battling code attitude          

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Like most issues, why can’t we find balance? The reason for one side of an issue is often due to the excesses of the other. It’s cyclical, it’s annoying. Taking an extreme position is all too common and in most cases unnecessary.

This was evident to me recently with respect to building codes and related regulations affecting commercial facilities. People are either militant in enforcing the codes; others act offended that they even exist. I work with many people and occasionally poor attitudes on both sides of this issue come out – and it’s not pretty.

Last week a current project in a nearby municipality drove me to research the particulars in the codes for a unique issue for a common building type. How’s that for evasive? The rumor is the local inspector’s position was quite strict on the issue. I’ve heard the rumor enough for there to be something to it.  I currently have two projects of this building type that required me to research it on my own – to get the real answers, finally.

I am not a fan of big government and I’m not a fan of being overly regulated. I have even been guilty of complaining about codes, zoning and other regulations. Therefore, I don’t care for the hyper-zealous building official who is overly strict and whose interpretation is always in favor of making their job easier rather than know and understand the intent behind the codes. My current situation unveiled an interpretation that was truly in favor of the inspector because it made their ability to inspect easier by reducing options. We had a conversation.

I believe I found the truth in my research, but it was also troubling when I spoke with the inspector and learned his rulings were conservative at best. He couldn’t even name the specific location of the regulation. That was disturbing and yes, I was angry. No really. Fortunately, I think my efforts are actually helping educate…again.

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I am okay with regulation because usually I understand what it’s trying to prevent. Yet, if codes allow for multiple means of compliance, then the building owner deserves the opportunity to choose. An inspector can’t be concerned about getting too many calls to his office with alleged violations. Look, we don’t put governors on our cars to prevent us from going over the speed limit. We are given a choice and if we break the rules, we risk the consequences.

I’m not done yet.

On the other side of this issue are people who are so offended at the amount of regulation (and there’s too many) that they feel compliance should be their choice based on their own criteria. In other words the choice to comply is based on whether they feel it is reasonable (i.e. cost), not whether it affords basic life-safety or equity. Otherwise, it is deemed as being expensive, arduous or unfair (or unconstitutional in some cases). I often find this adolescent mindset of “does that apply to me” in adults of high stature. It’s an embarrassing part of American culture. Public safety cannot be judged or arbitrated based merely on one’s opinion of what is affordable. Affordable is impossible define and no matter what the cost is on some issues, many people will always find it to be expensive. Sometimes there is crying involved.

We also have to distinguish between liking and agreeing with a regulation and choosing or accepting to comply with it. My opinion of how much I send in to the IRS each year is not equivalent to theirs. However, if I choose to send less, I might be living…elsewhere. As architects we guide our clients through this process and it is fair for them to ask questions. Then it’s time to stop complaining or fighting and time to find solutions (not ways of getting out of complying).

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We have regulation in place because common sense does not prevail nor does good faith towards others in the community. People will always be self-seeking and self-protective of their own before others. Admit it, our culture is one of the individual first and not community. It’s also part of human nature and that is a completely different debate.

To me the best way to maneuver through this without going crazy, comes down to attitude. What is our attitude towards it?

I believe people have the right to ask questions and to choose building features within the choices that are legally available. If there is more than one way to achieve compliance, then people should be given all of those options. However, we cannot take a position on the other side and feel that regulation to maintain public safety is somehow unfair or unnecessary or un-American. Nor can we fault our clients if they elect not to implement items that go above and beyond the code (did you read the first half?).

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How’s your attitude been lately? I bet you have similar stories.


photos are from stock photo galleries on FreeImages.com – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions)

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battling code attitude          

5 thoughts on “battling code attitude          

  1. This is a topic on my backlog of blog posts now that i am back to blogging. I am coming to the realization that my own attitude towards the code has been jaded by that of my clients. Something that i am working to rectify. The building code is not our enemy and we should not allow our clients to put us in an adversarial relationship with the code / code officials. That being said we are responsible to our client to do due diligence and find a compliance path that best fits their project.

    Another great post Lee.

  2. The root cause of code agony these days is that plan reviewers are not allowed any discretion over whether a code provision should fully apply to a given situation. Thus if a house addition is mostly buffered from major wind issues by adjacent buildings and fences, even sitting in a hollow- how much relief does the home owner get from the robust bracing called for in the code? Zero. This is our litigation-fearing society in full flower.

    1. Common sense has to prevail, I agree. How it applies to each situation is quite difficult. Should we assume those buildings will always be there to protect that structure from wind? In some cases, it is a good, safe assumption. In some cases, they could all disappear. I don’t think this will ever be easy.

  3. I spent this past spring working for the Dept of Homeland Security doing building code review. I saw both the architect who went above and beyond and the architect…yes, architect…who consistently submitted erroneous/faulty/lacking work. It was frustrating to see the dense-ness or lack of care by those latter architects while I’m currently in the process of taking my tests to get the registration they are abusing.

    From a field inspection point of view, I saw both ends as well. Inspectors who are like you mentioned – arrogant, stubborn, etc. They held an issue because “that’s how it’s always been”. There were also others who were more amicable towards the solution. Worth noting on your “he didn’t know where the regulation came from”: A vast majority of our inspectors transition from fire safety of some sort, so they only know what relates to FLS, and rarely check overall code. And they only know it from *seeing* it in the field, not where it comes from in the book which regulates what it looks like in the field.

    How do we change it? Your answer is as good as mine. We are currently trying to better educate our inspectors AND architects (hosting many “code review” classes) Unfortunately I think there will always be the people who desire to only do the minimum – human nature, as you said. Our state, however, has begun to keep record of “repeat offenders” in effort to begin going after licenses. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    1. Good experience for you. Two ways come to mind in response to your question. First, we must always be educators – to the public, to inspectors, to ourselves. Second, we must be willing to report abuses or failures to the powers to be when step one doesn’t yield change.

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