What Building Codes Mean, and Quality Control

I got some e-mail last week that contained a common mistake that non-builders seem to make. It said, in essence, that the sender felt assured of the quality of the work their contractor was doing because it was being inspected and met code.

I cannot repeat this too often: The building code is a minimum standard to protect your life. The building inspector is checking to make sure that if there is a fire, you will be able to get out of the house. They are not checking to make sure that your plans make sense, that they are not wasteful, that the work is done to anything other than the minimum requirement in the law. The building inspector is not going to point out that your traffic pattern goes through the middle of your living space, or that you have a huge amount of wasted floorspace used for hallways.

As a side note, the building inspector has absolute discretion. If you have a plan that meets the letter of the code, they do not have to approve it if they think it doesn't meet the spirit of the code. If there's recently been a horrific fire, or if you're dealing with multifamily housing, you're going to find the building officials more conservative about things like egress. It's mostly not worth fighting with them about this: protecting you is their job.

There's a great deal of value in the work building inspectors do, although with any luck you will never have to experience that value first-hand. Obviously, they want your building to stay up. But more than that, they try to make sure that every habitable space has adequate light and ventilation, and two modes of escape in a fire. They check to make sure your plumbing isn't putting raw sewage into your drinking water. They ensure that your wiring won't burn the house down when you turn on the microwave. In seismic zones, they make sure your building is strong enough to stay up at least long enough for you to get to safety.

That's safety. More to the point, that is a bare minimum of safety, the least the city will allow you to do in order to protect you from your own idiocy. Meeting code is not a sign of quality, but a sign that this building is not as likely to be a deathtrap.

Quality work is something else. Once you meet the minimum requirements of the code, quality work is paying attention to measurements and leveling and finishes, attending to the materials so they don't get damaged during installation. Things like making wood grains line up right are quality work, not required by code. A job can meet code and look like it was put together by monkeys.

So how do you get high-quality construction? One method, possibly a more costly one, is to hire a construction manager to deal with your job. This is a good idea if you have little experience in construction, are spending a lot of money, and there is a lot on the line. We hired a construction manager to handle the completion of our foundation project last year, and it was definitely worth it because we were totally burned out (and not, in the overall scheme of things, too expensive: think 1-2% of the job cost).

Another method, definitely costly but not necessarily in cash, is to check the work yourself. This means having points in the construction when you meet with the contractor and inspect what has been done, then discuss what will be done, and ensure that everything is meeting your standards (these points should be tied to payments, by the way; you have no power unless you have the money). You have to know a bit about construction (what is good work and what is monkey-level work), and you have to have a lot of time and energy to do this. On the other hand, it's not beyond the abilities of the average homeowner who reads a book or two on construction standards (Building Construction Illustrated, by Francis Ching, is an excellent reference) to handle this level of management.

The most painful method is to be your own general contractor. The City of Alameda actually has a handout warning against this (this PDF). It involves a high level of risk, a lot of work (general contractors generally work full time on a job), and not much cost savings. I recommend against it. If a contractor suggests it to you, don't even consider it: they're trying to pass off liability while retaining the profit that is supposed to reward them for handling that liability.

So what do we do? A combination of the first two methods. We do a lot of our professional work (particularly electrical work) ourselves, to our standards (which are much MUCH higher than the building code). When we hire contractors, we check the work daily, photographing as we go and using our camera system to record progress (that, oddly enough, is where the idea for this blog came from). And when things got really rough last year and it was all we could do to make it from day to day with the stress, we hired a great construction manager to help us with our contract, dealing with the contractors we hired to replace the first guy, and making sure we felt comfortable with what was going on.

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posted by ayse on 10/16/06