Author Topic: 01 - Why Do We Have Building Codes?  (Read 13292 times)

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Offline MountainDon

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01 - Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« on: April 01, 2011, 08:08:08 PM »
Why do we have building codes?

I’ll respond to that question with another question. How do we know what the expertise of the owner-builder is, and do they know their own limitations so as to stay out of trouble? If we searched we could find examples of people having built things that ended up falling on or burning up other property and/or people. Consider that engineering successes are only successes until they fail; building codes are generally updated based on real-world failures to prevent similar failures from happening again. In that way, they provide a living, breathing guideline to ensuring you can learn from the mistakes of others not by doing all the research yourself, but by following the codes laid down by those who have already done it. In a few words, they can be instructive documents of tried and true construction methods and principles.

I have noted examples of building code successes and failures over the years. How else can we account for things like the numbers of people killed in the Haiti earthquake and the recent Japanese earthquake? Haiti, a 7.0, had a death toll approaching 250,000. The Japanese quake, a 9.0 has currently claimed over 10,000 deaths and some 17,000 missing. Even if all the missing are dead the death toll is a fraction of Haiti. Similarly earthquakes in China, Pakistan, Sumatra, India and Iran have all claimed large numbers of victims, and been very destructive of infrastructure, and did not have the complication of the tsunami in most cases. One major difference is those countries have no building codes or are so corrupt that whatever codes there may be are circumvented, and they should now see more than ever, that they do this at their own risk and to their own detriment. Post earthquake investigations in Haiti turned up many practices that virtually guaranteed failure of buildings.

Of course having codes is no guarantee of quality of construction. And, you must be smart enough to know when you are exceeding the code or your own limitations, and need some professional help. We had a recent post here about a recent condominium development in Alberta that has just been condemned. There were modern codes in effect, but officials did a bad job at inspecting the work and it appears that the foundation contractor did substandard work and/or used substandard materials. The building is failing without any help from any of nature’s calamities, just due to poor or inadequate design, construction and inspection.

Few of us can create a successful cake from scratch without having a recipe or enduring much experimentation. If the cake fails we are only out a few dollars worth of ingredients; maybe some disappointed family members. Building codes are recipes. If certain materials and techniques are used according to the recipe success is more likely. If we experiment with something we think will work, we may be faced with a failure that could be expensive in terms of material loss or human suffering or worse. The IRC (International Residential Code) is set up fairly conservatively, with the intent of keeping builders out of trouble as they build small buildings, without the need for an advanced degree in Architecture, Structural Engineering or Construction.

Codes like the IRC are known as prescriptive codes. Engineers have designed foundation, wall and roof systems that work. Labs test materials, details and construction techniques with machines to see how things fail. The effects of earthquakes and hurricanes are studied. For example we learned much from Hurricane Andrew. After changes were made to Florida building codes subsequent hurricanes showed much less damage in buildings built to post-Andrew codes.

So what am I up to here? I want to explore the IRC, concentrating on the basics of what is prescribed for roofs, walls, floors and foundations; the basics behind the good practices that can lead to a successful cabin building project. I’d like to explore some of the reasons why we do certain things the way we do them, and why we should not do other things which are outside the IRC code limits. I have made the acquaintance of a professional engineer who has graciously offered to assist me in any technical details of the IRC.
« Last Edit: April 21, 2011, 03:31:45 PM by MountainDon »
Just because something has been done and has not failed, doesn’t mean it is good design.

If you didn't have the time or money to do it right in the first place, when will you get the time and money to fix it?

Offline firefox

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #1 on: April 02, 2011, 09:59:53 AM »
Thanks Don, I think this is an excellent idea. I think people
on here get the idea that because local authorities use the
building codes as a means of gauging folks, that that this means
one should avoid them. That is a bad mistake.
Bruce
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Offline umtallguy

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #2 on: April 02, 2011, 11:23:27 AM »
just because something is to code does not make it good, or safe in all aspects. Engineered I beam lumber is perfectly to code and great for long spans, but kills firefighters as it has a much shorter burn through time then traditional floor joists.

