You and Your Building Code Official

What is your relationship with your Building Code official? Is it non-existent, adversarial, or healthy? Ideally, you have a clear, open line of communication with your Building Code Official (also known as a BCO.) Cooperating and addressing issues openly with your BCO will provide many long term benefits for you and your facility.

Facility Directors and staff have a great deal of work to do with limited resources. Facility staff are used to addressing issues and fixing problems. Often this work is done without the proper building permits. The intent is certainly not to skip the permitting process but rather to get as much done as possible in the shortest amount of time and then move on to the next task. You probably didn’t even realize that a permit was required. However, the International Building Code is very clear about when a building permit is, or is not, required. Other than repair work, most projects require building permits. After a few years of not realizing or remembering to get the necessary permits, the number of un-permitted projects piles up and your facility director probably no longer wants the BCO coming onto campus. At this point, communication with the BCO has essentially shut down.
Sooner or later a large building renovation project is scheduled for your campus. At some point in the process, the BCO will need to be on site for inspections. The BCO then notices the un-permitted projects in the building. The BCO has now lost faith in you and your facility. He suspects you’ve been purposefully hiding unsafe projects for years and your relationship is probably ruined.

Does this sound familiar?

Handshake, canon 1Ds mark III

The BCO and the Fire Marshal are charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of people that use buildings within their jurisdiction. They are experienced and well trained for what they do. It’s much better to work with them than against them. They can be problem solvers and a valuable part of the team.

Your facility will someday be faced with a substantial building project. Part of the building project will require you to evaluate how the building code applies to your project. Although the building code is intended to be black and white, there will be numerous grey areas throughout the review. This is especially true if you’re renovating an existing building. This is one of the best times for you to foster a good relationship with the BCO. First, identify existing issues early in the process. Plot a possible solution to resolve the issues. Then review both the issues and possible solutions early on with the BCO. Include him in these discussions so that as part of the team he can then have an understanding of the issues and can help you to determine the best path to a solution.

There may be multiple places in a building project where the resolution to an issue is up to the Authority Having Jurisdiction — also known as the Building Code Official. The BCO can weigh in on issues and guide you with his sense of meeting the intent of the code. This does not mean he will let a sub-par solution resolve the issue. Instead, it means he can approve an equal or better alternate method than what’s outlined in the code. The BCO may be more helpful and creative in his willingness review a project if he feels you have dealt with him openly over the years.

Many campuses have existing buildings that are not compliant with the current building codes. However, these buildings were compliant with the codes in effect when they were built. The BCO cannot force you update a building unless there’s a new project within the building or the existing building is unsafe. Thus, it is important for you to have a current occupancy permit for all of your existing buildings. Without an existing occupancy permit (or documentation that the building ever had an occupancy permit) the BCO could require the building owner to bring the existing building up to today’s current building standards. Of course, this would be an extreme circumstance, but it has happened.

Building projects, building codes, existing buildings, building permits, occupancy permits, etc. can all be part of a complicated and confusing process. There are many potential pitfalls along the way. If you foster a healthy relationship with your BCO, he can help you avoid or correctly address situations is an efficient manner. An unhealthy relationship is self-explanatory.

Ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness. It will save the day.

Chris Linkey, AIA, Partner is a registered architect with 19 years of experience serving as a project manager. He also serves on the Lancaster County Code Association (LANCODE) Board of Directors