Monday, November 26, 2007

Child Safety in the Home - Who is responsible?

Everyone knows that the building code is intended to protect the homeowner and his/her family...right? Wrong. Building codes are intended to provide a greater measure of safety for the greater good of an entire community. They only protect an individual by default. They are not a quality assurance manual and they do not lessen the responsibility of the individual to ensure his/her own personal safety.

That said, occasionally individual protection for specific classes of individuals sometimes finds its way into a code. Recently the code was amended (2006 International Residential Code) to include provisions to "protect" children from falls from high windows. The change will require guards over the windows if the window sill is not placed at least 24 inches above the floor. This will apply to any window with an opening height more than 72 inches above the ground below. This was approved based on anecdotes of children falling through open windows. Many were seriously injured or even killed by these accidental falls. Now the building code will protect these children...or will it?
What typically happens under high windows? Furniture is placed underneath it. When a window is raised from 18 inches above the floor to 24 inches, the typical response is to place the bed under the window. Do children use their beds for sleeping? Sometimes. The other times it is used as a trampoline.
Did moving the window sill up to 24 inches provide for a safer condition in this home? Hardly. Does the building code REALLY protect your children? Think again.
Parents are still responsible for assessing the safety of their home when they have small children. Once junior is mobile, the first thing you do is plug up those electrical outlets to avoid electrocution. One of my earliest memories as a child was testing an outlet for functionality using a paper clip. I got to experience alternating current first hand and learn a lesson that I have never forgotten.
There are other things to consider. How about the things stored under the kitchen sink? Some cleaning chemicals are given fragrances that smell like peppermint candy and are enticing to children. How about the toilet seat? Many drownings result due to children falling into the open toilet and not having the ability to pull themselves back out. What about mommy's bottle of sleeping pills on the bathroom counter? What about daddy's loaded Beretta in the night stand? All of these constitute items that pose significant hazards to your children, yet will never be regulated by a building code. Each is your responsibility as a parent to identify and address.
So the moral of this story is never be complacent. Do not think for a minute that the building code will take care of your kids' safety. Look around your home and identify anything that could be a threat. Take advantage of the multitude of websites that provide child-safety tips. Take parenting responsibility seriously and don't ever trust a government official who tells you, " Don't worry, the code will protect you".

Friday, November 16, 2007

Straw Buyer

My wife and I need to do a 1031 exchange. We have a commercial property that is hopefully closing in January. Capital gains taxes are pretty steep, so we plan to take advantage of the like-for-like exchange that the IRS permits. This is one more example of how government regulations can influence your life...but I digress.

A year or so ago we visited the Silver City area of New Mexico. It has a warmer, but temperate climate at 6000 feet above sea level. It is more rural than the Front Range of Colorado and hopefully has a much slower pace. It has a university, a hospital, and enough essential services to satisfy our basic needs. Other than some city crime issues, it looks like a decent place to retire.

It is also a hot zone for alternative construction. A lot of funky "granola vernacular" found in the popular press has it roots in this area. It sounds like a great place to build that strawbale home I have been thinking about for the past decade. I prefer to have precedents in my neighborhood first to help ease the transition.

So onto the internet I go to see what is available. It turns out to be my lucky day. I found a nice 16ac. parcel complete with 2 strawbale structures already in place. Price looks okay. Hmmm.

In reading the fine print, I see that there is power to the site, but I am not seeing power to the buildings. There are 3 wells, but no septic system. I am beginning to sense a pattern here.

It is pretty apparent that these structures were built without building permits. Therefore, no utility release by the building authority was made so the local electrical utility could connect power to the buildings. No septic system provided, so no bathroom sewer discharge. Probably no running water either. Probably no bathroom...or kitchen either. Seems to me that the residential codes have always required that a house have at least one bathroom, a kitchen sink, and hot and cold water at all of the fixtures. Buyer beware. Being a straw buyer isn't necessarily as easy as it appears.

Like it or not, insurance agencies are not completely comfortable insuring structures that are not conventional. Then add the fact that no expert endorsement (i.e. Certificate of Occupancy) is provided, it is VERY unlikely that they will underwrite the structure. I am starting to get cold feet.

It is very important to know what you are buying. It may look good, but there may be some underlying defects. A lot of alternative housing has been built in areas with minimal or no building code enforcement oversight. A lot of "granola architects" choose these areas to avoid regulatory hassles. Unfortunately, a lot of my building official colleagues are not too comfortable issuing permits for homes using construction techniques that are not prescriptively addressed by the adopted building code. They are difficult to convince, so better to build the project someplace where there is nobody that needs least until the time one needs utility connections, insurance, or maybe even an appraisal for a new loan.

I always recommend building your alternative abode in a place that already has like construction. That usually means that somebody has already done the work of convincing the local officials to accept nontraditional methods. Once they get comfortable with a concept, they are more inclined to be permissive. But be certain to verify that the previous buildings were built with permits! The best way to that is to call the local city, town, county and determine if they have jurisdiction over the address in question. Then politely inquiry as to the process the applicant went through to obtain the permit. You will probably be able to get some sense of how receptive the department will be to your alternative request and what the process will look like.

If you want to be a trendsetter, you will need to do a little more work. I guarantee that you will not simply get a permit to build without some conversation. And you better have all of arguments prepared in advance. That will be the subject of another blog...or two...or three...or more. Promise.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Does your smoke alarm work in your house? If so, will you wake up when it goes off?

Recently 7 university students were killed in a house fire in North Carolina. Media reports indicate that the smoke alarms were operational. Why did so many die in this tragedy when the most important household life-safety feature is working the way it was designed?

