Posts Tagged ‘Building Code Issues’

Several years ago, I received a binder from a window manufacturer in response to a contact I made at Construct. The size tables in the catalog indicate which window units are in compliance with emergency egress and rescue requirements.

Fast forward to last week. Because of the age of the binder, we went to the manufacturer’s website to ensure that the sizes we are looking to use are still available.  What we found is that there are a wider choice of sizes available than there were eight years ago, but several of the windows that were labeled as egress compliant in the old catalog did not bear that designation on the website.  This is complicated by the fact that with the 2012 edition of the IBC, Exceptions 1 and 2 to Section 1029.1 have been eliminated.  Put succinctly, fully sprinklered buildings and buildings with two means of egress are now required to have emergency escape windows that were unnecessary under the 2009 IBC.

We contacted the manufacturer who steered us to an obscure feature on the website that allows the user to check the clear opening of each window size. The user is then left to make his/her own determination of whether the window complies with Section 1029.  Yes, this information is available via the website, but it is not readily apparent to the first time user.

So Mr./Ms. Manufacturer, please consider this your wake-up call. If the information is available, please put it where we can find it on your website.  Otherwise we will likely go to your competitor who has the information in a readily accessible location.


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It never ceases to amaze me how many construction proposals contain the very short specification “to code”.  What amazes me even more is that there are actually consumers who believe this statement or some variation thereon assures them of a quality project.

Wake up folks!  The building code is the crummiest construction that is legal.

So you ask: “How can I get better than the worst that’s legal?”

Better quality construction starts with better construction documents.  Good construction documents are usually produced by a licensed design professional.  For certain occupancies, a licensed design professional is required to seal and sign the construction documents before a construction permit can be issued by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).  In such cases, simply having the seal of a licensed professional on the drawings is in the same category of “built to code”.

Better quality construction documents often involve the services of a Certified Construction Specifier (CCS).  The CCS is a certification issued by the Construction Specifications Institute more commonly known as CSI.  Holders of the CCS are required to have a minimum of five years’ experience preparing construction documents and at least two years of writing construction specifications.  In addition, a CCS will have passed a rigorous exam to receive the certification.

Unofficially, a CCS is an experienced professional with a vast body of technical knowledge.  As a member of the building team, the specifier will often prompt the other members of the design team to think about issues such as constructability, compatibility of materials, water-tightness, and similar issues.

Once a project is documented, it will need to be constructed by a qualified contractor.  One characteristic to look for in the course of selecting a contractor is whether or not he/she has a CDT on staff.  A CDT knows his/her way around a set of construction documents.  They understand the information presented and know where to look for certain information within the set of documents.  Additionally, a CDT has a basic understanding of the relationships called for in a set of construction contract documents.

With this in mind, when shopping for construction services, hire someone who holds a CSI issued certificate or a CSI certified professional.

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Once again, my CSI membership paid for itself.  This time, however, it was in a way I never would have imagined 24 years ago when I first joined the organization.

At it’s October dinner meeting, the Central Virginia Chapter of CSI hosted a program on NFPA 285 and its inclusion in the International Building Code.  More fully known as NFPA 285: Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components, the standard establishes the testing protocol for evaluating multi-story wall assemblies in buildings of all but Type V construction.

Here’s how I once again benefited from my CSI membership.  My design student daughter often seeks my counsel regarding her projects, at times to get an idea whether she’s going in the right direction, and others when she simply wishes to show me what she’s up to.  This morning, I received an e-mail from her asking my opinion as to whether insulated concrete forms (ICF’s) would be an appropriate material for her project on tornado resistant design.  Knowing that my firm often recommends the use of ICF’s, she knew I would have an opinion on the subject.

In this particular instance, I believe the ICF wall would not be the appropriate system.  For starters, she needs the wall to be impact resistant, so a hard, almost structural, cladding would be necessary.  Secondly, I went on to explain, the wall assembly would have to be tested under NFPA 285.  This is something I would not have been aware of had I not been an active member of CSI.  My thanks to Kirby Davis of the Dallas Chapter for making me aware of that which has been largely unenforced locally at Construct 2012 in Phoenix in September.

And so, my membership paid for itself in allowing me to pass a bit of knowledge on to the next generation.  I find this tremendously rewarding.

Membership in CSI is easy to come by.  Simply ask a current member, or contact the Institute ( www.csinet.org ).  You will be welcomed.

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I recently ran into an individual at a construction industry networking event who has been involved in lobbying efforts discouraging the Commonwealth of Virginia from enforcing Section R313 of the International Residential Code (IRC) which requires fire sprinklers in new homes.  His (and others’) main argument is that inclusion of fire sprinkler systems in single family residences will increase the cost of housing in the commonwealth.  Granted, there will be an initial cost increase, but as a percentage of construction cost, I would peg the increase at somewhere between ½% and ¾%.

 That said, the homeowner of such a house should recoup his/her costs over time through decreased insurance premiums.  There is also the fact that water damage is far easier to mitigate than major structural damage in the event of a fire.  Repairs of such damage can be accomplished in a matter of days rather than months.  Additionally, assuming that the occupants survive, temporary housing costs are reduced commensurate with the repair time.

Dollars and cents aside, who can put a value on human life?

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What follows is an updated version of an article I first published in December 2002 edition of the Central Virginia CSI Parameter.  As is typical of these old articles I am posting, it is as pertinent today as it was eight years ago.



Specification writers often use reference standards in construction specifications.  Their use or misuse can make the difference between a specification that is enforceable and one that is rife with conflicts and ambiguities.

