To code or not to code… is it even a question?

Be an inspector for long enough and at some point you will be asking yourself that very same question. In over 16 years of code enforcement, I have tried to never think that I have seen it all; because, as soon as you think you have something new shows up.

I am involved in discussions with contractors and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) all the time about issues with the Code. Generally, someone is looking for you to back their position on a certain subject and will begin a sentence such as, “Wouldn’t you agree with me….?” That statement is fraught with misgivings and already sets the stage that they are intending for you to agree with them. They are not interested in the true intent of the code, just to get you to agree with their standpoint.

To code or not to code is not even a question, it’s a legally required mandate by whichever jurisdictions we work for and serve. When we are asked, “Does this have to meet code?” we need to fall back on the legal requirements of the AHJ, or in the state of Maryland, the Maryland Building Performance Standards (MBPS). Whether it is the building, plumbing, electrical or energy code, it is mandated at the very least by the state statute. Lest we forget, the code is the minimum standard we can build a structure to, so to ask for relief from that is asking to build a structure at lower standards than code. What a concept! How about means of egress components being relaxed, or fire suppression systems being relaxed, and how about life safety systems? Who would want their families in such a building?

The issue about to code or not to code showed itself recently to me on two separate sites when I had a masonry chimney that raised three stories and had spray foam insulation applied directly over the masonry within the two-inch airspace. And again on the second site, I had a load of lumber that was installed without the required grade stamp listed on the lumber. Obviously neither was happy with the correction notices, and I was told how in one case that I was “single handedly preventing the recovery of the economy” by requiring the corrections. One violator couldn’t believe I was actually enforcing those provisions of the code.

Unique interpretations or outright disregard of the code is something no enforcer should be put into a position of having to deal with. This, however, doesn’t say there are no gray areas of the code; we know some exist, but outright disregard is something intolerable. It not only sullies the reputation of the code enforcement profession, but it has adverse effects on those we serve.

Unless there is some sort of legally adopted amendment to a bathroom being installed under a stairs, provided the space meets the headroom and fixture requirements, the installation should be permitted. What does an inspector gain by not allowing it, personal satisfaction? How about requiring contractors to move smoke detectors three feet away from a return air duct, even though it is a legal installation according to the code, and the Chapter 11 provisions of NFPA 72, which are referenced in the IRC? Why? Smoke detectors are installed in return air plenums on air systems all the time as mandated by the code.

In my career as an inspector, and now as the chief inspector my response when I am asked a code question is “What does the code say?” I do not enforce what I’d like to see, I enforce the code, via the enabling legislation of the jurisdiction I serve.

When the question comes up for you, and I am sure it will, think to yourself, “What does the code say?”

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