Getting Accepted by Code Officials

Jeff Ruppert is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of Colorado. He has over 15 years of experience in the construction trades from laborer to general contractor to engineer, and he prefers to work on projects that will offer some aspect of reduced impact or consumption of our natural resources. From early 1996 to late 1999 Jeff worked as part founder and owner of a straw bale construction company in Boulder, Colorado, called StrawCrafters. During that time he oversaw and participated in the design and construction of 11 custom straw bale homes and provided professional assistance on well over 50 additional straw bale and natural building projects. To date, Jeff has consulted on well over 400 straw bale and natural building projects around the country. He has given many presentations to groups, such as the local AIA chapters and he sat on the Structural Panel at the 1999 International Straw Bale Conference in Marin, California. He is regarded as one of the leading structural engineers in the field of straw bale construction, and continues to participate and expand the breadth of knowledge and understanding at the national level.

Questions and Answers

Q: I have a question about "sipcrete". Since they are in england, what are the ways to get them put into the building codes here in the USA?

A: I am not sure a goal should be to get them into the the building codes, but more appropriately, get them evaluated by a third party evaluation service with accreditation. The International Conference of Building Officials (IBCO) has an evaluation service that has credibility with the other code organizations. By going through their process of having sipcrete evaluated under one of their guidelines, sipcrete would then be validated as an "equal" system to others already accepted. Sipcrete would need to contact the ICBO Evaluation people to look into this.

Q: I'm currently doing a mixed-use duplex (residence and eco-community gathering building) on Whidbey Island in Washinton State, with a very difficult building official...he doesn't just accept a licensed engineer's stamp and calculations as sufficient to prove an alternative-materials structure sound in his earthquake zone 3. He also wants a "narrative", as well, justifying that the alternative methods are equal to standard construction, and peer review letters from structural "experts".

We're proposing composite walls of high-density, recompressed straw-"blocks" (3,000#/lf lab. bearing-tested), above grade above base walls of earthbag (80,000#/lf lab. bearing tested) behind the berms, over gabioned rubble-trench foundations, with rebar and cement stuccoed 6x6/10-10 steel mesh faces. Do you know of any post-earthquake field reports, lab earthquake/shear tests or experts to consult/reference on any of these technologies? Your help would be much appreciated in advancing this project and expanding the "envelope" for alt-building in earthquake zones... : )

A: The first hurdle is finding tests that corroborate your "recompressed" bale walls. There is quite a bit of lateral testing data available for bale walls from the Ecological Building Network and their 1st annual conference. They are selling a CD-ROM for $80(?) that contains presentations of testing and research from everyone who attended. It is a good place to start! I don't have any doubt your testing is valid, but convincing a building official is another deal altogether. In fact, I am working on my first SB seismic design at the moment for a commercial structure in Montana. It is a challenge, and without going into great detail, we are providing a narrative of our design for clarity. I want to be able to walk the building official through our analysis step-by-step so that they will have minimal questions after they go through everything. The only other thing I can tell you is to get a hold of Bruce King of EBN, myself, John Straube of the University of Waterloo, Dan Smith of Berkeley (architect), and others to do peer review.

Q: I hope to build an earth sheltered house in a crater on my land in Surrey (UK) I need to find out the best route through the planning permission maze, as my land is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and I guess the Planners will put up a fight. Any thoughts, comments would be welcome.

A: Without knowing the general situation with regards to land use planning in the UK, I won't be able to answer your question in too much depth. The Planners will be basing their decisions on locally and nationally adopted ordinances or laws regarding the construction of buildings. Earth sheltered homes have been common for centuries, so the design should follow the guidelines of the local building codes. If the Planners put up a fight, you may be in for a long battle.

Q: I have a structure on site that is a stick frame wood exterior. It is old and tired and yet needed. I am thinking that if it were wrapped in papercrete by attaching either a lath or by setting screws with wire to create a bonding surface. I would be able to encase the old structure and then remove the old wallboard and fill the voids between the stick structure. But how do I get the county to go along with this? Is there any test or verifiable information that I can use to argue that Papercrete will work?

A: It sounds like you want to plaster your existing walls with papercrete on the exterior? It also sounds like you think that by applying the papercrete to the exterior, this will allow you to remove the interior wallboard and insulate between the existing studs or posts.

