Monday, August 10, 2009

Sustainable Building Code

I have been negligent in keeping up with the blog due to the proliferation of life's demands. However, there comes a time when one must get back on the mission track. Whats was it, by the way? Oh... sustainable building and those darned building regulations.

My wife and I are back on track looking for retirement land. Our preference is to be in a location where we can build what we want without the encumbrances of excessive building regulation...or the excesses of building regulators. I note that periodical publications of proponents of alternative building construction have real estate ads stating, "no building codes". There is a reason for this endorsement. Most folks looking at "new" construction methods are simply fatigued by regulators who cannot dwell comfortably outside the norm.
Our current "area of preference" lies in the heart of Delta County, Colorado. This is one of 11 or so counties in the state with no adopted building code. It seems rather strange for me, an expert in the field of building regulation, to be seeking land in an area without regulation.
The more skilled I become in my craft, unfortunately the more frustrated I have become with SOME members of my profession. The fact that one can read a building code does not in itself make that person a competent building official. Blindly following the black and white letter of the code denies logic and the original code intent.
Many forget that International Residential Code Section R104.11 addressing alternate methods and materials is there for a very important and legitimate reason. It demands an enforcing official to assess and potentially approve methods of construction that are not prescriptively addressed in the code. It does NOT permit "no" as an answer. It makes the answer "maybe". Maybe the petitioner can provide adequate information to satisfy the burden of proof that the method proposed meets the intent of the code. This is not intended to an impossible task.
Increasingly, today's model building codes are becoming more urban-centric. The fact of the matter is that most of the folks doing code development come from big cities. They do a good job of representing their constituents and their associated expectations. They do NOT however, represent the needs of rural America. As the trend continues, rural communities are less likely to adopt these "restrictive and onerous" building regulations. Therefore, I have been advocating the creation of something entitled along the lines of Minimum Life Safety Standards for Developing Communities to fill the void between excess regulation and nothing at all.
Most rural areas that I am familiar with operate under the rules of self sufficiency. You are can do as you please as long as what you do doesn't adversely impact your neighbors. In rural areas, neighbors are far apart. More distance, less chance of one's action impacting another. Self sufficiency allows for less regulation. If you feel that you should be responsible for your environment and actions, then you don't need laws to tell you what to do.
In the city, it is hard not to be affected by a neighbor's actions due to close proximity. Therefore, more regulation of the neighbor's activities is warranted. If your suburban neighbor ignites his house while cooking 7 greasy T-Bone steaks on the outdoor BBQ, your house will likely have its plastic siding melted off also...if you are too close. Worse yet, your house will catch on fire and then in turn ignite somebody else's house.
The fire spread scenario was the historic basis for most US building codes. Communities would have a singular fire incident get out of hand, overwhelm the capabilities of the local fire authority, and subsequently burn an entire town down. This happened in Chicago in 1871 and Central City, Colorado in 1874. By 1875, both cities enacted new building codes intended to regulate construction such that fire could be confined to the building or building lot of origin. This was intended to protect the community as a whole and was never intended as an individual protective. Over time, that community protection basis of the building code has evolved to address individual protectives. This evolution comes, in my opinion, from the urban-centric mindset of the code development proponents.
And thus we have disparity. The communities of self sufficiency have chosen to have no regulation whatsoever. Meanwhile, the cities and suburbs continue to pile on the regulation. Pity the poor building inspector that thinks the code is gospel when encountering something like strawbale construction that is completely absent from the code. With so many regulations, a specific omission must be deliberate, right? Therefore, communities with strong emphasis of "build whatcha want" are not inclined to adopt a model building code. Therefore, no strawbale in the city, lots of it in the country...
I am told that everything is better in moderation. I believe that a little building regulation is a very good thing. On the other hand, I have seen that excess regulation can inhibit individual liberties, pursuit of happiness, and a better and much more sustainable existance for many Americans. Currently, communities have only one model residential building code to adopt and it leans toward the "heavy on regulation" side. It is time to write some alternate versions.
Most advocates of alternative construction tend to to be liberal (progressive) thinkers. They are the first to complain to me about the regulations that stop their ability to build their version of the "American dream". So why are these same folk promlogating current Federal policies that will interject more regulations in other areas of their lives? Time to step back and rethink the big picture, regardless of your political persuasion. Time to take back some of the responsibility and quit abrogating it to local, state, and federal enforcing officials. It is time to consider some moderation in building code regulations for locations that still value individual responsibility.


Deb said...

I live in Indiana and would like to move somewhere a bit warmer or somewhere with a more stable climate. How does one go about finding a place with out building codes for structures around 200-300 square feet? I am not someone who wants to live large but one who wants to live free...have a few chickens, ducks and rabbits, growing my own garden. I want and desire to live the simple life, why does it have to be so hard?

flight_2039 said...

Hi Tom,

I just came across your blog and I find it quite fascinating. I'm currently working on some eco village zoning and sustainable building codes in Hawaii and I'd love to share a little bit about our project here with you if you are interested. If yes let me know on Thanx


Shaun said...

Can you update this post with the names of those 11 counties you mention? Thanks.

Tom Meyers said...

I have done a blog update with a link to an e-book that purports to provide information on all locations across the US without building codes.
CAUTION: Having no building code does not in itself guarantee that you can build what you want. Check for Fire and Urban Wildland Codes. Check for restrictive planning and zoning regulations. These are usually the most exclusionary. Also watch for restrictive covenants and deed restrictions. These can be the worst of all!