Miscellaneous Code Questions

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 9 acres of land that I need to build on as I am tired of drugs and people in towns.(My daughter was a user) I own this land free and clear but I need to know if they can keep me off if I don't have the money to build to their expectations. I will not put the land up to borrow the money as the way the economy is frightening and I wont lose it. I have $7000.00 cash to work with . I want to use 1000.00 for a well (100 foot) and another 1000.00 for a stone drive way. I found out that I can use a compost toilet and checking into the legal aspects of the branched drain mulch basins. That leaves about 5000 for a 16 x 24 storage building to make into a home.What options do I have legally?What repercussions are there if I do not follow the code? Is a teepee or a yurt considered a building? I feel my rights and freedom are being violated just because I will not borrow and maybe lose my land and if I have to stay in town the stress of being here(must I live here?) Is there any gray areas in the codes that may be legally bent but not considered broken?

A: It sounds like what you are dealing with are covenants, not codes. Typically codes deal with the actual design and construction of things, and are enforced by building departments and government entities, whereas covenants are what are on your deed that you are obligated to comply with. There are, however, different levels of enforcement, depending on demographics, expectations by owners, etc.

To deal with the legal aspects of your covenants, you will probably need to hire a lawyer. I have not pressed the issues of getting around
covenants with any clients, but I would wonder if hardship in compliance would be a cause for non-compliance. I just don't know, so I have to refer you to someone with a legal background. You did not mention where you are, so I cannot respond to any particulars regarding your situation. I wish you luck in your search for a way out

Q: We have been looking for plans to build an adobe/cob home like the old forts or spanish style houses built here in the southwest. The old square style with the open courtyard in the center. The ones I've seen are still standing after two and three hundred years. Yet, I can't seem to come up with plans from anywhere that would work with updating for plumbing and electrical.

A: I would suggest looking at a decentralized approach. Look at solutions that accommodate separate locations for utilities such as on-demand water heaters and composting toilets. The supply needs to be close to the use - that's the goal, right? Put it where it needs to be.
Electrical issues aren't as great as plumbing. Today's technology shouldn't present any significant problems with running a house of this configuration with one panel. If not, put two panels in.

Q: I'm wondering about what rights I have with building for the purpose of art. If I were to build a house like structure out of found materials, and wasn't to live in it, it being basically a sculptural interpretation of a house, would that fly?

A: Hmm....I doubt you would be able to do this without some sort of permit. If you think about movie sets, I think they get permits, but they build a minimum for what they need for shooting the movie. There are permits for temporary shelters. These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. You will need to talk to the building department and find out what category this falls within.

Q: We have been looking at existing homes and thinking of ways we could potentially wrap a house in straw bale (more questions about building codes here!)

A: You can wrap a bale home, but it means another foundation, or support system, under the new walls, and an extension of roof overhangs. It can be done!

Q: I am seriously interested in the treehouse concept for construction of small rental units to cater to our increasing tourist influx. I live in the N.Ga. mountains and have been building homes for several years but would really like to pursue this avenue. Having dealt with inspectors before that just can't seem to think outside the box, I've concluded the easiest approach would be to elevate the platforms on stilts to begin with and try to graduate into the full blown support using the abundant white & red oaks, fir trees and other large diameter trees. The stilts I know will solve the problem but, it seems to really kill the effect I am trying to capture. I am tired of seeing the mountain sides raped with Dozers in order to put a basement in to build houses. Any comments or direction would be grateful. I have searched the web, researched the codes but can't seem to find a straight forward approach to this so as to submit to the locals without being shot down or spend a small fortune on engineering and then still be turn downed.

A: This is very intriguing! I found this article which explains quite a bit: www.treehouses.com . Anything short of this would seem sub-standard in terms of due diligence. Since each tree is different, it must be analyzed and designed from scratch. I wouldn't expect any building official to accept less. These folks did a thorough job which can be proven. In short, I do not think you can do it without a bunch of engineering. I agree with your comment about bulldozers, but in our culture a treehouse is complex enough to warrant close attention by everyone. If you do go ahead with this, please keep me informed. Good luck!

