As I sat through a seminar on construction, the presenter said something that I found rather annoying. He stated that the building code is the worst building you could possibly build. The statement was misleading, but I did understand his intent and it was not for the betterment of the industry or public safety. He was clearly attempting to influence the audience into believing that a building constructed to meet code was simply not good enough or barely passable.

Soon after, I attended another seminar where a different presenter went even further; he stated that merely meeting code could put you in a liable position with regards to construction defects. He even had a graph demonstrating that the code required 2-inch overlap for building paper is problematic. The data demonstrated that a water column would rise 3 inches in just a 40 mile per hour wind-driven rainstorm.

He was trying to lead attendees to believe water is frequently driven up 2 inches under exterior cladding. While this is possible in extreme climates, it is extremely rare. The city of Los Angeles would not be one of those extreme weather conditions. The presenter failed to inform the group that the water column is correct, but only in a sealed vacuum. A cladding over building paper is far from a sealed vacuum.

The Bigger Picture

The bigger picture of the seminars is to insinuate the buildings we construct are considered inferior or even worse, the building code is written by people with a minimal regard for a quality building and the public life/safety. I assure you this is not correct. I’ve spent my fair share of time in code development and have been part of state building officials private closed meetings. While it may seem they are driving us crazy, they work hard to strike a balance between creativity, innovation and sound construction practices. I have found most code authorities have a deep commitment to sound, energy efficient and safe buildings. The building code is written to accomplish this. It is not intended to be the lowest level of public life/safety.

We are a nation of laws and as a society we must obey these laws. We know laws are the rules we must follow but we need some flexibility too. For example, some states have a 55 mile per hour speed limit, and as such law enforcement officers have the right to ticket us for violating this law. Fortunately we know most officers allow some discretion. In addition, if you go to court due to an overzealous police officer, the judge will also allow some latitude. It should be similar with your city building inspector.

Spacing of fasteners may be required by code to be spaced 6 inches on-center but is failure going to happen if a few fasteners are not code compliant? We all know the answer to that. But much like the police officer, the city inspector can and should use his discretion. The building code goes even further by allowing us and the police to consider and then allow “alternate materials and designs.” While not fully versed on the vehicle codes of this country, I do know that every building code in the United States has the section entitled “alternative materials and methods,” and it is far too often overlooked.

All the Shades of Grey

The process to design and construct a building is very complex. When you add in the wide range of building types, uses and climates, the variations are almost endless. This is precisely why a building code is not capable of covering every possible scenario. In short, we have lots of grey areas in the design and construction of a building. This is when we go to various standards to fill in those gaps.

Our building code is a good one; buildings designed and constructed to that code are good, safe buildings. Buildings designed and constructed to exceed code minimums may be good, and may be better. But how far should we go? If we were to use the premise that more is better or even safer, are we sure it is? Would you tell your children that the speed limit may say 55 but you should drive no faster than 30 mph to ensure extra safety? Sounds safer, right? We know there would be consequences to driving so slow or too fast on the expressway. Similar to driving, there are also consequences for veering too far from the standards of the building code. We should use the code as our guide; with the understanding that perfection is simply not possible.

 My concern is that we also have unintended consequences from extreme actions. The problem is we never see them until it is too late. In this case, I see the vehicle and building code as very similar. Do your best to know and adhere to the rules, and things usually work out well.