Most professionals familiar with building codes, and even the general public, seem to understand that building codes serve an important purpose in safeguarding the health and safety of people when occupying a building. What most people don’t understand, many professionals included, is that building codes also set minimum standards for the durability of buildings.
The first important reason for durability is to prevent dangerous health and safety issues from evolving in the future. And it’s easy to understand why. This past year we took on a small matter where a brand new detached garage intended to replace a 40 year old garage destroyed by fire was beginning to fall apart only months after completion causing significant financial damages for a young family. And as recently as the summer of 2012 in nearby Ontario Canada, a portion of a 30 year old mall and hotel facility collapsed killing 2 people and injuring over 20 others. The cause of the collapse has been identified as long term water leaks that corroded structural steel. Both of these issues are typical examples of building durability problems that were easy to identify (in the case of the mall – identified in writing by numerous engineers and inspectors for literally decades) and more importantly, to predict the eventual outcomes. Ultimately, the cause of both issues were failures by design professionals, owners, and code enforcement officials to take proper actions when evidence presented itself as to impending dangers.
The second important reason is economic considerations. Buildings that fail to be durable start falling apart prematurely and to excess. Building’s that fall apart become more challenging due to equally excessive cost requirements to justify renewed and ongoing capital investment as the building ages. Building’s that fall apart lose value in terms of taxable property value to the surrounding community. What may seem to an initial Owner as a victory in ‘getting around some codes issues’ almost always becomes the same source of later financial burdens and challenges for the same Owner or future owners.
Talking about this topic in a speech recently, I was challenged by an Engineer that codes don’t regulate maintenance issues. He was only partly correct when he gave window washing as an example. However, we took the example of long-term metal corrosion and quickly pointed out numerous examples of engineering and material standards that regulate new construction, renovation, and repair work provided in the main building code, and then added in additional provisions in his state’s separate property maintenance codes which very quickly established that the building code limited the opportunity for a handrail to rust and that the property maintenance code required an owner to take action to correct the handrail if it rusted anyway. Another member of the audience quickly, and correctly, pointed out that even the dirty window example might be regulated as a durability issue if the window was a required natural light code compliance feature.
Durability is by far the most common underlying factor in building problems we investigate. Water infiltration, vapor transmission, heat loss, energy consumption, structural fatigue, etc. are all topics related to problems first called in as interior water stains, mold, ice build-up, drywall cracks, foundations cracks and more. We almost always find these issues were both regulated by the building code in terms of defining the cause, and we almost always find the same or related property maintenance codes regulate when and what actions must be taken for corrective action. Understanding your codes, especially how they apply to standards for durability, is very important for building designers, owners as well as code officials.