What is not clear is why you feel you would need to apply the papercrete before the removal of the wallboard. Do you think you will lose enough structural integrity due to the removal of the wallboard that a building official would be concerned? If so, you are allowed to temporarily brace a structure under remodel using any method you choose, such as temporary bracing with 2x4's.

Without knowing more regarding your specific situation and concerns, I am afraid I cannot get more specific with my answers. I did, however, find a "Technical Report" on-line that covers some structural testing of papercrete. I have not purchased the report myself, but I can interpret it's contents if necessary and apply the results to a papercrete structure. The report is located here: http://www.livinginpaper.com/getyours.htm

Q: I have land in North Carolina that the county will not issue a building permit on because the land will not perk for a septic tank. I have asked about alternative sewer treatment methods like a jungle or solar composting system etc. So far the only answer I can get is no! How can I get these idiots to see the light and allow something other than a septic tank?

A: This kind of situation can be very difficult. I am not sure I have a solution, but some ideas are:

1. Will they allow a vault - this is a tank that gets pumped every 6 months or whatever.2. Constructed Wetlands are a proven treatment method that produces water that can be discharged on the surface into a creek. You will need engineering support on this one. This is probably your most costly solution.3. Find an engineer who has dealt with this situation in your area before. They may have some creative solutions.

That's all I can offer. This is a very difficult hurdle because health departments do not like to budge on these issues. Good luck.>

C: The possibilities that papercrete offers have the potential of changing our world "but" there is one huge hurdle that is standing in the way: the material is not "code approved". Living in Maricopa County, AZ with all of the building codes that are in place, it will be impossible to build a load bearing wall with papercrete. It may be possible to receive approval code approval for a "non" load bearing (fill-in) papercrete wall (I hope for at least that much from the Building Department) but not having approval as a load bearing material will add a great deal of cost to a structure. Post and beam construction or some other "code approved" structural support would need to be designed and approved by a Structural Engineer and then submitted to the building department for approval. Since there seems to be no Structural Engineers in Arizona that will approve papercrete as a load bearing material, I see no way out of this situation and that is a costly problem that will prevent the wide spread use of this material.

A: Welcome to the club of alternative construction! This is exactly the same reason straw bale, cob and other simple technologies have not taken off. Regulations tend to push the cost of construction higher than it needs to be in many places. I am not familiar enough with papercrete to offer any guidelines on how to address it as a load-bearing material. I can offer some insight from my experience with bale walls. I can tell with certainty that the primary structural component in a bale wall system is the plaster. If you are planning to plaster over the papercrete, you may be able to correlate a strength by looking at bale wall tests. There are actually many ways to approach this problem, and I am afraid you may need to hire an engineer who can stamp a design and interpret test data, if any exists for papercrete as a load-bearing wall system.

Q: I am looking to build a couple of small Cob buildings here in the south east, one in Pensacola FL and one in Lumberton MS. FL has just overhauled its building codes to increase hurricane safety. There is a local Cob builder down here who says it is impossible to have any cob building approved. I have seen how well these buildings hold up to hurricanes. Do you know of any Cob buildings built here in the deep south that were accepted by a code official? Or do you know of any green-building friendly codes that I could use as an example to illustrate my case when the time comes.

A: I wouldn't be surprised if it has become too difficult to get a cob building approved in your area. The building officials will be looking at the structural integrity, so showing them existing homes might not be enough. Straw bale construction has had enough structural testing performed that it is easier to quell the fears of the building officials. But cob has not had much testing so there is little to use from and engineering point of view. However, finding a creative engineer to help will probably go a long way toward approval. Any type of structure can be analyzed in a satisfactory fashion if there is enough info available to support the mathematical models. I would say you are treading in uncharted waters so your path may be strewn with all sorts of hurdles. A good engineer and a clear plan for presentation to the building officials is the best start.

Q: We have purchased a 30' yurt and have recently learned from our township construction office that it must be built upon footings down to frost line. A yurt is an eco-friendly, portable building and this permanent footing system seems to contradict the purpose. What is going on here in the state of NJ? These have been built in state parks in NJ...can you tell us if they are built on permanent footings or otherwise? By the way, the township construction office was antagonistic...we were polite and patient and provided all kinds of literature but he seemed to be uncomfortable because he never heard of yurts before and was downright rude and stubborn. Please give us any advice and background information that you may have to send us in the right direction so that we may use this magnificent structure to homeschool our 3 children.