 Consensus standards are nothing new.  ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) which develops and publishes consensus standards for materials, products, systems, and services has been around since 1898, and ANSI (American National Standards Institute) was established in 1918.  These are just two of the organizations that produce consensus standards used in the construction industry.  Others that produce frequently used standards are AAMA, ACI, AISC, AITC, NFPA to name a few.  This is, of course, not an exhaustive list by any means.

Reference standards are frequently cited in construction specifications as well as building codes.  Their inclusion in these types of documents by reference makes them part and parcel of the code or specification.  Chapter 35 of the International Building Code is a listing of the standards that are referenced in the text of the code including the dates of publication of the various standards.  Inclusion of the publication date is extremely important, as these standards are periodically reviewed and updated.  The building code, however, incorporates a specific version of a given reference standard.  Compliance with a later (or earlier) version of the same standard doesn’t necessarily assure compliance with the code.

The same is true of specification writing.  When incorporating a standard by reference it is important for the specification writer to be specific as to which edition of the standard is to be used.  In the event that a more recent version of a particular standard is referenced, it is incumbent on the specification writer to ensure that the referenced document is not in conflict with pertinent provisions of the building code.

A common mistake made by specifiers is to restate provisions of a standard referenced in the same specification such as specifying curing procedures for concrete when a reference to the appropriate ACI standard is sufficient.  Another common error is to reference two conflicting standards such that compliance with one creates a conflict with of the provisions of another.  Phrases such as “latest edition” or “current edition” should be avoided as well for similar reasons.  Specifying blind should also be avoided.

These are but a few reasons among many for specifiers to have a thorough working knowledge of the standards they reference in their specifications.  This becomes a monumental task, as the library required is monumental in size and it requires constant updating.  While this article isn’t intended as a promotion of the use of a particular guide specification such as Masterspec, Spectext, or SpecLink, the producers of these and similar documents are better able to stay on top of the latest developments in consensus standards and use of these or similar products is a reasonable way to manage risk.  Use of a good guide specification alone, however is not a substitute for knowledge on the part of the specifier.

Good library maintenance, continuing education, and CSI certification on the part of the specifier can help in the preparation of a quality specification which is clear, correct, complete, and concise.  Participation in monthly CSI chapter meetings is a start in the right direction.  The best way to gain information on this and other topics is to become an active member of CSI.  Your career may depend on it!

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It has barely been forty-eight hours since a local restaurant was destroyed by fire.  Only the badly damaged walls remain.  Fortunately, there were no injuries.

 Had this building been fully sprinklered, there would only have been minor smoke and water damage.  Instead, the local fire marshal estimates the property damage at one million dollars.  I’m sure that the decision not to sprinkler the building was based on the fact that the a sprinkler system was not required by code and such a system would have cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 – $20,000 in today’s dollars, or two percent of the property loss.  False economy if you ask me.

 Had the building been sprinklered, there wouldn’t be employees facing the prospect of no job for the upcoming holidays.  Secondly, there would only have been a week or so of lost revenue instead of the months that the owners now face.  I am concerned, as well, that the owner may not be allowed to rebuild exactly the structure that burned, as local zoning regulations may force them to make significant design changes and endure the long approval process that goes along with them.

 All this being said, I would encourage business owners to consider the ramifications of saving a few bucks up front only to face losing fifty times as much and install a functioning fire suppression (sprinkler) system.  It may be your livelihood that goes up next. 

See also my post on this topic from last August.

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Years ago, I was a big believer in compartmentalizing structures to prevent the spread of fire.  It was legal at the time to construct large buildings without sprinkler systems by breaking them up into smaller fire areas with fire separation walls and ceilings.  Two things occurred that changed my mind on the subject.  The first was the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas on Nov 21, 1980, the second was a seminar I attended on firestopping at the CSI (Construction Specifications Institute) National Convention a few years thereafter.

According to the NFPA report on the fire, had the building been fully sprinklered, only two heads would have discharged knocking the fire down and confining it to a small area.  Subsequent water and smoke damage would also have been confined to a small area and the hotel would have been back in business in a day or two (if that long) instead of several months, and eighty-some lives would have been saved.

As to the failure of compartmentalizing, it is truly eye-opening to see how fast a small trash can fire will spread in a ten foot by ten foot office.  Within ten minutes the room will flash over.  If there is a penetration through the wall to an adjacent office such as an electrical conduit that isn’t properly firestopped, the annular space around the conduit will act a blowtorch in the wall.  Flashover of the second office will occur within four minutes of the first flashover.

Compartmentalization also fails in that if the fire separation assembly isn’t perfect, smoke will move freely through a structure.  It has long been established that most fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation.  This is again mitigated by having a properly functional fire suppression system in place, as a fire that isn’t burning won’t generate smoke.

Given that to this author’s knowledge there has not been a fire fatality in a building with a properly functioning sprinkler system speaks volumes.  Every incident with fatalities in a sprinklered building of which I am aware the system was shut down or otherwise compromised at the time of the fire.

In addition to the preservation of life and property, there are several economic benefits to sprinklering a building.  To begin with, insurance companies typically will charge lower premiums for sprinklered buildings.  Secondly, in the event that a fire occurs, damage will be reduced and the facility will be down for a week or two instead of an interruption of business of months or years.

If I sound like a sprinkler salesman, to some extent I am, but only because I truly believe sprinklering a building is the best possible advice I can give my clients.  Unfortunately, I have to overcome the effects of Hollywood on popular perception – how often have we seen a scene where someone holds a lighter under a sprinkler head and the whole system discharges like a deluge system.  Reality is that only one or two heads will discharge in a typical fire.  Once I explain this, people are usually more receptive to sprinklering their building.  This security is available for just a few bucks per square foot.

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