Monday, April 12, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: The labyrinth of building codes, Part 1

Okay, after all my deadlines and a weekend of nothing but rest, I've found a little energy to tackle some questions in the mailbag. Here's a question from R. regarding codes:

Hi Lulu,

Your blog is fantastic. I enjoy every post and they are very helpful in most instances, even if you are not in the field of architecture. Its just generally a good blog for young professionals. Now to my question. Its code related and Ive had discussions with a few people in my office which have given me contradicting answers. The question is about common path of egress travel. Exactly what is it? How do you measure it? Im doing a code analysis of a hospital and I know the length has to be 100 feet if sprinkled but it seems as if there is confusion as to exactly what that is. The code has a weird way of not making sense 98% of the time. Some of these things are just hard to explain anyway. I sometimes wish they had a code for dummies book that basically explained the whole code book in laymans terms haha...but its a serious thing none the less. Im hoping thats how others feel as well. Code issues seem to be what nab me the most. How long did it take you to really get a good feel for code stuff. Maybe a post or two about this would be helpful for others as well. If not, then just an email response would be too. Ive told many people about your site. Its really a great resource. Thanks for reading.

First off, R., thanks for the props! As to your question, I think it will take more than one post to address the matter of codes in an intern's (and an architect's) daily activities. In school, we design these amazing flights of fancy and talk about form and void and material and blah blah blah, and we never know or realize that what we just drew pass few if any of the building and accessibility codes in force today. That's not a bad thing, per se, but it sure is a shock to walk into a firm and see that two-inch-thick copy of the IBC, knowing that what we've drawn has to follow everything in there...whatever the hell it says. Code books frequently don't make a ton of sense--you read a passage, wondering how you're supposed to know if this applies to your building, wondering if this part of the code nullifies that other part of the code, and so on. The whole thing can leave you with your eyes crossed and ready to pass out.

First things first: building, life safety, and accessibility codes are complex and take time to learn and get comfortable with. I didn't get fully comfy with codes until I'd been working for about seven years, which is a year after I passed the ARE. Give yourself time, and ask plenty of questions of others. At the same time, be wary of those who would make big broad pronouncements about codes, such as:
  • "If you have sprinklers in a B occupancy building, it gets rid of all your rated walls and rooms and you're good as gold--nothing to worry about!"
  • "When in doubt, just make the walls 1-hour rated and the door 45-minute rated. Done."
  • "I know all about codes. I can quote it all--ask me anything!"
That last one is my favorite (if by favorite, you mean "causes me to roll my eyes in disgust") because no one knows everything about codes. To say that you know and understand the entire 2006 IBC is an insult to others' intelligence, and it's vain (unless you're one of those idiot savants you see on TLC, then you get a pass on this one...but I'm betting you need help getting dressed in the morning and you don't understand what others' facial expressions mean). Even the code consultants, who know the code for a living, know when to look at the code and be sure and not just spout something from memory. Furthermore, all of this code knowledge--by you, the code consultant, or the office blowhard--is worth a tenth of nothing if the local authority having jurisdiction reads and understands the code differently from you. (I've had just that happen on projects--the architect and even the code consultant who checked the drawings understood one thing, and the local inspector flat our reads the code differently, so differently that they insist that extra doors and walls be added to a project that clearly aren't part of the code. It's cruddy, and you just have to live with it.)

Having said that, some of the major codes, such as the IBC (International Building Code) and the NFPA 101 (a major life safety code) have handbooks that can help you understand the intent of a code or even how to calculate something the code requires, such as how to measure the travel distance out of a suite of rooms: where to start the line of travel, how close to obstacles you can get as you draw that path of travel, and so on. If a firm has a copy of the code, they should ideally also have a copy of the code's handbook. It can save you some time and headache when performing code studies. The code handbook is the closest thing to a "2006 IBC for Dummies" book, though I'm of the opinion they should just write the code clearly and not force me to buy two books just to know what the one book says, but that's just me. Maybe someone at the IBC committee has a brother who runs a paper mill or a printing company or something.

Next post, we'll talk about a variety of applicable codes, from the most to least general, and we'll discuss what belongs in a code review and on a code plan. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line with a question or issue you'd like to see discussed here, either in the comments on via my email in the sidebar. Thanks!


  1. Thanks to the folks behind and searchable PDFs of many city and state Building Codes are available for download.

    When the Building Code is enacted into law, it becomes part of the public domain, and should therefore be available to anyone at no cost.

  2. Right on, Mark, and thanks! I'll be posting these links on the sidebar of Intern 101 soon.

  3. Another thing I have wanted and should make for myself next time around is a code review guide. Start by figuring out my occupancy, construction, number of floors, and all that. Then, based on those numbers and what is and is not in my building, what do I need for exits, travel distances, fire rating, and more. Then for all the stuff that is the same for any nonresidential project. And finally, are there any niggly specific bits about particular functions, exceptions to general rules...

    Having a guide like that, that says what to check thoroughly, and what you can safely copy from a stock code review, would save a lot of time.