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Building Codes
11 November 2007

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The first building codes were established many, many years ago.  I imagine mighty Chief Groog bumping his head on the cave ceiling then declaring that the clan would only live in caves with tall ceilings.  That was just the beginning.  More recently, when ancient Rome burned to the ground, Nero issued all sorts of building codes from common sense things like "you can't block your neighbor's door" to city wide fire safety codes such as "neighboring houses may not share a common wall".  After a few thousand years of construction, we're still learning from our mistakes and creating more regulations.

When purchasing a new home or working in a high rise building, I like knowing that it was, at least in theory, built to a minimum code standard.  In public buildings, doors must open out so stampeding crowds don't get trapped inside.  Floors, walls and roofs must all be built to certain strength standards.  Electrical, plumbing, stairs, even doors and windows all have rules dictating what can and can not be used.

Most building codes are designed to protect public health.  The problem is that many codes sound great in theory but don't always make sense in every situation.  A cave that was too short for Chief Groog might be just the right height for Chief Bongo-bongo and his tribe of Pygmies.

When designing my barn I knew the top floor would only be used for drying coffee and hence the floor would only have to support about twenty pounds per square foot.  Residential buildings require 40 psf in most rooms so I decided I would build my barn to those standards even though it was overkill.  Then the building department decided the barn was a commercial building which means the floors needed to support 100 psf, five times stronger than really necessary.  All those extra floor joists cost me a couple thousand dollars.  I hate spending that kind of money for no good reason.

Most houses are built with 2x4 wall studs placed 16 inches apart.  In colder parts of the country it is becoming popular to use 2x6 studs placed 24 inches apart.  This allows for better insulation without increasing wood cost or decreasing wall strength.  The bottom room of the barn is designed for climate controlled coffee storage so I wanted super insulated walls.  The problem is that here in Hawaii, super insulated walls are rarely used so the inspector had never seen them.  The instant the inspector saw the walls he declared that the studs couldn't be more than 16 inches apart.  I tried to explain that they were 2x6 studs which have the same strength at 24 inches as 2x4 walls at 16 inches.  Explaining something to an inspector is the same as arguing and arguing with an inspector is rarely productive.  I ended up ripping out the existing walls and adding a bunch of unnecessary 2x6 studs.

There were a few other issues concerning building codes but nothing too dramatic or unexpected.  After pouring one last bit of concrete for the stair landing, the barn was finally ready for its final inspection.  The barn is classified as a storage shed so I hoped the final inspection would be easier than for a home or office building.

Stairs The inspector first tried to fail the barn because the floor nailing was 12 inches apart and needed to be six inches or less.  As politely as I could I pointed out that she was measuring across the floor joists instead of along the joist.  She then proceeded to fail the barn because the stair handrail was not grippable.

I had followed stair designs from books and other buildings I've seen in the area which use a 2x4 as the handrail.  Hawaii has changed its building codes to require stair handrails to be "easily grippable".  The exact definition of grippable is a bit ambiguous.  Even though both the inspector and I were tightly gripping the handrail while discussing the issue, I decided I shouldn't argue or else she might try to find something I couldn't fix so easily.

It took me an extra two weeks, mostly because it's the middle of harvest season so I'm busy with farm stuff, but I did add new stair handrails and called for another inspection.  This time everything passed and the barn has been officially approved.  There is still plenty of work to do, I'll probably never consider the barn completely done, but remaining projects are things like building shelves and installing farm equipment, none of which will require the approval of an inspector.

I've shown off my barn to several other farmers and they always say "Oh, you shouldn't have bothered to pull a permit."  Officially the county requires a permit but the county requires a lot of stupid things.  I built the best barn I could so following the building codes only cost a few thousand dollars and a few weeks of time.  I still like the idea of having a set of guidelines to follow.  I just wish those guidelines were a little more reasonable.  Maybe if they were written by Chief Bongo-Bongo rather than a committee of bureaucrats.




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