A: I am sorry to hear of the building officials attitude. It is always unfortunate when ignorance plays a role in decision making. However, you are not alone. Most jurisdictions that are somewhat sophisticated look at these structures as permanent and need to be engineered for snow load as well as for foundation requirements. They do not want to be police and have to check on your structure in a few years to make sure it is not there. It is an unfortunate consequence of "progress." I am sorry I do not have a better answer for you. This kind of decision is at the mercy of each jurisdiction, without much recourse.

Q: I have been to cob workshops and I am now ready to build my own cob home. I have land in North Carolina. The building inspector says that to build a cob home I have to have sealed plans from an architect or an engineer in order for it to pass inspection. I haven't been able to find an architect or engineer here willing to work with me on this project. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Keep trying! Without a resident engineer or architect, you will not be able to move forward.

Q: I have been building a stone foundation on a Georgian Bay island in Ontario Canada for the last four years. I have been using a slipform rubble wall method with lots of re-bar and concrete infill. The foundation is intended to support a single story hemlock square timber log structure. The foundation is on six by twenty concrete and re-bar footings on undisturbed sand. I have parged and tarred the outside of the foundation and back filled to a finished height of four feet. I might add that the foundation is twelve inches thick. My only problem is that I was approved for a concrete block foundation in 2001 and by the time I excavated and poured my footings I had changed my mind and decided to utilize materials I had on site and not to haul materials to my island site. Unfortunately I have since been given a stop work order and now have to suffer through the narrow mindedness of my local building department who are insisting on an engineer's approval of the structural integrity of my work. I am desperate now to prove that I have not been building an inferior seasonal dwelling. I have, in my excitement to hand build my home, neglected to invite and carry my inspector out to my weekend (when they don't work) building site. My question to you is how do I defend my choice of construction when I don't happen to be an engineer and have undertaken a tried and true building technique?

A: I am afraid I won't be able to offer you a good solution. All you can do with the Building Official is to describe your work as reinforced concrete, not a rubble slip-form wall, and hope he buys it. Otherwise you will need to find an open-minded engineer locally who will sign off on your work. I know this seems like a hassle, but it is better than not being able to use your building

Q: My dad recently retired and acted on a longtime dream to live in a yurt. He built two 30' diameter yurts in Tulare County, California. One is for living in, one is a shop, connected by a covered walkway. He went to the county permit office before he started on them, and they said they had nothing on yurts. He explained what he wanted to do, and they said there was nothing on the books saying he couldn't. I don't think he asked the right question, as anything over 120 square feet in California requires some kind of permit. Be that as it may, a building inspector happened by today and really dug into him. He's using solar, composting toilets, and a gray water system, and propane. He thought everything through, except what the county would do. He's a recently retired ER doctor, and had built three regular houses singlehandedly before. His plan was to build the yurts, move into them, and sell his house. He built the yurts on my grandparent's property in the middle of a plum orchard, but planned to take them down as soon as my grandparents pass on--they're 92, but doing fine.He has no objection to paying for permits or taxes for school or anything else, but he could sure use any references or people to talk to you might know of that might help him get through the process he's about to go through, if it is possible to get through. He worked everyday for 18 months to complete them, and they're very nice. My mom's friends all thought she wouldn't want to move into yurts, but once they saw them, they've all been impressed.In any case, I know my dad probably could have done a bit more homework before going ahead and building them in terms of the rules in California, but what's done is done, and will be all undone if he can't find a way to get everything in compliance. If you know anyone who has gone through something similar, or may be able to advise, I would deeply appreciate it.

A: I am sorry to hear of this. I can picture what happened. I gather the issues have to do with the impermanence of the structures, and the fact that the waste systems are not in compliance with local codes. I don't know anyone who has been in the position of tearing down a yurt due to regulations. Usually they don't get to put them up, or there are barriers at the outset.

