my local plan reviewer and can run things by him if it is not clear in the code. I recently had a project that i had to apply the building codes from 1984 and 1996 to two separate buildings that were never permitted. It was interesting to see how things have and have not changed over the last 30 years. It was invaluable to have the plan reviewer in helping to apply those codes to existing buildings.

    Generally speaking, i think the idea of a building code is a good one, unfortunately, the current ones seem driven more by special interests of insurance companies than common sense or even real life safety issues.

    1. my overall experience has been positive too…my recent frustration has been working on a project that has to meet the accessibility requirements of ANSI, UFAS and Fair Housing. much in common, true…but you still have to do your homework through stacks of code pages.

  4. My clients hire me because they don’t want to move, but their houses don’t work. The first thing I tell them is don’t touch your stair. It usually can not be rebuilt to code and also look as it ought to historically or fit into the same space.
    I have run into this problem so often that I always look at systems: septic, plumbing, electrical, heating, and the local zoning code before thinking about design. It’s the latter that has become the issue.

    I am thinking about 2 charming houses with a few skinny closets, small rooms, and tight stairs, both over 100 years old. In order to keep the footprint of the houses within the character of the neighborhood while expanding them, I suggested connecting to the carriage houses. In both cases the carriage houses – turned garages with storage – needed repair, and would have made excellent usable space for the families. But to do so would make a continuous structure which would be now be too close to the side lot line. The garages as they were, were considered out buildings and thus met different set backs.
    The zoning board (of which I was once a member) turned us down – no ‘hardship’.for the first house. I didn’t attempt to apply for the second.
    Making the houses bigger was preferable to repairing and reusing structures which contributed to the character of the neighborhood.

  5. William J. Mello Jr. AIA Emeritis says:

    It is always the best to follow the “Codes”. When confronted with conflicting details of codes I found that the Building Commissioner / Inspector should be consulted as soon as possible. This is generally the “Local authority having jurisdiction” as to what is allowable.
    I have found on too many projects that my and staffs interpretations were beyond the “Word”.
    Yes, this action is sometimes difficult for the owners projects’ timing but often problem is clarified and solved. The “Architect” is not omniscient.

    1. I agree completely and that is exactly what I did on this project. A few thoughts to the point I was making though. 1) The code is often hard to explain to lay-persons who try to use logic, compassion or common sense to how to make decisions. For instance explain to a church that accessibility issues must be solved to be “unassisted” use of all facilities when the church is filled with compassionate people ready to help someone in need. 2) The local AHJ’s vary in their knowledge and confidence in making decisions. A code official in a metro area is more likely to have confronted more issues and have more education than one who is overseeing a rural township or county. It’s not a lack of intelligence, just a lack of experience and willingness to make a decision. You’re correct, I haven’t met an omniscient architect yet.

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