Offline rwanders

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #3 on: April 02, 2011, 02:15:54 PM »
  "just because something is to code does not make it good--"

Absolutely true----the Code prescribes minimums, generally safe but, most would be rather unhappy with many aspects of a home just built to the minimums. Many questions and answers on this forum relate dissatisfaction with them.
Rwanders lived in Southcentral Alaska since 1967
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Offline duncanshannon

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2011, 07:04:36 AM »
  "just because something is to code does not make it good--"

Absolutely true----the Code prescribes minimums, generally safe but, most would be rather unhappy with many aspects of a home just built to the minimums. Many questions and answers on this forum relate dissatisfaction with them.

hmmmm. does anyone publish anything that would help the novice understand how to avoid building to minimum and being disappointed later? like where it makes sense to spend a little more time/money/etc to go beyond minimum and where it doesnt?
Home: Minneapolis, MN area.  Land: (no cabin yet) Spooner, WI area.  Plan: 20x34 1 1/2 Story. Experience Level: n00b. 
Build Thread: http://countryplans.com/smf/index.php?topic=10784.0

Offline OlJarhead

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #5 on: April 03, 2011, 08:51:35 AM »
The Libertarian in me says "Building codes are fine as long as they are not forced".

I think that following good building practices only makes sense, but I also despise the idea of NOT being free to build my home the way I want.

Sure, I understand that in Cities where people live in close proximity, building a home dangerously might endanger others and therefore should be regulated, but I feel that in an area (like the country side) where no one lives within crushing distance of a falling home (or whatever) then you should be free to build as suits you (for better or for worse).

Either we are a free people, or we are not.

Offline jr1318

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #6 on: April 03, 2011, 11:08:18 AM »
OlJarhead, so if your house or building collaspes and you get hurt and you use health insurance plus fire and rescue, which rates are spread over a large number of people causing all our rate to go up is that right or should you pay out of pocket for injuries and rescue. Being a libertarian are you going rescue yourself and fix your wounds without the help of society? What about your unsuspecting visitors. Unsafe buildings affect society as a whole rather it be directly or indirectly.

Offline OlJarhead

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #7 on: April 03, 2011, 02:12:54 PM »
OlJarhead, so if your house or building collaspes and you get hurt and you use health insurance plus fire and rescue, which rates are spread over a large number of people causing all our rate to go up is that right or should you pay out of pocket for injuries and rescue. Being a libertarian are you going rescue yourself and fix your wounds without the help of society? What about your unsuspecting visitors. Unsafe buildings affect society as a whole rather it be directly or indirectly.

You must not understand the Libertarian viewpoint or philosophy (or that of the founders) if this is what you beleive I'm saying.  And, no, not at all.

First, insurance SHOULD NOT be spread out over anything and a free market system would not be.  Second, if I cause my own demise, I'm a dumb ass and should pay for it.  Thirdly, it was Libertarians (for the most part) that made this country and it seems to me that at least up the last 100 years, in which we deviated immensely from that governmental philosophy, they were pretty much spot on.

Offline dug

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #8 on: April 03, 2011, 04:26:12 PM »
Quote
Either we are a free people, or we are not.

I agree completely. I understand codes have their place and I believe you should know them and build your place to those standards or beyond, for the most part. But if you have the cash and are fool enough to build a rickety, unsafe shack then you should have the right to facilitate your own demise.

Offline Don_P

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #9 on: April 03, 2011, 04:50:57 PM »
In 1760 BC King Hammurabi wrote down, codified, the earliest known building laws. Basically, if you build a house and it harms another, you suffer the same fate. Our saying "An eye for an eye" comes from these codes.

Deuteronomy 22:8 When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.

We have known for some time that there are responsibilities to one's fellow man when a person builds.

The first building codes in the United States where established in 1625 by addressing fire safety and specified materials for roof coverings. In 1630, Boston outlawed chimneys made of wood and thatch roof coverings. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson encouraged the development of building regulations in order to help provide minimum standards that would ensure health and safety for building occupants. In the late 1770s George Washington recommended that height and area limitations be imposed on wood frame buildings in his plans for the District of Columbia. 1788 saw the first formal building code written in the US in old Salem.  Larger US cities began establishing building codes in the early 1800s and in 1865 New Orleans was the first city to enact a law requiring inspections of public places.

 I'd rather use this thread to learn about the laws, both bureaucratic and physical, regarding construction and how they can be applied to build a safe structure. Our opinions of these laws probably won't change the one set and cannot change the other. There is plenty of room for a political discussion in off topics.  I think it is good to realize that these laws are generally minimums and where applicable it might be a good idea to point out what falls on either side of that line and why.

Offline John Raabe

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #10 on: April 03, 2011, 05:35:20 PM »
I think it will be valuable as we go through this exercise to keep in mind that codes are constantly evolving and lots of solid homes have been built 20, 30, 50 and 100 years ago. They would not meet current code.

