Building Code – Safe and Boring Houses for Everyone

Whether you know it or not, most areas in Canada require a permit for new construction and structural repairs. Curiously, as builders and restorers, we’ve found that the first question that comes up in a discussion of building permits with homeowners is not the cost of, or necessity for, a permit. It is, instead, whether homeowners agree with the process of obtaining a permit for work taking place on their own homes.

There is a lot of philosophical thinking at play behind this question. Ideas about property rights, and individual versus social rights take place. And beneath the typical position evidenced by most homeowners (and people in general) to find a balance between personal needs and social obligations, when it comes to work on “The Castle,” a powerful sense of anarchy reigns. Sure, most of us agree to share by the great unwritten social contract public spaces like roads and parks, but surely our personal spaces should be beyond the reach of any authority besides our own. In a word, “No.”

We take the position that the interest building authorities in Canada (and there are now more of them than ever) have in your home is a good thing, but this is not without some reservation. The crux of the question is this: building authorities assume that people that build, wire, plumb, fix or otherwise create buildings and their systems are not born with a knowledge of good building practice. They do, however, assume that sound building can be learned, and regulations such as those proposed by Canada’s National Building Code (NBC) provide guidelines for good building, albeit a theoretical version.

So here is the “good thing” part about such guidelines. Let’s assume you want to build a conventional frame home. This typically means some sort of foundation topped by a bunch of wood and a roof. Well, thanks to the designers and builders of yesteryear, that “bunch of wood” made up of plates, studs, joists and rafters is not only an excellent building system, but it is a method deeply entrenched in the NBC. It has been much tested in the real world. Stick with it, and as far as the structural elements of your project goes, you won’t go far wrong.

In fact, conventional-frame building is so tried and true tested that even as it fails due to rot damage or imperfect use of desired techniques, the many connections inherent typically create a sound structure despite imperfections. This is why conventional wood-frame technology is imported in areas that have not used it traditionally. It makes for stable structures. Of course, the NBC guidelines cover much more than the building frame example discussed here, but we make the assumption that guidelines like these are in place for the purpose of ensuring buildings are safe and useable, and for the most part, believe this to be true.

So what about our reservations about enforced building codes, that anarchic resistance to building authorities telling us how our hallowed homes are to be built or repaired. The first is this: let’s assume you as a builder have a natural gift for building, or even a great deal of experience, and simply know how building loads can be brought from roof to ground in a safe, usable, durable way. Well, chances are that you will still need a building permit, and your fine work must still be inspected for code adherence, perhaps by someone with a fraction of your gift for building. You might not even mind having someone over who also possesses building knowledge and has a deep interest in building like yourself. Together, you could analyse your project, and share in the pleasure of great building. Heck, even the best of engineers check each others work, so perhaps your site inspector would enjoy having you at his or her home to help make sure everything there is in order. Assuming such a pleasurable, supportive dialogue exists in the interests of good building, the only real problem might be that you’ll be paying for your permit.

A second reservation about the permit process is its fallibility. Despite the NBC and its enforcement at regional and municipal levels, we’ve all heard about leaky condos, the cost of which is, in some cases, passed on to the taxpayer. Why then should you, the homeowner, be forced to adhere rigorously to codes and bylaws that have obviously been evaded by others? Is this not a breakdown in that great social contract that seeks to balance your needs with those of society’s? Put simply, others are obviously getting away with doing bad work, so shouldn’t you be free to do so also, at least in your own home?

Further, staying with the idea that despite ministrations by numerous building authorities, so called “leaky condos” continue. A trip through almost any town in our area will reveal the telltale signs: great expanses of tarped building faces shrouding the sins of poor work by everyone from nail-bangers and roofers to architects and, yes, perhaps even inspectors. Once again then, why should building authorities tell you what to do at your house, when they can’t seem to make sure that even the work of so-called professionals is consistently well done?

That you are still reading suggests you take a solid position. To sum it, many homeowners resent an intrusion into their home spaces and few building professionals appreciate their work being inspected. On the other side are those bodies that propose, administer, enforce, and report on building practice. Between these two polarities, it is hard to find a middle ground between them – one dictating, the other resenting or even ignoring.

Our position on permits is this: although the system is not perfect as the ongoing leaky condo situation (and other building problems) attests, structural, electrical and plumbing inspections benefit homeowners in that they serve as a relatively inexpensive service that hopes to nip potential building problems in the bud, ideally long before any shortcomings cost money or cause death or injury. There has always been bad building, and there always will be, and no amount of legislation will prevent this. In our experience at ground level, inspectors – the “face” of building codes and bylaws – are typically reasonable, knowledgeable and open to questions, discussion and explanation. We have yet to see any strutting, codebook waving, or knuckle-rapping. Let’s face it, as most of our jobs are residential, when we meet them, they’re on your terrain. We like to think this point comes up at their conventions. Further, we regularly contact building authorities by phone and email when we have questions, and have found them helpful and courteous. And so they should be; they work for you, and in theory, stand for an important element of our social fabric: its buildings.

Last, the building systems mentioned here came about due to trial and error over many years. In a nutshell, their excellence is the result of experimentation. If there is a major flaw in standardised building and associated building codes, it is that there is little room for experimentation, the very process that leads to great buildings as well as the proven conventional styles mentioned. This means that in many jurisdictions, “green” building methods, however traditional and proven they might be, may not be approved. Say goodbye, in this event, to your plans for an inexpensive, energy-efficient hay bale or cob building, or perhaps that geodesic dome atop a concrete igloo-like foundation, however well engineered these plans are.