The Role of Building Codes and Building Officials

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Building codes are documents which, by virtue of their adoption by a town, city, county or state, become law; and in which, are set forth the conditions, details and /or results that are required in the construction of buildings. Their purpose is to provide standards and requirements of construction which are the minimum allowable in order to safeguard the health, welfare and safety of building occupants and the general public. Protection of property values is secondary.

Every major metropolitan area as well as most minor towns, cities and counties of the country have adopted some sort of building code. However, not every location in the country is governed by a code. There are several model codes which have been written by various expert groups or organizations, and are made available for adoption and use by governmental entities. An example of such a model code, is the UNIFORM BUILDING CODE written by the International Conference of Building Officials, and currently in effect in most of the western states of the country. There are others.

Building codes are of two general or generic types; i.e., Specification or Performance. A Specification code is one which provides specific requirements as to the allowable methods, systems or details which are to be used, the types of materials, their allowable strengths, etc. The UNIFORM BUILDING CODE is an example of a Specification Code. Conversely, a Performance code describes conditions or results which must be met and the generally acceptable and recognized standards that can be used as guides to achieve and test those results.

All building construction in the area of jurisdiction must conform to the requirements of an applicable Building Code. Every entity which has a Code will have a department, agency or official responsible for enforcement of its provisions, commonly called the Building Official, Building Inspector or similar title. These officials have the responsibility of reviewing plans and specifications for proposed construction to determine conformance of the documents with the adopted Code, issuing building permits to allow construction to proceed, and performing certain field inspections as they deem necessary to assure themselves and the government body under whom they work that the construction is proceeding in conformance with the Code. Upon satisfactory completion of the construction, they will usually issue a Certificate of Occupancy, which allows utility systems to be turned on and building owners and occupants to legally use and occupy the building.

Building inspectors make periodic visits to the on-going construction, usually at very specific stages of project progress development. Examples of typical stages are: At the completion of site preparations for footings and foundations, but just prior to the placing of concrete; At the completion of rough framing, prior to any surfacing or enclosure; At the completion of rough-in of electrical wiring, etc.

(CAUTION) The intent of the inspector’s visits is not necessarily to ensure the contractor’s conformance with all specification requirements nor to generally protect the owner’s interests; but rather, to determine conformance to the Code. Many things can be done, or not be done, which will either escape the attention of the official inspector, or for which he/she has no interest or jurisdiction. The uninformed owner or buyer is then left entirely to the practices, intentions, knowledge and good faith (or lack thereof) of the builder plus his sub-contractors to produce the expected (and paid for) results. That is why it’s in your best interests as the Owner and Occupant to become informed, to thus be more able to observe, understand and judge what’s going on in the complicated construction process.

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