Whether you choose to build your new house to code or beyond code, I can assure you that within a few years it too will not meet code. Does that mean it will suddenly be unsafe?

Unless you are driving a 2011 automobile you are not driving a code car. Does that mean you are in an unsafe vehicle?

Both building and automobile regulations are constantly evolving - generally, at least in the safety realm, in the direction of attempting to provide more and more protection from less and less likely events. Things such as driving into a lake (in your car) or getting hit by a tornado (in your house).

I think it is great that there are members of this forum who have studied building code regulations and can provide guidance to those who want to follow the path. It is not necessary that we all be of one religion, however. Those who might follow their own common sense or build using techniques of a few years ago are not going to burn in hell. Nor are they throwing their families to the wolves. They are just getting a head start on being out of compliance with current code.  ;)

So, go easy on the non-believers guys. This is one of the few places left where people can feel free asking practical building questions and showing projects that might not be kosher with every building inspector that wanders by.

Keep it solid and keep it safe. Satisfying your county inspector is your option (but always suggested).

« Last Edit: April 03, 2011, 06:02:38 PM by John Raabe »
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Offline firefox

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #11 on: April 03, 2011, 06:01:35 PM »
I think it would be nice if people would think up inovative ways to
add safe ways to improve on standard tecniques without incurring
a lot of expense.

To explain what I mean, we all know that Simpson makes all kinds of expensive brackets which do a good job. Can you come up with
an idea for some brackets that could be made by a skilled diy'er that
would be just as good, or better? Maybe made from some readily available scrap that had additional strength properties.

Anyway the idea is to come up with stuff that may not look as pretty, but is actually stronger or better than the comercial product and cost less because you are providing the labor. Especially stuff that no one would ever see, but you would know that you had a superior house.

Hopefully I got my idea across.
Bruce
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Offline John Raabe

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #12 on: April 03, 2011, 06:13:50 PM »
Good suggestion Bruce.

Many of the areas of a house that can benefit from strengthening are where construction elements transition.

• Foundation to floor
• Floor to wall
• Wall to roof

Straps and brackets are made to beef up these connections as you mention - but homemade metal straps and some of the inexpensive Simpson clips such as the A-35 can help hold these parts together should you get that 100 year storm a little early.
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Offline PEG688

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #13 on: April 03, 2011, 08:15:16 PM »

 On the house we dug the basement under we've been using a engineer , he worries a LOT about things that could happen IF,

 There was a build up of water across the back foundation wall it could push the wall over.

  If there was a  8.0 or bigger quake it could shake the walls off the plates.

 If gravity quit we'd need "hold downs" .

 Things like that.  He's a nice guy sort of young 30's I'd guess. He does take suggestions , or alternatives to his designs. And I sort of like working with him. As he'll tell me what he's wanting to prevent , and he's willing to work with ideas to alternatives that are "doing-able".

 But in conversations with him he admits  some  of the current prescriptive codes  on shear walls , hold downs , etc haven't really been "tested".   

  We chatted about the Japan thing and as we all know the Tsunami did way more damage than the quake, and what it did , NO hold down or strap is going to work on a wooden structure.  What will be interesting is a local lumber yard around here sold some USA style houses to a town over in Japan about 10 maybe 15 years ago. Local guys when over and worked on those places over about a two year period so those houses which I think where out of the Tsunami area will be the ones to look at for how they stood up to the quake.

 How long before we hear the result , who knows, but it would be interesting to find out.       
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Offline OlJarhead

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #14 on: April 03, 2011, 08:41:40 PM »
I think it will be valuable as we go through this exercise to keep in mind that codes are constantly evolving and lots of solid homes have been built 20, 30, 50 and 100 years ago. They would not meet current code.

Whether you choose to build your new house to code or beyond code, I can assure you that within a few years it too will not meet code. Does that mean it will suddenly be unsafe?

Unless you are driving a 2011 automobile you are not driving a code car. Does that mean you are in an unsafe vehicle?

Both building and automobile regulations are constantly evolving - generally, at least in the safety realm, in the direction of attempting to provide more and more protection from less and less likely events. Things such as driving into a lake (in your car) or getting hit by a tornado (in your house).

I think it is great that there are members of this forum who have studied building code regulations and can provide guidance to those who want to follow the path. It is not necessary that we all be of one religion, however. Those who might follow their own common sense or build using techniques of a few years ago are not going to burn in hell. Nor are they throwing their families to the wolves. They are just getting a head start on being out of compliance with current code.  ;)

So, go easy on the non-believers guys. This is one of the few places left where people can feel free asking practical building questions and showing projects that might not be kosher with every building inspector that wanders by.