A: (Becky Kemery) Here's what I would advise:
* Check my book ("YURTS: Living in the Round") out of the library or get it online and work through the two page sidebar I wrote on working with Building Code officials. It will show your dad what all the issues are that the code official might be concerned with.
* In Appendix 1 I excerpted many of the pertinent sections of the new ICC (International Code Council) set of codes for 2003 (currently the most commonly used set of codes as I understand it).
* I would love to put you in touch with a retired building official from the city of Seattle that is helping me put together a pamphlet on yurts and codes. This would give her a practical situation to work on to see what all the issues are and how helpful (or not) our suggestions are going to be. I'll bet she'd love to talk with your code official and could perhaps diffuse the situation and help find a resolution.

Q: My question pertains to yurt living in Utah. I live in a very small incorporated town - Boulder, Utah that is wrestling with yurt living and building codes. (Yurts that have been around for a number of years previous to the current controversy seem to be allowed as long as they are 100 yds. from a house with septic facilities.) Last year, after a series of town meetings (some rather heated) the planning committee decided that they were not interested in creating ordinances for alternative housing and that as long as yurts could meet the county building codes - based on the UBC - that they would be allowed. No one in the town really knew what that meant and as the newest yurt dwelling resident of Boulder, I volunteered to be the test case. I've recently heard that the new UBC codes may actually have a section on yurts. Is this so and if it is, what does it entail?

A: Since the year 2000, the latest versions of the code are the International Building Code (IBC) and related subcodes. I did a text search of the code on a computer and there is no reference to "yurt." Your building department may still be using the Uniform Building Code (UBC) which was ended in 1997. There is a new version of the IBC (as was the case for the UBC) every three years. The latest version is 2006.

Yurts are a type of building that is in the "gray area" for codes. Depending on where you live, they can either be a temporary or permanent structure, per code. The main issues that determine what it is are
structure and energy (there are others, but these two issues tend to dominate the discussions). If you live in a place with snow, chances are you will need it engineered for building department approval. If
you live in a cold climate and there is a minimum insulation requirement for energy efficiency, you would have to install insulation as with any other home. Both of these requirements would apply if you want the yurt to be a dwelling with plumbing and waste treatment. If you want to use it as a temporary structure, per Section 107 of the IBC, the building official is authorized to grant such permits, but they shall be limited to 180 days, and may be extended with reasonable cause, but not indefinitely. Basically, it is totally up to the building official and you are at their whim.

Don't expect to be able to put up any structure that is not up to code as being permanent on your land. Many people struggle with this same issue and the fact is, if the building department will let you do it, you are very lucky. I don't have a silver bullet for this issue. I wish I did, but it can be creative working within the system and getting as close as possible to a solution that is acceptable by both sides.

Q: If I understand correctly, in the state of Missouri (and possible other states) once you exit the city limit most building codes are governed by county codes...which seem to usually be a more relaxed building code (national building code of some kind?). I am hoping you can tell me if rammed earth is acceptable in Missouri, and what sort of foundation requirements there are?

A: The most widely adopted code in the USA at this point is the International Residential Code, as part of the International Code Councils set of codes.  You would need to call your County planning or building department to find out what version of the code they have adopted.  In rural areas codes tend to be enforced less stringently. 

As far as the issue of rammed earth, since it is not in the code, would fall under the category of "alternative."  There is a provision in all the codes that allows anyone to use "alternative methods" not prescribed in the code as long as they can prove to the local building official that it meets the intentions of the code.  This can be a lengthy process or it can be easy, depending on your local building official.  You first must contact the building official to find out if they have encountered rammed earth, and if not, what would they like to see, in terms of details and plans. 

In many rural areas codes are not enforced or adopted at all.  I do know that parts of rural Missouri do not have building codes at all.  In those areas you can do whatever you want.  The best thing to do is call your county and ask, or go to their website and look at their pages relating to building permits.

Q: Is papercrete legal in the USA under the building codes act?

A: The building codes in the U.S. are generally prescriptive in nature, meaning they describe a particular way, or set of ways, to build.  Papercrete is not one of those ways.  However, alternative methods may be used under the Alternative Means and Methods section in each code.  The responsibility is on the owner/builder to show the building official it meets the intent of the code.  So no, and then yes, but with a little extra work to convince the official with whom you will be working.