Q: Are you allowed to live in a yurt year round in Fort Collins, Colorado, or any surrounding areas? We would like to make a yurt our permanent residence but aren't’t sure where to start as we are not even sure if you can legally consider a yurt a single family residence. We would like more information before going to the county with our request.

A: Living in a yurt year-round is a possibility if it meets all of the code requirements for a permanent residence. Insulation and structural issues are just a couple of items that will need to be addressed. Some yurt companies can offer in-house structural engineering to address snow loading concerns. Roof and wall insulation will need to be the minimum require by code in your area. The building department will be able to answer most, if not all, of you questions.

Q: Hello Id like to ask about yurts. How do go about getting the city of Riverside county California to approve a yurt just for part time living not in the city?

A: You may not need to do much, but the best policy is to ask the building department or planning department. I would guess that you are entitled to have a temporary building on your land, unless there are local covenants against such structures. You are also allowed to construct buildings under a certain size without approval. This size is based on the version of building code the County is using. You will need to ask them what they allow.

Q: I would like to know if it is possible to build an adobe home in the Boulder, CO area. Would the large snowfalls be a problem, and do they have building codes against it?

A: Yes, it is possible to build and adobe home in Boulder. In fact, Boulder has adopted an adobe code as an amendment to their building code. You can find all of the details online or at the City building department.

Q: I have purchased an old home built in 1945. The outside is covered in old shingles that contain asbestos. Is there a way to cover it without having to remove the asbestos, such as with vinyl siding or stucco, without damaging the shingles or upsetting them? What would be the best, most cost efficient way to handle the problem?

A: Stucco is a very good option since you only need to staple wire mesh to the wall, which will minimize the disturbance of the asbestos. The plaster will seal the whole thing making it safe and harmless to children and others close to the wall. Future restorers of the home will have a difficult time dealing with it though, so beware!

Q: Which is better--tie beam construction OR bond beam construction?

A: The answer to this question depends on your design. Are the forces you are trying to resist vertical or horizontal. Historically, bond-beam, or even box-beam construction was used to resist horizontal, or lateral, forces within the structure without the need for ties across the usable space. More recently, bond-beams have been used for vertical forces to spread loads over windows and doors. So the answer is, it depends, which a common answer in the construction trades!

Q: I've read your section on building codes and would like to know how you got around that to build an earth bag house? I live in Texas and have just been introduced to this concept by my father, I love it, all the basics are right here on the property and it would be much more affordable and being a fire fighter the idea of a virtual fire proof home is extremely exciting. Please let me know what you did to get through and survive the building codes?

A (Kelly): The simple answer is that there were no building codes in the county where I built my earthbag house. Colorado State requires plumbing and electrical permits and that the work follow codes, but the structural aspect of the building was not controlled. Building officials do have the right to approve almost anything if they feel that it conforms to the intent of the law, but often they won't risk doing this.

Q: What could the county or state government do, if I build my house without getting a permit... fine me? It might be worth it just to build what I want.

A: Yes the building department can fine you, and also condemn your house as unsafe without the knowledge that the basic health and safety systems are installed correctly. They will request an inspection of everything as-built, and certifications from professionals that the systems that are concealed are safe. This is a tricky situation and one in which the outcome could vary greatly depending on the level of enforcement of each jurisdiction around the country.

Q: I noticed you had some International Building Code books listed on your website.  Where would I locate a Building Code book just for the state of North Carolina?  Would it include all mechanical & electrical data? I intend to design residential houses; not commercial.  I was told by a House Designer that by doing only residential designs I do not have to be licensed by the state.  I need only to put responsibility disclaimers in my title block for the General Contractor buying the plans.  Is there a site that helps beginning designers with this type of set up?

A: (Kelly) About the codes, these vary from state to state, and actually from city to city in some instances. Many jurisdictions have adopted the "International Residential Code" for residential construction, which replaced the old "Uniform Building Code" a few years ago. The only way to find out what codes are being followed is to ask the building authorities in the jurisdiction where you might be building. Electrical and plumbing codes are typically handled in separate manuals, the most common of which are the National Electrical Code and the National Plumbing Code. Then there is also the International Energy Conservation Code that a lot of jurisdictions adhere to. It is all way too complex and domineering in my opinion,  but that is the way it is, especially in the US. I do believe that residential designs, up to two stories, can be designed by anyone...although some states do require an state licensed engineer to sign off on the design. I don't know of any sites that would help beginning designers...let me know if you find one.