I just completed my tour of duty in Washington DC at the 2007 Solar Decathlon. This is a competition comprised of 20 university teams who build 800 square foot fully solar powered houses that are brought to the National Mall to compete against each other. I serve as the building official. During the final days of set-up, I conducted some early morning inspections to ensure, among other things, that the smoke alarms were working. Prior to coming to Washington DC, I had heard anecdotes that younger adults were not responding to the alarm signals made by typical household fire/smoke alarms. I had not seen any formal studies indicating an issue, so chose to conduct a little in situ testing.

I arrived at the UMD house and found a number of students sleeping on the floor. Seeing my opportunity, I triggered the test button and started the alarm. Despite the screaming siren, nobody stirred! The photo to the left shows the aftermath. This woman didn't even twitch.
I might mention that these students had been working pretty long hours getting their houses assembled in time to meet some deadlines. Many had done one or more "all-nighters". They were all pretty tired. However, you would think that the sound of the alarm would at least cause some movement. It is now beginning to look like the anecdotes might have some validity.
Why buy Select Comfort when you can get bubble wrap for free? You probably have guessed it by now. This gentleman is sleeping soundly as I take his photo from some scaffolding as the smoke alarm blazes away in the background. He didn't wake up either.
So why aren't we responding to alarms the way we used to? I have a couple of theories. We have become so accustomed to loud noises and multi-tasking, we no longer hear everything we are supposed to hear. Just ask my wife.
If you can text on your cellphone while blasting hip hop on your car stereo in rush hour traffic, you are part of the new generation. Add that to sleep deprivation, prescription sleep aids, alcohol, alternative inebriates, and the like and you have makings for very sound sleep. So sound, you will sleep through any alarm and fire that ensues.
Fortunately residential fire deaths in America are on the decline. The biggest cited reason was the mandatory installation of residential smoke detectors for new construction starting in 1970's. Up until recently, there was no reason to question their efficacy. Now I wonder how many of the residual 2700 deaths per year are caused in households with working alarms and individuals who are not responding to them?
It appears that the North Carolina tragedy may be indicative of a rather disconcerting trend. Hopefully the individuals serving on NFPA 72, the fire alarm standards committee, will come up with some new sounding methods (voice commands) to ensure that people respond. Here is an interesting video showing the phenomenom for younger kids to give you some options.
In the meantime, if an alarms sounds in your house, make sure that everyone is awake and heading out of the door. Don't assume that just because you are awake, everyone else is also.

Extreme Home Makeover

You may have watched ABC's Extreme Home Makeover. The premise is simple. First you find a deserving family with a beat up old house. Then send them on vacation for a week to some beautiful locale, far away from the old domicile. Then assemble a construction crew that demolishes the old house with great excitement and fanfare. Then the crew hurries to build a new home from foundation to roof with inspired interior appointments in a few short days before the family returns home. The new, large and oftentimes opulent replacement is unveiled for the family as hundreds of members of the community watch and applaud. Sound like a dream-come-true?

The families selected to receive these new homes are required to provide an application video showing their need and reasons they can't make the changes themselves. Their stories are compelling and there is no question that they deserve something much better than their previous surroundings. In most cases, the families have very limited financial resources. So what can be better than demolishing the old and replacing it with something big and new?

Sustainability. I don't necessarily mean that in the sense that demolishing the old home and sending it to the landfill is not sustainable. Nor am I concerned whether the new materials are derived from sustainable resources. Well...actually maybe I am concerned about both, but neither is the point of this discussion. What I am really concerned about is whether the financially limited family will be able to sustain this new monster house for more than one utility billing cycle!

Think about it. Even the most efficient house still has some heating and/or cooling costs. The bigger the house, the more volume that will be mechanically conditioned. Then there is on-going maintenance. The larger the house, the more there is to paint, caulk, fix, clean, etc. Is this really what these families need? Does giving one of these families something they probably can't afford to maintain will really help them in the long run?

It doesn't appear that the recipient is given much input on the overall design of the new house. I have never heard anyone ask if they would like to keep it of reasonable size or make it as efficient as possible. Fortunately I see that ABC is starting to incorporate energy efficient materials into the house construction. In some limited cases, they are using solar and other "site manufactured" energy sources to help with the monthly utility costs. Is this because the feel compelled to be a part of the green building movement from a politically correct standpoint? Regardless, this is certainly a step in the right direction for economic sustainability.

Now maybe they can start working on changing the "bigger is better" mindset and start creating imaginative, but moderately sized spaces designed for the long term. This would certainly provide a better solution for those of limited means trying to use their new home as the center of a newly improved lifestyle. These families typically already have some significant burdens they are forced to carry. It doesn't seem right to increase that load to the point that they are broken by it.

I have no objection to building large homes and to those who can afford buying and maintaining them. That is their business. I only object to those that think that the only good house is a huge house and that it is the only healthy environment for American families. Like it or not, TV is very influential. What is depicted is often considered a "normal" standard for everyone.

I can afford large, but choose to dwell in small. I don't want to spend my hard earned income paying the utility company or spending every weekend trying to maintain the house. There are more important things to do. I would hope that ABC would permit the same freedom to its Extreme Makeover recipients.

Photo: Washington State entry in the 2005 Solar Decathlon. 800sf of totally energy independent living. This could easily be doubled in size without increasing the amount of solar collection devices. Could this be the next model for Extreme Home Makeover? Why not buy one of the houses from the 2007 Decathlon? Why not partner with one of the teams in 2009?