Code Led

“You must have it, you must,” he said very authoritatively, though it came across tinged with hostility.

“But I don’t want it, we don’t need it,” I fired back just as authoritatively, working to mask my own growing hostility.

The “it” in question was a tiny little room in our new offices, and “he” was a general contractor who was going to give me a quote on doing the build-out of our new space. I wanted the little room gone, as it served no purpose and seemed overkill for a non-public building that was going to house 16 people on a regular basis.

Then he threw the C word at me. “Well, it’s got to be up to code.” I heard the C word a lot the next few weeks, my favorite being why we couldn’t remove an accessible water fountain that was about four feet from a fully accessible sink. “Oh you probably could,” said the contractor we chose (who was not Mr. Authority above), but you have to apply for a variance … and wait until it gets heard, and we won’t get a permit until that’s all done … and you need to be in by December …. You know what I’m sayin’?”

Yeah, I knew, which is why today we have an accessible water fountain four feet from one accessible kitchen sink, and around the corner from two more. Go figure.

I bet you think I am going to rail against the codes now, don’t you? Well, I’m not. Most codes serve good purposes—accessibility, energy reduction, fire-protection—and I believe in them (except when they try to limit the use of glass). I think we are usually better for them. I have some issues around consistency of interpretations as I know you do as well, but that’s another story for another day.

Okay, so now you think I am going to go after the variance process? No. If I had wanted to donate a bit of time, we would have gotten variance, and we may still go for it some day in the future. So I can see that process working, but it just wasn’t going to work on my time schedule.

Here’s the biggest problem: all I wanted to do was to check out what I was being told. I wanted to read for myself what the codes said. Buying them online was going to cost hundreds of dollars. The library might have had them, but I could never find them. Ordering them wasn’t much cheaper and would take longer. The government didn’t let you use their copy. And, while they were referenced in the local laws passed, they were incorporated by reference and not spelled out there.

Both the ICC and the Commonwealth of Virginia has public access information on their websites and that was very helpful. But I really wondered how anyone without some knowledge of construction could find the sections they were seeking. It was pretty amazing to me—and eye-opening—to see how many of the codes are about glass and glazing. And this is true across all code categories. Glass, it seems, is a very popular code item. I knew this logically, but to see it empirically was an excellent reminder of how much of what we can build is affected by them.

And this is why we must always be “code-vigilant”–because their implications can do things as small as keep a water fountain where or you don’t want it, or as large as reducing the amount of glass on the outside of buildings. Codes are a “gift” that keeps on giving for years after they are made. We must always make sure they are right-sized, as well.