Q: I am a college student in the state of Florida. I was assigned to do a presentation on researching Uniform Building Codes to "teach the class." After reading your article on Codes, I am extremely interested in your opinion on how the UBC effect green, sustainable design. If there is anyway you could direct me to some resources or even give any additional insight, it would be greatly appreciated.

A: (Kelly) This is a very important question about the effect of building codes on green building. As I suggest in my article, these codes often stifle innovations that would lead us toward more sustainable practices. They also tend to force the use of techniques and materials that may no longer be appropriate, given our current predicament regarding energy use these days. On the other hand some code requirements can be beneficial, especially those embodied in the "International Energy Conservation Code", which mandate certain levels of energy conservation in buildings. David Eisenberg wrote a very insightful article, Sustainability and the Building Codes, about these issues.

Q: I am hoping you can help me and my friends/neighbors. They are having a terrible time with their "contractor". I think he is an unlicensed construction worker who thought he could take on the gigantic task of working on their never-been-up-to-code minor's cabin. In fact, it was sold to them after an inspector took money from the seller to pass their home!! I sent a message to the building department in Boulder County, Co, but the response was not helpful. They are afraid of seeking help because the worker convinced them that their only option was to work without a permit. Now they are being taken advantage of and this has been going on since July. Here is a copy of the email I sent to the county, followed by their response. They will never call the DA as they are sure they will be out of a home or something awful. If I can just get an idea of what their options are, maybe I can convince them to take a stand now and start again the right way.
Friends of mine are doing work that requires a permit, they do not have one, I'm not sure they realized they needed one, the work is shoddy, the contractor, I think, is taking advantage of them, they are afraid to seek help--now that they know a permit was probably needed--they are
afraid of getting in trouble, they are young, have a new baby and have been without water for over four days. I stopped by their house and saw water flowing from their ceiling, down the drywall and onto the floor. I wonder what they can do to seek help? I know they are too afraid
to ask, so I am asking without their knowing. They are too afraid to find another contractor for fear of getting this one mad and being turned in for not having a permit. They have to come over to wash their baby, collect buckets of water and to shower. They need assistance, please let me know what is available for them. There have been unbelievable amounts of things going wrong with this project and they have been without water for days at a time on many occasions.
Honesty regarding the legal matters of not having a permit is welcome, my feelings won't be hurt even if theirs are!!

A: I must begin by saying that you are a good friend to be concerned. This case is interesting to me because it is so close to home. I have a feeling I could guess the location, but that is off-topic.

First, in Boulder County there are no requirements for a contractors license, meaning that there is no such thing in Boulder County. The kind of situation you are describing is the exact thing that licensure
would help guard against. In this particular case, the builder has some responsibility to do the work in compliance with local regulations, and by taking the responsibility for his work, he must also do things
legally and safely. By no means can he hold the owners hostage without his share of responsibility. I am not a lawyer so I cannot guide you in any meaningful way, but I would first say that your friends need to move out of any unsafe situation for the safety of their child if nothing else. They should tell the "contractor" to take his tools and not come back and find someone else to help them.

This is a very precarious situation you are describing and I would suggest that your friends attempt to not make their decisions from a place of fear. Fearing they will loose their home, and fearing their
contractor will not help them make the best decisions. They must protect themselves and their child without fear of losing their home. They can seek help from another builder and tell that current one to
leave. He can be dragged into any legal mess by doing remodeling work without a permit just as much as the owners can. He is likely not going to turn them in, even if he is threatening to, because he could be accused of wrongdoing and not acting in the interest of his clients. Talking to the DA may help in this situation. Your friends will likely be required to move until their home is safe and inspected, but at least it will get the current contractor to stop working on the house.

Good luck helping your friends and be careful yourself not to get in the middle of a potential legal battle.

Q: We live in Tennessee. I am sure that the codes department would like to see an engineer licensed in this state. However, if we can find a structural engineer with experience in cob, that may be more important.  Also, do you have any information on where we can send samples of our planned mix to be tested for strength so that we may be able to use a local engineer? 