Q: We desperately want to build a cob home. We are getting on in age and do not need a large conventional house. Cob seems to be the perfect alternative, small, compact and cozy. We have been trying to find out if there are any counties in our area that allow cob construction. We currently live in North Carolina but would be willing to relocate to South Carolina, or Virginia if we could find a place that would allow cob construction. Do you have any information on areas that allow cob construction, or any information on where we can find out what areas do allow cob construction.

A: As with any other type of alternative system, it is not necessary for a local jurisdiction to explicitly accept your ideas prior to you approaching them.  There is an alternative methods section in the code that allows the building official to accept systems not already in the code or adopted by them prior to your application.  The question you should be asking the building official in the areas your are looking to buy land is, have you reviewed and approved a cob building before, and if not, do you know what it is and how open are you to alternative methods of construction?

The response from the building official will let you know how easy or difficult it might be getting your plans approved.  Some officials are more open-minded than others, and like everything else in life, you must decide what obstacles are worth overcoming with some effort. 

You do have rights within the code to make choices.  Don't let the notion of pre-acceptance hinder you from exploring your options.

Q: I would like to ask a question relating to SIP (Structural Insulated Panels). I just bought 24 panels 10' tall x 9' wide. They are 6" thick. Now my question relates to using them in green home/workshop building as these where large overhead one piece doors used on the loading docks of an extremely large commercial freezer/wharehouse. They are white gelcoat both sides, over 1/4" of solid fiberglass over 1/4" of an unknown material over ANOTHER 1/4" of fiberglass and finally over the insulation and inner structure. They have electric heating elements in them. These panels are no joke and have to weigh in at least 750# apiece. New they where about 9000.00 each. They are in beautiful shape as they where opener operated and completely out of the way when the semi trucks where being loaded. Well, these being doors and not an interlocking panel, I'm wondering if they would be considered a structural panel? I'm sure they have a substancial R-value and could probably hold up a truck, but will it fly for my building permits?

A: If you want to use the panels as structural elements I would think that having a structural engineer look at them and "certify" them by writing a letter stating their capacities and what he/she thinks their limitations are.  Another way to do it is to use them in the design of a particular project and have the engineer write an accompanying letter with the plans putting the use of the panels in context and explaining they have been inspected and researched so that their capacities are understood and they are safe elements within the design.

Other than using an engineer to help include them in a project you will be faced with a blank stare from most building officials.  They don't have the backgrounds to tell one way or another if something unique like your panels are appropriate or not.  They sound like a very good find and I hope you are able to use them successfully.

Q: Which cities (in Colorado or nationwide) that you know of are open to alternative construction plans such as those listed on your website?

A: (Kelly) There are a few places in the US where building codes are not employed, such as Saguache County, Colorado, or at least one county in Missouri, but most places do have building codes. Most jurisdictions do allow alternative construction methods, especially if you can show the authorities that similar structures have been permitted elsewhere, or if you have the plans stamped by a local engineer. This varies quite a bit from one place to another, and is changing now that "green" building is becoming more mainstream. Both California and the council that created the Uniform Building Code now have adopted green standards.

Q: I live in the upstate of South Carolina, and I'd love to build a cob house. I have not bought any land for this purpose yet. I know there have been cob houses built near Asheville, NC (about an hour and a half away) but I don't know of a single one in SC, aside from one built as architectural art, not as a home, in an entirely different part of the state. I've read a LOT from cob experts lately, and when they mention codes they assure the readers of the (relative) ease of the building codes in the western states, but I've heard little of how to go about it in an eastern state. Where do I start in finding out if I can build a cob house here? I don't want to purchase land if I can't build there, and I don't want to risk not having a permit. Since I don't have the land, I would feel strange going to professionals asking them about codes without a proposed building site. I tried to look up SC building codes, but I don't understand them. I could spend the time educating myself, but I'm hoping there is an easier way. Plus, even if I understand it, I might not be able to accurately apply it to my situation.

