Chicago Building Code considerations

“Why does the City of Chicago need this pesky building code?”

This is a question that many a homeowner has asked at one time or another. The unfortunate scenario, is that this question is often asked in frustration or anger by building owners during a remodeling job. The perception is that ‘all was going well’ until the City inspectors showed up. That however is usually not the reality of the situation. This article will not address permits, licensing or related legal compliance issues. That is a topic for another discussion. It only seeks to clarify why coming into compliance is not only necessary but also a good idea.

One can look at construction tragedies throughout history to see, the sometimes fatal, problems that occur when building codes are not followed. There are usually at least a few stories in the news annually about a building or porch failure that could have been avoided altogether, or been less tragic, if the structure had met building codes.

There are a lot of reasons why municipalities need to have building codes in place. All of the various reasons, and excuses at times, can be summed up into two primary categories:

1) Public safety

2) Consumer safety

The Code isn’t in place for Saturday afternoon when you are relaxing in your lounge chair, reading a favorite book, sipping tea and nibbling biscuits. The Code is in place so that when all hell breaks loose at 2 AM, YOU at least have a chance of getting out alive.

It is important to understand that the building code is a ‘minimum standard’. Building codes are NOT a maximum, best that can be built standard. If your contractor tells you he ‘builds to code’. He is essentially telling you he is building the crappiest construction allowed by local ordinance.

Don’t take that statement out of context. In many ways the minimum is sufficient. 5/8” drywall in a single family home for all intensive purposes is sufficient, along with being the day to day standard. Sure you could put in two or three layers of drywall and increase your fire separation and that would be better. 2×4 wood is the standard and generally sufficient for general framing. You could build 2×6 or 2×8 walls but most of the time there really is no need for it.

I could continue with more examples of how the ‘minimum standard’ is sufficient in various instances but that’s another topic. So let’s look at why that building inspector is bugging you about that pesky building code.

Public safety

The City of Chicago has, to whatever extent you want to consider it, taken on the role of ensuring a reasonable amount of public safety when it comes to the construction of buildings. I can assure you that without that intervention, those infrequent stories of building failures would be an almost daily news item.

When the general public enters a building there is an unstated belief that the building is safe to enter, conduct business affairs and get back out unscathed by improper construction. Without that sense of security how could we go anywhere, do much of anything except in the middle of a big open field?

Granted a contractor, builder or property owner is unlikely to want to build an unsafe structure. That would probably end up not going well for their families, employees or business operations. The critical question that comes into play without a ‘minimum standard, (i.e. Building Code) is “Where does the line get drawn between one more cost saving measure or a potentially unsafe practice?”

Whether we are discussing your single family home, an office building or a factory, there needs to be a level of acknowledgement and responsibility as a building owner not to endanger your occupants and neighbors by building something that could injure them outside of reasonable causes.

Even if you live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing, your house needs to be built to some sort of standard; say like the local building code. You may not be too concerned for yourself and that’s ok. Consider however visitors to your home; relatives, your insurance agent, associates. They are all, probably without knowing it, assuming that your home is ‘safe’ to enter. It’s one thing to put yourself in jeopardy but its completely another to put others in jeopardy; especially because you want to ‘save some money’ on that electrical work.

I did an inspection where the owner had added a rear porch enclosure room to the house. As I walked in the room the floor felt like a stiff trampoline. When I asked the owner how old it was and if he had checked the extent of rot in the floor joists, he told me he had just built it not long ago and was very proud of it. In order to save money he had ‘bought the smaller lumber rather than that big, heavy, expensive lumber’. The floor was framed with 2×4 joists. Collapse was only a matter of time and getting more than a few people in that room. I unfortunately had to tell him it would have to be re-built properly.

Consumer Protection

You the consumer deserve to be protected from shoddy contractors and defective building materials. Not all contractors build homes as good as they should. Some don’t even know how to construct or repair a building properly.

It IS important for you and your family that a building is constructed or repaired properly and according to building code standards. These safe guards can act as a buffer between you and building failures. Lack of sufficient and compliant construction can have many affects. The two most obvious are injury and higher ownership costs.

Demanding that contractors, at the very least, meet minimum code standards is essential in helping minimize potential injury or death within a building. The problems often times are not obvious. I’ve seen many new staircases put together with ‘drywall’ screws. ‘Drywall’ screws are not rated to handle the loads that stairs need to sometimes endure. Will the stairs collapse while you are using them on a daily basis? Probably not. However, get 2-3 guys carrying that new couch or big fancy stove up those stairs and collapse is a real possibility.

Over the years, I’ve gotten many calls to look at issues clients are having with their homes. In older homes it’s usually a case of components aging out and needing replacement. In newer or remodeled homes though it’s often a case components failing because they were not installed sufficiently. I’ve seen bathrooms that needed to be torn out 2 years after being installed because wall tiles were popping off; lumber that was rotted because of poor plumbing work; and drywall that just wouldn’t stop cracking because of insufficient screws.

One would like to think that if you spend $10,000.00 on a bathroom this year, you won’t be spending that money again in 2 years to redo it all. The higher cost of homeownership due to non-complaint installations is a real problem that many homeowners have had to face.

Obviously that City inspector may seem like a real pain right now because your job is on hold. However, the issues he or she raises can make the difference between the current money you spend on that bathroom being the last, or just the beginning of a deep money pit.

As I hope has been clarified, YOU need a Building Code in place to protect yourself. So the next time you hire a contractor, ask him:

– If he knows the Code?

– Has he read the applicable Code sections?

– Can he explain some of the Code requirements related to your project?

– Does he have a problem with you hiring an independent inspector to review   construction progress for quality assurance and payouts?

AIC can provide compliance assistance before, during and after your project. Give us a call to discuss your needs.

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