A: Yes, an engineer with experience in cob, if that is what you plan to do, would help quite a bit.  However, the building department may not accept a design from an out-of-state engineer.  You will need to contact them to find out. As far as testing, contact a geotechnical engineer and ask them what lab they use for their testing.  Tell them what you need.  Some geotech firms have labs in-house.

Q: I am an Iranian architect. I want know, is there any code about the construction of adobe buildings in seismic areas (like Iran)?

A: I am not aware of any seismic considerations in any codes that address adobe construction.  Doing a quick search on the internet shows that in Costa Rica, adobe is actually banned due to the seismic nature of the area.  I understand the importance of your inquiry, given the large number of earth buildings in a seismic area like Iran.  I wish I could offer you some guidance other than maybe considering different materials, such as straw, which is very good is seismic zones.  Earth construction is impossible to reinforce against the tremendous forces generated in an earthquake.  The fact that earth (adobe) buildings are so heavy make them even more susceptible to damage when the earth shakes.  Keeping buildings low (one story), light (not heavy) and stiff are your first lines of defense.

Q: Any idea if the Santa Fe, NM area would be a problem code-wise with the earthbag construction technique? (I know they allow adobe block, Earthships, and straw bale, but the "earthbag" concept is new to me).

A: (Kelly) New Mexico is a rather progressive state for alternative building, and they do have specific codes for a variety of alternative methods, such as adobe, strawbale, and rammed earth, but earthbags are a fairly new technology, so I doubt that they have any specific codes. The state does have provisions for using alternative methods in general, whereby you can submit plans that have been reviewed by an architect or engineer and stamped by them.

Q: If you were building a specific small 520 square foot residential home and you wanted to sell it to the US Federal government, foreign governments, private individuals in the USA (for placement on private land) and placement in Mobile home parks, to what building code would you build the home? IGCC, IBC industrial, IBC residential or HUD.

A: (Nabil Taha) Manufactured home are designed according to HUD. This is for homes with chassis and wheels. This code has fewer requirements compared to IBC and produces cheaper buildings. Modular homes are designed according to the International Building Code, IBC or the International Residential Code IRC. These do not have a chassis or wheels. Each agency has different requirements. So you need to contact the government agency and ask for specifications. The IBC standard is the most stringent/ rigid. So, most agencies will accept IBC, but, you must ask first.

Q: What is the worst case scenario if I were to build a sandbag home with no permit? Would they put me in jail? Take my property? I also can imagine that I could get an outside contractor for systems installation without a building permit, even off grid systems. So, then does that put me in a situation where I can have no power, plumbing or water (roof catchment)? Help! I asked my county and they told me I needed IBC approval before they even consider it. All the red tape is frustrating me, and I'm ready to just go and build.

A: (Kelly) Every jurisdiction is different, so it is hard to generalize. I've heard of situations where the enforcement procedure if you are discovered is to ask you to retroactively fill out all of the paper work and go through the procedures of getting the permit; there might be an additional fee or fine associated with this. I have also heard of one county that eventually sent out a bulldozer and plowed it down at the owner's expense. I suppose that jail might be a punishment in some places, but I doubt it. Some contractors won't work on un-permitted projects, and others will. There are places that don't have building codes, but they are few and far between. See earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com for a blog post about this.

Q: I saw you built a home in Mexico, I have property on the Yucatan and I know permits are hard to get, but on 30 acres I'm not too concerned about the city. Did they get permits or did they just build? I'm not holding you liable or responsible and I understand any advice or response to this email is not LEGAL ADVICE and you are not a LAWYER and would not be encouraging me to break any local or Government laws. I added the disclaimer for you :) Any information on the building in Mexico would be appreciated; I live here now and am ready to get STARTED!

A: (Kelly) I never got any permits for the little bit of remodeling that I did in Mexico. If I had started with new construction, I probably would have. My understanding is that mostly the Mexican government is interested in keeping track of building projects so that they can be assessed and added to the tax roles. Except in some of the more urban areas, I doubt that they are much concerned about codes.



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