A: You should not need to learn the codes yourself, but there is one provision you should be aware of.  It is the provision to use alternative means and methods.  The building official cannot deny you a permit if you are able to satisfy their concerns regarding safety.  If you are the first person to build a cob building in an area this could possibly mean extra time and expense educating the building official.  What you may find is that the building official is already aware of cob as an option.  Over the past 10 years much effort has been made to make building officials aware that these options are not only available but are worthy of their attention.  If you were on the West coast it would be questionable building a cob house without all sorts of engineering and extra design costs due to seismic issues.  You do not need to deal with that level of complexity, but you should expect to make some effort in educating whomever is granting the permit.

You can start by simply calling a local building department and asking the building official if they are aware of cob buildings.  Make sure you ask someone in charge, not the secretary or someone who is of little consequence.  You can also ask a design professionals if they are familiar and aware of any cob buildings in your area. 

Q: I am wondering which states are more accepting of alternative building such as earthbag construction with building codes?

A (Kelly): Building codes and requirements are usually more local than state-wide. New Mexico is one of the few places that does have state ordinances, and they may be more amenable to alternative construction methods, although you may have to provide licensed engineer-approved plans. Otherwise, there are few localities around the country that have lax or non-existing code requirements. One I know of is Saguache county in Colorado, and I think that there may be some places in Missouri, but I'm not sure where. If you are interested in a particular region, I suggest that you do some research by asking the local building departments what they will approve.

Q: I live in Tampa, FL and am wanting to find out about the building codes here in my area relating to cob, superadobe, earthship etc. building.

A: (Kelly) The best place to find out about local code requirements is directly from the agency that you will have to deal with. Go in and ask them about some of these alternative building methods and find out what they will need to issue a permit. They can tell you if you need detailed plans for plumbing or electrical as well as structural aspects, and if these need to be stamped by an engineer licensed in your state.

Q: I would like to know if there are Earthbag, Rammmed Earth or Strawbale house plans that comply with IRC Regulations. I live in York County, SC and was told the plans I purchase must meet those regulations.

A: (Kelly) IRC regulations specify many aspects of buildings that are generally complied with in most of our plans, but there are some aspects that are not specifically covered that may be areas of concern. In general alternative building methods like those that you mention are not specifically addressed. This means that the inspector or building authority will have to determine if the plans provided comply with the "intent of the law", and this can be a subjective, personal evaluation. Some authorities are willing to bend in this direction but others are not, so it depends on the individuals involved whether something might be acceptable. The best strategy is to query your building department in advance with specific ideas for building methods, having many examples to show them, and see how willing they may be to work with you.

Q: I have built ICF houses. I just partnered with a builder that has been building papercrete insulated shipping container homes in Europe and wants to build that way in Los Angeles. Is there a way to do so? Could we have the mix ASTM tested? What would it have to be tested for and do you know of a good place to get that done? BTW, how do you recommend insulating shipping container homes?

A: Testing of insulation must be done by a third party to determine if it meets a certain standard, such as ASTM C1149, C1497 or maybe another standard that more closely describes papercrete. These two standards are for cellulosic fiber insulation and may work for you. You would need to find a lab near to your location that has the apparatus needed to perform the tests listed in the standard. I would recommend browsing the ASTM standards for thermal insulation as a start. I have never insulted a shipping container before so I do not know the best way. I would think spray foam would be easy, but obviously expensive and questionably sustainable in terms of performance vs use of natural resources.

Q: I consulted to the code in virginia, and got this e-mailed back to me, I think that it is say it is in compliance, could you tell me what you think? I told them that I wanted to do earthbag home and this is the reply: "Your email was forwarded to me to answer your question in reference to earthbag homes. Virginia enforces the 2012 Virginia Residential Code which provides the construction standards for one-and two-family dwellings and townhouses and does permit the acceptance of new building materials and methods of construction. Typically, construction methods and materials not addressed by the code require stamped plans and /or documentation from a Virginia Registered Design Professional (architect or engineer) to verify the minimum requirements of the code are being met. Contact me if you have any further questions."

A: (Kelly) They are actually rather clear that they will accept alternative building methods as long as the plans have been reviewed and stamped with approval by a state-licensed architect or engineer.

Q: I'm seeking assistance with sustainable architecture in Costa Rica. I have a design but my architect is having trouble getting officials to approve it.

A: (Nabil Taha) You need to find a structural engineer to help. Architectural Design\drawings are not enough for most building departments.

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