Keep it solid and keep it safe. Satisfying your county inspector is your option (but always suggested).



Excellent post. 

Offline Bob S.

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #15 on: April 03, 2011, 08:50:18 PM »
I always thought the main purpose of building codes, where to keep a professional house builder from cutting corners in areas that can not be seen by a unsuspecting house buyer.

Offline rwanders

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #16 on: April 03, 2011, 10:04:10 PM »
To some a building can appear to be a relatively simple assembly of parts. They do not appreciate the rather exquisite balancing of loads and stresses that are the result of literally centuries of trial and error and analysis of failures. As noted above, this process continues unabated. The codes try to organize and pass all that information to us----it doesn't mean its way is the only way and therefore allows for alternative methods and materials.

There is an old story line that illustrates how big and catastrophic failures can result from a cascade of small events:

For want of a nail a shoe was lost
For want of  shoe a horse was lost
For want of a horse a rider was lost
For want of a rider a battle was lost
For want of a battle a war was lost
For want of the war the kingdom was lost
All for want of a nail

I have done many incident (failure) analyses of industrial and construction mishaps-----I always found them to be the result of a chain of events and mistakes----many contributing causes all leading back to one or more root causes. The codes and other quality assurance and control measures are our imperfect and developing attempts to break those chains.
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Offline archimedes

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #17 on: April 04, 2011, 06:04:56 AM »
I guess the trick is determining which part of the code actually provides benefit relative to the cost and which part has been put in due to the lobbying of a vested interest group trying to increase their income,   i.e. fire sprinklers.

I think professional builders should have to comply with the building codes.  But,  assuming that you have enough land,  and that your build won't affect anyone else,  then owner builders should have the choice of opting out.   You should be required to disclose to any future buyer that the structure was not inspected for compliance with the building code.  That way any future owner is forewarned.

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Offline Alan Gage

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #18 on: April 04, 2011, 06:17:18 AM »
I always thought the main purpose of building codes, where to keep a professional house builder from cutting corners in areas that can not be seen by a unsuspecting house buyer.

I agree but I think that goes for people building their own houses as well. It's highly likely they'll move out of the house at some point and future owners will have no way of knowing how the house was constructed or what risks they're assuming.

I don't like the thought of dealing with building codes either and am happy I can avoid them for the most part where I'm at but I do think they serve a good purpose and I don't plan on building to less than code.

It's a slippery slope. If you tell people they can ignore codes for their personal homes you know unscrupulous people will find a way to claim a house as personal, build it super cheap, and sell it to unsuspecting buyers.

Once when I had some teenage angst I told my dad I thought it was BS that we had all these laws and rules. Just let people do what they wanted. His response has stuck with me: "That would work if there weren't so many assholes."

Alan

Offline archimedes

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #19 on: April 04, 2011, 06:33:06 AM »
It's highly likely they'll move out of the house at some point and future owners will have no way of knowing how the house was constructed or what risks they're assuming.

Alan

That is simply not true.  

The governing body could simply change the "Certificate of Occupancy"  to a "Certificate of Compliance" to the building codes.   It would be a matter of public record.

If an owner builder chose not to obtain a "Certificate of Compliance"  it would certainly affect the marketability of the house,  and affect their insurance and financing costs,  but if they choose to assume that responsibliity that should be their choice.  Any future buyer of the property would have the choice to accept it or not.
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Offline John Raabe

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #20 on: April 04, 2011, 07:48:08 AM »
Houses that weren't struck by the tsunami still had to deal with the most sever earthquake in Japanese history. One of our members asked how the standard US wood framed houses had done under those conditions.

One of my co-authors on the Superinsulated Design and Construction book has spent the last 10 years working with Japanese builders and suppliers promoting standard platform frame houses in a country with a lightweight post and beam building culture.

I wrote to ask what he knew about how houses were performing:

I was there during the earthquake but fortunately was much further south although it was felt throughout the whole country. There were a number of smaller earthquakes a few days earlier when I was in Tokyo but the one that hit the north east was huge. I am not sure about the specifics of this earthquake but in the past platform frame houses have done extremely well. This is due to the exterior sheathing acting as a diaphragm also the Japanese code calls for extensive nailing of the sheathing to ensure loads are transferred.  Attached is an image from the Kobe earthquake in 1995 which was 6.8 on the Richter scale, the house in the foreground is a traditional post and beam Japanese house the homes in the background are North American platform frame houses.



