Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When do building codes meant to insure safety actually hinder it?  

When they’re administered rigidly, reflexively, and without regard for common sense.  In too many instances, building codes--which were originally intended to promote public health and safety--instead end up punishing homeowners who attempt to make voluntary safety improvements.  

Case in point:  A client of mine in a city to remain nameless (but which has cable cars and a pointy skyscraper) recently proposed to replace a rot-damaged exterior stair in her 1920s-era rowhouse.  The dilapidated stair, which stood in a lightwell shared with the adjoining house, was built with “winders”--precipitous, pie-shaped steps radiating from a center post--which are so hazardous that the building code outlawed them many years ago.  

Accordingly, we proposed to build a new stair with generously-sized landings in place of the winders.  Mind you, all of this was being done voluntarily in the interest of safety.  

The building official’s response?  She informed us that altering the stair configuration in any way would, among other things, require us to construct a two-and-a-half-story-tall firewall, complete with foundation, along the property line--a sort of spite fence that would run right down the middle of the shared lightwell.  In her interpretation, the new stairs constituted an addition, which in turn obliged my client to bring the entire lightwell area up to modern codes.  If we wanted to avoid this requirement, we were told, we should keep the stairs exactly as they were, treacherous winders and all, and instead replace the rotted portions piecemeal.  

So much for meeting the spirit of the Code.
Nor is this an isolated example.  In another large city nearby, a client  owned a turn-of-the-century house that was perched precariously atop tall, unbraced basement walls.  Having read numerous accounts of such houses collapsing in earthquakes, he voluntarily decided to replace his crumbling foundation and provide some seismic bracing as well.  

The building official’s response to his plans was to demand that the entire house be upgraded--not just the basement story.  
Nice incentive, huh?  Rather than encouraging my client’s voluntary seismic improvements, the official’s idiotically intractable demands penalized him instead.

Such requirements pervert the historical intent of the building code.  They are a twisted product of bureaucratic rigidity and fear of litigation, a mixture which produces frantic adherance to the letter of the code rather than to its broader intent, even in the face of absurdly counterproductive outcomes.  

Which serves the homeowner better, a safe staircase which doesn’t conform to the letter of the code, or a dangerous one which conforms by dint of a technicality?  Which is preferable, a draconian seismic upgrade that’s too costly to implement, or one that’s as effective as possible within the homeowner’s means?  Isn’t something still better than nothing at all?

Such bizarre perversions of the code’s intent are both unfair and unnecessary. Building officials are explicitly empowered to interpret code requirements in the manner they feel will best serve the interests of public health and safety.  The building code, after all, was not handed down to them by Moses.  From its inception, it was meant to be a living, growing, and above all adaptable instrument.  Like any set of rules, however, it requires a modicum of thoughtfulness, reason, and common sense.

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