Friday, January 19, 2007

Wrestling with Pigs.

This is based on a question from Morwen Madrigal.

I think many people may not fully understand the changes which took place after Katrina and Rita in the Building Code and Permits Process in New Orleans. The process was changed but the requirements for construction were largely unchanged.

The State adopted emergency legislation almost immediately after the storms which required complying with the Wind and Flood Provisions of the International Building Code in the 11 most affected parishes. That legislation also mandated that all local jurisdictions enforce the requirements of the IBC by the end of last year. This was done for a number of reasons but mostly to satisfy the Insurance Industry since, incredibly, many rural parishes had no building code in place at all. I think Terrebornne Parish was one of these. Some towns had adopted building codes but the unincorporated areas were not covered by any local regulations and the state didn't impose any overall requirements on houses.

The City of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish had already both adopted relatively modern building codes and while this updated the requirements it shouldn't have significant impact. The single biggest change, in my opinion, is the imposition a requirement that windows and doors meet the Large Missile Test, which basically creates requirements either shutters or windows which will resist a piece of 2x4 launched from a pneumatic cannon. This requirement has been in place in South Florida for years.

The City also put into place an expedited Building Permit process which allowed people to get permits without plans and often over the Internet with no fee. Jefferson had a similar program. In both of the programs the applicant had to agree comply with applicable building cods. No code requirements were waived.

Many people have heard of "grandfathering" and assume you can do anything you want in an old building. Few people understand exactly what the actually code allows. Generally existing non-conforming construction is allowed to remain in place but new construction, including repairs, must comply the requirements for new buildings, unless it is technically not feasible. Technically feasible, is a sort of vague term and no precise definition is really possible, but most people will know it when they see it. In addition if the value of the repairs or renovations exceed 50% of the value of the building, the building must be made to comply with all current code requirements for a new building.

This process will give rise to many issues in the field since most people are proceeding to repair existing houses without detailed, reviewed and approved plans. Even if you have plans, no set of plans is ever complete or absolutely right, especially when dealing with an existing building.

There is a sign posted in Building Departments all across the country. It reads;
"Arguing with a Building Inspector is a lot like wrestling with a pig in a mud hole and half way through realizing the pig is enjoying it!"
Don't argue with them it will seriously damage your chances of reaching an accommodation. Try to understand what is going on.

No specific issue can be addressed without reviewing to the actual conditions at the site. The Building Inspector is not God and cannot enforce requirements which aren't in the code, although sometimes they try either through ignorance, petty power trips or even attempted larceny. Many people seem to fear retribution but my experience is that if you do your home work, most of the time the Inspectors and Safety and Permit staff will work with you. Just remember, "It will cost too much" isn't a valid objection in most cases. They also have a duty to tell you what specific requirement of the code they are referring to, be sure to get the chapter and paragraph of a specific code. I always refer to the actual language of the code. It is not generally that technical in most matters and is actually usually pretty clear, although it does frequently reference outside standards.

Apply Hanlon's Razor;
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
This has two effects, if you just remain calm and don't assume hostility you can get much further. Secondly if you check everything you are told throughly you can over come malice, if it does exist.

I frequently play "dumb" but cooperative with the Inspector. I find that is best way to find out what they really are talking about. Often by the time information gets to me from the guy the Inspector talked to his boss to me it's hopelessly garbled. Verify everything they tell you against the actual language of the code, including conditions, definitions and exceptions. Consider it an exercise in logic.

Keep good records of all contacts and conversations with building Inspectors. I'm told by my lawyer friends that a dated and signed memo made at the time of the conversation is very valuable in court. It will also be valuable if you need to escalate the issue. At the very least you will be able to demonstrate to a higher authority everything your tried, if necessary.

If you are unable to work out a problem with the Inspector in the field, there is the opportunity to escalate the issue, first to the Chief Building Inspector up through the Department of Safety and Permits all decisions are made in the name of the Director and most of the people I've dealt with are helpful, if you try to understand what they are doing and why. It helps to be flexible and give a little to get what's important. Remember they nave no authority to waive provisions of the code, only to interpret it as it applies to your specific issue.

If you can't get satisfaction with Safety and Permits you can file an appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals. Sometime the people in Safety and Permits will advise you that what you need to do will require and appeal. The Board is a citizen body made mostly of construction professionals who will decide the issue. Their authority is limited to basically two things, reviewing the decisions of the Director, who they can overrule if they think a mistake was made (but they rarely do that) or most commonly approving equivalent measures. They can also make official interpretations of the code which are binding on the Department, but I'm not aware of a single case where that has happened. They do *not* have the option of waiving the requirements of the code. The appeal process is fairly informal, usually a bunch of guys sitting around a table, but there is a fee, which may or may not be worth it. I'm not sure what the current backlog is. In the past is has rarely been more than a month. If you want to take it further you go to court. Unlike zoning neither the City Council nor the Mayor have authority to overrule the Board..

Another option is to engage a Third Party Code Reviewer, this is mandated by the same legislation which established the IBC. The Third Party is generally someone who is familiar with codes and can review you drawings and construction for compliance with the code. These reviewers have no authority to waive requirements, and may be expensive. I think they will primarily be used on commercial projects where the delays can disrupt progress. If the City is not confident in your reviewer they still have the right to make their own inspection and cite any violations. I've been told they intend to be on the lookout for shoddy Third Parties and that they know who generally who will do a good job and who won't. I don't know if the have the resources to follow through or not. I kind of doubt it. Getting by with something is not a good idea, especially if your are the homeowner. The contractor is likely a corporation which reorganizes every few years but an individual can't reorganize and you could eventually be held liable for work improperly done by you on you home by a future owner.

This is not intended a professional advice but is rather an attempt to help people through the resolution of problems.

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