common confusions for code compliance

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The very fact that you are still reading this after that title, compels me to say something witty or fascinating to reward you for reading a post about building codes. Face it – building codes are necessary, but most architects would likely prefer talk about something else – anything else.

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Last week I went to a morning seminar focused on an overview of code changes Pennsylvania can expect as it moves from the 2009 version of the ICC codes to the 2015 version. There’s an architect reading this thinking “2015 – how far behind is this state?” The rest of you are desperately hoping there’s something more to the story. Fortunately, in the four hours we endured the minutia, there was a few good stories and well intention attempts on the part of the presenter to make a few jokes.

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One of the best parts was running into a college friend and roommate from 30 years ago. It gave me someone to make smart comments to during the presentation as we commiserated about being architects. Fortunately, there was also coffee.

This trip to Pittsburgh in the early hours of the morning to gain some continuing education credits allowed me to recall countless times I spend educating clients who misunderstand how building codes work. To be honest, it’s one of our most common rants. Whether that generates any sympathy on your part or not, it’s the frustration of contradictory thinking on behalf of some who expect to be exempt on their projects yet suppose or demand that the buildings their family frequent spare no expense on life safety. Some would argue that we’ve over regulated ourselves as a nation; yet our profession continues to lobby for higher standards.

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My best attempt to develop a list of the most common misunderstandings are:

  1. Unequal application – “Why do they get to do it / not do it?” A common fallacy is thinking that if one sees a given condition, then it’s legal. My response when asked why or how that person “got away with it” is…I don’t know. The mistake comes in believing things we see are code compliant – or worse, believing we deserve to be non-compliant because “they” are too. Nobody likes to be a tattle-tale, yet it’s universally understood that we all get a snack, or nobody gets a snack.
  2. Oppressive or unfair – It’s important to separate opinion and fact. One might find a situation unfair (especially considering point #1 above), yet it’s important not to take it personally. Code officials and fire prevention professionals study tragedies and fires, then examine methods to clarify or augment the codes, thus improving safety. Think about it, this crew gets together at conventions and hearings and argue about this stuff for weeks before they vote on it. I imagine their after-parties are wild.
  3. Disproportionate return for investment – It costs more or costs too much – yes and no. It’s hard to put a price on safety and if one wishes to develop property, then it is advisable to calculate the costs carefully with the right professionals. A contradiction that occurs often comes from someone who wishes to do the least on their property yet are quick (or would be quick) to criticize others for unsafe conditions.
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  4. Able to confuse, thus able to control – Yes, the code can be confusing. It takes time for young professionals to understand the process by which we interpret and apply codes. That does not mean that it is written as arcane, so a few can exercise authority of the many.
  5. To do list summary – “So what are they going to make us do here?” This happens almost every time I meet for the first time. I recognize the nature of the question as the desire to have a sense of relief from nervous anticipation of unexpected costs, but developing an analysis of applicable codes and obligatory upgrades cannot occur through a mere walk-through without a thorough investigation, research and confirmation of details. There’s a flow-chart type process whereby we categorize, calculate and conclude on what portions of the code apply. All that to say, it’s difficult to summarize in a single meeting – and be accurate. We also are aware of the aspect of human behavior that starts with “but you said we didn’t have to…”
  6. Complete – Hey why can’t these people get their act together and finalize this thing? Every three years they issue an updated version. How long do they get to get it right? Come on people, not only do you add more pages each version, you move the categories around. Just when I know where to find things, you move them. Just like any area of research, science and learning, the codes can never be complete as we discover more about keeping people safe.
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  7. Biased intuition – One of the running jokes many architects perpetuate is to correct people from using logic when trying to figure out the building code. Recently I had a conversation with a client about a new project where during the conversation the person felt there was nothing left to do as the building was “sprinklered” (it had an automatic sprinkler system). That’s the queen mother of code features – what else could they make us do? This is because it is our nature to conclude leniently in our favor yet not for others. Again, life safety features are integrated for various reasons, but it’s important to understand there is a process by which we discover how to apply it, and it is dependent on many factors. The presence of one feature, doesn’t negate others, nor can we determine code compliance based on what we “feel” is safe enough.

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When I started working in an office during my college years, Pennsylvania was following a Fire and Panic Act Code that wasn’t much more than a pamphlet. I bet it wasn’t much more than 125 pages printed on pages barely larger than a half-sheet of letter size paper. The accessibility standards were maybe another twenty-five prior to the ADA being adopted in 1990. My boss at the time would have me work through it by reading it from cover to cover for each project, taking notes as I went. Doing that dozens of times started to help me develop a thoughtful process to evaluate building design. When I began work in Pittsburgh who used the BOCA series of codes at the time, I was more prepared to navigate it. Pennsylvania adopted the ICC series of codes (IBC and its friends) in 2004. By that time, it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Who am I kidding, I still get confused and frustrated because the pamphlet turned into a large shelf of books.

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We learned the basics of life in Kindergarten. The rules preceded us, we all must follow them and they’re there to protect us. These rules are more complex than trying to color within the lines. In fact, sometimes the key is to find a way to color outside the lines, but that’s an art, not a science.

Our presenter last week told us a story of someone who explained to him that if he followed the code exactly as it is printed, it only proves that he can read.

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common confusions for code compliance

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