my house up to Code?
is one of the most common questions our home and commercial property
inspectors are asked when examining a property in the field.
While the question is simple and direct, the answer is not.
That is because most people are unaware of the purpose behind the
building code. Most people make the common mistake of assuming that code
compliance means quality construction.
However, as we shall discover in the discussion below, code and quality
can be two very different standards.
is the purpose behind the building code?
it is true that quality construction often meets code, the inverse is not.
But how can this be?
During a recent code inspection certification course, I was thinking
about this question as we reviewed the first few pages of the code book where
the purpose of the building code is defined.
1 of the International One- and Two- Family Dwelling Code states:
102: PURPOSE, Article 102.1: Minimum Standards.
The purpose of this code is to provide minimum standards for
the protection of life, limb, health, property, environment, and for the
safety and welfare of the consumer, general public, and the owners and
occupants of residential buildings regulated by this code.
note the word minimum has been underlined for emphasis in the citation
above. The purpose of the building code is to provide minimum safety standards, not
quality standards. Many
homebuyers find this hard to believe. That
is why the title of the article found in Code Section 102, is named Minimum
also note that the purpose of this discussion is not to diminish the value or
importance of the building code. The
minimum standards defined in the building code are a necessary and vital
requirement to ensure that residential construction meets a basic safety standard. However,
it is important that consumers (and home inspectors) learn to see the building
code for what it is a minimum standard, a basic recipe for making sure
that people will not get physically injured and property will not be damaged.
It is by no means a guarantee of quality construction or comfort for
the occupants of the home.
study: The Code-Compliant Kitchen
lets see what type of kitchen well get if all we require of our builder
is to meet the code.
better illustrate this point, lets examine a real-life demonstration of
this debate between code versus quality. Not surprisingly, a new home buyer
wants a good home one with everything they need for comfort and quality of
life. For example, we expect a
nice kitchen to include a sink, a range/oven, a refrigerator, and maybe even a
disposal, dishwasher, microwave oven, nice countertops and cabinets.
Sound reasonable? You bet.
18 of the International One- and Two- Family Dwelling Code states:
306.2: Each dwelling unit shall be provided with a kitchen area and
every kitchen area shall be provided with a sink of approved
Now you might be
wondering what happened to the range and refrigerator, not to mention the
disposal, dishwasher, countertops and cabinets. The answer is simple: the code
doesnt require them. If all
you want is a code-compliant kitchen, you only get the sink.
Now who wants a house
and a kitchen with nothing more than a sink when normal expectations are much
more? No one, of course.
However, a house with a kitchen and only a sink is built to code and
therefore yes is the only answer to the homebuyers question: Is my house
up to Code? Obviously,
the todays homebuyer wants a code compliant home
and a whole lot more.
Purpose of the Building Code
As we have seen, the
stated purpose of the building code is to provide protection of life and
property, not necessarily construction quality. In fact, the primary focus of
a large section of the building code is to protect other structures in your
neighborhood, not necessarily your own. For
example, special fire-rated roof shingles are required when a neighboring
structure is located less than 3 feet away from your home in order to prevent
your home from burning down your neighbor's home.
This is confirmed in the International One- and Two- Family Dwelling
Code Section 901: GENERAL, Article 901.3: Roofing covering materials, Page
Of course, it can be
argued that since your neighbors home is protected by the type of shingles
your home is required to use, the same courtesy is provided to you by
requiring the same of your neighbor. Nevertheless,
the main point to remember here is the primary purpose of the building code is
to prevent disaster.
(Mis)Interpreting the Building Code
As we have seen in the
illustrations above, the primary purpose of the building code is to provide a
minimum building standard for protecting life and property.
However, as we shall soon discover, interpretation of the
building code by home builders and code enforcement officials in the field can
also have a negative impact on a homebuyers desire for quality construction.
To demonstrate this, I
recall another code inspector certification class where the instructor
complained that he is often asked to respond to long lists of construction
defects uncovered by private home inspectors (such as myself) who are hired by
the homeowners to monitor the quality of construction. The code instructor
complained that new homeowners do not realize that most construction defects
are not, in his opinion, code defects.
This disgruntled code instructor went on to site a few
examples. According to him, the
number one construction flaw he encountered was floors that were not level.
He explained how he would receive angry phone calls from new homeowners
who wanted him to force the builder to correct uneven or non-level flooring
that allow a golf ball (when dropped on the floor) to charge across the floor
and slam into the wall. When asked if such uneven flooring was a clear-cut example of
poor workmanship, the code instructor readily agreed; however, as he was
equally quick to point out, there was nothing in the code book (from a
practical point of view) that prevented poor workmanship.
In other words, according to this code inspector, poor workmanship was
unenforceable by code inspectors.