PS - I also posted this to the Tsunami update page. Note that it was a well nailed plywood/OSB diaphragm that is given most of the credit for the survival of these houses. This is a very easy and inexpensive thing to do to your house. It is in all my plans even the pier and beam houses like the Little House.
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Offline Alan Gage

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #21 on: April 04, 2011, 10:11:57 AM »
That is simply not true.  

The governing body could simply change the "Certificate of Occupancy"  to a "Certificate of Compliance" to the building codes.   It would be a matter of public record.

If an owner builder chose not to obtain a "Certificate of Compliance"  it would certainly affect the marketability of the house,  and affect their insurance and financing costs,  but if they choose to assume that responsibliity that should be their choice.  Any future buyer of the property would have the choice to accept it or not.

But no one except the builder would know what, if anything, wasn't up to code. There's no doubt in my mind there would be a lot of people claiming they built everything correctly and only didn't have it inspected because of the hassle when there are actually some major issues.

Yes, there should be a large hit on resale value in this case but con men don't seem to have a problem separating people from their money no matter what.

All that said in my area, where there are no building codes really enforced, this hasn't been much of an issue.

Alan


Offline archimedes

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #22 on: April 04, 2011, 10:26:53 AM »
I just think people should be given the option. 

If the owner builder wants to take the potential financial hit,  by not getting code certification,  then that's their business.  Any future buyer would have to go into that situation with their eyes open.  If the new buyer wants to knowingly assume that risk, then it's also their business.  Nobody is putting a gun to anyone's head.  Grown-ups ought to be allowed to make grown-up decisions - even if they are potentially bad.

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Offline Squirl

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #23 on: April 04, 2011, 12:13:34 PM »
I'll throw in my two pennies.  The last I checked we still lived in a democracy, as flawed as it is.  We have building codes because the public wants them. That is why some areas have them and some do not. While there is good and bad, positives and drawbacks, people in general like building codes.  Most of the general public does not build or make major renovations to their own home.  Rarely do people stay in the same house for a lifetime.  A house built well will outlive its occupants. Also, until recently many people (40%) did not own their own home.  Of the other 60%, only a very small portion were owner-builders.  The people of this forum are an extremely small percentage of the population.  Most people like not having to worry when going in and out of a building, whether commercial or residential, that it is safe.

Generally I have found the code useful.  It gives detailed descriptions of many good practices and I can rely on the fact that a lot of testing and engineering went into its provisions.  One of the worst drawbacks is the process.  Unlike most other codes and laws, if you are deemed in violation, or you disagree, there is no neutral third party to appeal too such as the judicial branch.

Offline MountainDon

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Re: Why Do We Have Building Codes?
« Reply #24 on: April 04, 2011, 12:26:54 PM »
just because something is to code does not make it good, or safe in all aspects. Engineered I beam lumber is perfectly to code and great for long spans, but kills firefighters as it has a much shorter burn through time then traditional floor joists.

This issue is one of the factors that is behind the push to residential fire suppression sprinkler systems. It is very true that engineered roof and floor trusses have no where near the burn time that solid 2x lumber has. I find the intrusion of fire sprinkler systems becoming code mandated 'bothersome'. But I also know a couple of local fire fighters and can understand why they would like to see them in residences.

That, however, is a discussion I don't want to get into at this time.

Like them or not we do have building codes to deal with in most places around the country. If the location where we are building has lax enforcement that is another matter. I would like to think that all of us would like to build a strong, safe, long lived structure. Part of my reasoning behind starting this topic stems from my belief that some owner-builders make mistakes out of ignorance that even the most corner cutting pro would shy away from. Some 'errors' are made because someone saw pictures of 'it' posted someplace on the internet. "It worked over there, so...."  


It may be a while before the next installment as I have ideas and thoughts bouncing around inside my head, but not too much written as yet. Plus some of my pondering has raised questions I need to search out answers.


In the meantime, if at all possible, it would be refreshing if we could keep the politics out of the new threads that will have a focus on a certain area of the IRC. Someone could start a thread in Off Topics... if the political side should be pursued. That is my opinion. I hope that will not stifle and serious discussion.  I'll even pull the bug out of my signature if that will help.

Just because something has been done and has not failed, doesn’t mean it is good design.

If you didn't have the time or money to do it right in the first place, when will you get the time and money to fix it?