A Rant on Building Codes

I'd like to point out a few things about building codes here before I go on. As I pointed out elsewhere, the building codes that have been imposed on the small rural counties of Washington State by the Growth Management Act have had some down-right silly consequences.

Example #1: Because of the vanishingly small possibility of seeing a magnitude 5.6 earthquake on the same day that my cabin holds the 20 year maximum snow load, I was forced to use a foundation that cost nearly $5000 more than the one I originally planned for. Now as you can see from my pictures my cabin is located in the forest where, because of the government's uneducated no-burn policy the possibility of a devastating fire is a very large possibility every summer.

Now if the government left such decisions up to me I would have put that $5000 into fire protection, cutting the underbrush and purchasing fireproof materials for my roof and decks. Any decent insurance company would tell you that would be a better use of the money, but the way the laws are written there is no chance of intelligent decision entering into it.

Besides, the whole reason the state is so worried about earthquakes is that when a normal stick frame house is shaken off its foundation, the building collapses and everybody inside dies. But a log cabin is a completely different structure. If it falls off the foundation, it drops 18" and goes clunk! Later on you come back with a fork lift and pick it up again, no harm done.  The law doesn't take into account any differences due to construction style.

Example #2: Washington has a heating and ventilation code that is separate from the regular building codes. It is based on the assumption that you are building a frame house that is sealed up tighter than a drum with insulation and moisture barriers. A log cabin is still permitted under the current law, but its wall behaves in a very different way. A log cabin's thermal efficiency comes from thermal mass, not resistance to heat transmission. In test after test log structures have been shown to be more efficient to heat and cool than frame or even masonry construction. But true log walls, especially chinked designs are more porous to air passage than their frame counterparts.

Nevertheless, the heating and ventilation code insists that I put in so many vents in my walls (they look like windows but we call them vents). They also insisted that I put electric fans in the bathroom and kitchen even though I have no electricity!!!!

Example #3: The heating and vent code will not allow a new structure to be built that uses wood as its primary heat source. I'm sure this is for environmental reasons which are laudable, but look at the facts. My cabin is 2 miles from the nearest electric pole. I can only get a propane delivery truck into my place once a year. In the winter I only get 4.5 hours of sunlight in the canyon. I have 21 acres of forest. In the last ten years since the law was written they have developed wood stoves that are cleaner burning than propane.

I think we can all do the math here but what's the point? Once the law is written innovation goes down the tubes. So what if they invent composting toilets, septic fields are written into the law! We have log cabins, straw bale houses, stucco, brick, buried concrete, solar envelope construction and a number of building techniques with various advantages in different environments and landscapes. But 2x6 frame houses are built into the law and it's hell to pay if you try anything else.

A few years ago I found this section of the RCW (Revised Code of Washington).  If you read it carefully, you'll find that the prohibition for using a wood stove as a primary heating source only applies if you are building within a designated growth area.  Turns out I was nowhere such a designated area.  But they still put the prohibition into the documents they stapled to my plans when they first gave me my permit.  You gotta watch these guys every minute!

Well... You get my point.

It turns out if you read the applicable parts of the RCW, building codes were never intended to apply to people who were building their own houses. Over and over again it states that the codes apply to contractors and other workers for hire.  However, if you walk into your local building department and ask them if you need a permit to build your own house on your own land they will always tell you that you do.

I have recently discovered that if the code changes while you are in the process of building your house they expect you to change the house design.  It seems that back in 1997, when I had my plans approved, a safe and legal stairway could have a rise of 8" and run of 9" per step, that has changed to 7.75" and 10" and my stairway, around which the entire house is designed, is now illegal and unsafe.  A helpful building inspector in my county has decided to overlook my stairway but that meant I had to get busy and finish before this guy retired.  I got it signed off Sept 2007.

Fighting the the authorities over this particular issue has become Skip's most recent hobby (from my perspective it looks like a full time job with very few benefits).  If he keeps it up much longer either he's going to win a resounding victory for owner-builders everywhere or we're going to have to start holding our monthly meetings in the local jail.
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This page was created by Paul Kahle 19-May-1998

This page was last updated on 26-May-2008