Amazingly, many of the other code enforcement officers in
the class shared this same opinion, poor workmanship is unenforceable by code
inspectors. They pointed out that virtually all building plans and
specifications clearly spell out requirements that the house be built in a
workmanlike manner meaning in a manner of sound, quality workmanship.
However, as these code inspectors quickly pointed out, the homes
building plans and specifications are not, by definition, part of the code to
be enforced by the code inspector.
Another example that
these code inspectors addressed was the subject of roof leaks.
One inspector asked the question, Is there anything in the code that
requires the builder to build a roof that does not leak?
The inspector added: Because
our building department could not find anything in the code that required the
builder to fix a leaky roof. However,
not one code inspector in the class could recall any section in the code
addressing the subject of roof leaks. There
were sections and articles concerning roof rafters, trusses, coverings, and so
forth yet not a word about leaks. Bottom-line:
a code compliant roof, in the opinion of these professional code inspectors,
was not necessarily a watertight roof.
local code inspector recounted how he cited a homebuilder for not providing
proper attic ventilation only to have his boss override the citation.
The builder had failed to provide a way for hot air to escape from the
attic as it piled up against the top of the roof from the inside of the attic.
However, this local code inspectors boss interpreted the code in a
manner that did not require proper ventilation of the attic.
Enforcing the Building Code
discussed, the minimum standards of the building code are intended to provide
for the protection of life and property, not good design, convenience, or
comfort. We also learned how interpretations (and misinterpretations) of the
code could further hamper the homebuyers
desire for quality construction. However,
in this section we turn our attention to how the code is actually enforced.
Enforcement involves the everyday practical application
of the code in the field. Regrettably,
the everyday performance of the code inspector can be impaired by physical
restraints, local building practices, material availability, and local
The problems of
enforcement get murkier when the homebuilder is the mayors brother or in
some cases the mayor himself. Politics,
as we know, permeate all aspects of life and business, and the arena of code
enforcement is no exception. Local
builders with good intentions but who wish to save money by keeping from doing
work twice, often pressure inspectors to except deviations.
Other groups, such as architects and engineers interested in increasing
their bottom line with more work thrown their way, also pressure code
inspectors in the field.
For example, Table 602.3 (1): Fastener Schedule for
Structural Members, page 89 of the International
One- and Two- Family Dwelling Code
gives a detailed description of the type of nails to be used for building
connections. Ceiling joist to
plate connections require three (3) eight-penny common nails and ceiling joist
laps over partitions must be face-nailed with four (4) eight-penny common
nails and so forth. This all
seems straightforward and relatively simple for the code inspector to enforce.
Yet these simple requirements are often not enforced as code inspectors accept
Enforcement of the
nail schedule requirement of the code is fairly simple: all the code
enforcement officer has to do is count the number of common nails driven
into the joists. If the
homebuilder has done his job correctly, it passes.
If not, the job fails, a citation is issued, and the trouble is
corrected and re-inspected to verify compliance with the code. However, homebuilders seldom use Common Nails, substituting
Sinker Nails that are not as thick as Common Nails, but
nearly as good. Why?
Because sinker nails are easier to come by and cheaper.
Now before we accept
nails that are nearly as good, we must not lose sight of the fact that
the purpose of the building code is to provide minimum standards.
Therefore, when builders make substitutions in the field, they are no longer
meeting the minimum standard which means they are building a sub-standard
workload is another outside influence that can negatively affect enforcement
of the building code. When code inspectors get overloaded during periods of
heavy construction activity, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to
keep up with demand. The axiom, necessity is the mother of invention certainly
applies to code inspections. As a
result, one Florida county building department solved their overload problem
by requiring the homebuilder to issue a simple letter stating that they had
installed the proper amount of insulation in the attic crawlspace in lieu of
the code inspector actually going to the building construction site to verify
that it had been done. The
result: when homeowners try to resell homes to the next person is that private
home inspectors discover empty attics devoid of insulation.
The contractor never installed the insulation and the code inspector
never inspected the contractors work.
He took his word for it. Clearly,
the letter solution does not work.
Another example is a
Florida County giving builders a Certificate of Occupancy before the house is
done. As a result, private home
inspectors often encounter homebuilders who insist that homebuyers accept
uncompleted work because they have been issued the Certificate of Occupancy.
Not so surprisingly, and most tragically this tactic is very effective
with younger, first-time homebuyers.
In summary, a code inspection is based on a compilation
of minimum building standards with no assurance of quality. Additionally, the
effectiveness of the code inspection is diluted by unsound interpretations,
politics, workload, and availability of the proper building materials.
As discussed above, by definition the minimum standards of the building
code are intended for the protection of life and property not good design,
quality, convenience, or comfort.
So the next time
you find yourself asking the question, Is my house up to Code?
You have a better understanding why you might want to ask for just a
little bit more.
Copyright 2002 GIS, Inc. All rights
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