Silence of the Codes

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

There are many elements in a design of a building that are not addressed by the codes. Saying “the code is silent” on that issue leaves the door wide open to interpretation.  As a designer we want the flexibility of make interpretation choices that support our design. The approach some building officials take is when if it is not in the code, it isn’t permitted. Too often designers are wondering if something is not written in the code, does that mean they can do it?

Here are some issues that are not addressed by the code:

  • Skylights on a rated roof – Rated roof assemblies are silent on the issue of openings, skylights or any other penetrations, does that mean they are permitted and unrated? Because the code is silent and does not specifically address the issue, I would say yes. If the concern was fire resistance to protect yourself from you neighbor, like an exterior property line wall, then protections of openings is important, but there are no neighbors above you. The intent here of the code is protection of the roof assembly from an internal fire, therefore penetrations and or openings are not important as part of a fire resistive assembly.
  • Rated wall construction intersections with non rated construction – Exterior rated walls and their intersections with unrated interior walls and/or floors, where does the rated construction end? This is a hard one to answer. Does the wall protect you from your neighbor (fire from outside) or your neighbor from you (fire from the inside)? Unfortunately in the State of California, the Fire Marshal says from both sides, which makes answering the question harder.
  • Exit sign colors – Do they have to be red, green or anything else specific? How many times as a designer have you thought about using a different color or design for special critical design areas, like an auditorium or gallery. The key is visibility.
  • Plumbing Fixtures – There are so many unanswered questions associated with plumbing fixtures, such as locations, numbers within a facility, and so on.
  • Code Conflicts – When one code says one thing and another code either say something else or is silent.

Whether it is a general question or a specific question that needs a code interpretation or justification, the key to making any interpretation of the code is whether it meets the intent of the code. Sometime, with new technology, the intent has never been addressed in any form by the code. Photovoltaic technologies have many unaddressed code issues that issues are being created daily.

Even design or functional concepts, like “Aging in Place” creates code issues never before asked. The basic concept of aging in place is to have the ability to stay in one place, but allow for changing needs. One may start off in an independent-care facility and then progress to an assisted facility and perhaps to a full-care facility. The ability to live in one place and enjoy the comfort of familiar surroundings is a great concept. This may be simple to achieve in a private residence. One can add features to accommodate ones changing needs. When it comes to assisted and full-care facilities, it can be very expensive to have in-home care, part-time or full-time.

In a larger community of care, like Rossmore in Walnut Creek, you can find different types of care services within the community. Mixing the service types within a single building or facility, the code requires different levels of life safety. Mixing of occupancy types (R-1/multi-family, 2.1/Residential Care, 3.1/single family care, I-2/Nursing Homes and 4/Adult Day Care) can be difficult and challenging to make the facility look and feel homey without looking and feeling institutional.

It is important to identify these code issues before they go into plan review. This will avoid problems after the design is too far along.


Erick Mikiten, AIA:

These issues – I think of them as being just beyond the edges of the code – can be some of an architect’s biggest challenges. One little code uncertainty can lead to a lot of research, phone calls, (and if your “guess” isn’t right) costly changes to drawings during plan check or to the building during construction.

I like to avoid these by meeting with the building department beforehand and getting a “code interpretation” letter from them. I lay out the issue clearly, along with the option I want them to agree with. This way I avoid the expensive uncertainty and give them the opportunity to weigh in on any concern I may not have thought of. Sometimes they even come up with something more favorable than my proposal. Not only does that help my design, but it is real protection should there be a problem later, arguably showing that I’ve met or gone beyond the standard of care.

One accessibility-related example of interpretation challenges is where to put detectable warnings (truncated domes). CBC Section 11B- is titled Hazardous Vehicular Areas. But there is no definition of this in the code. Some people feel that this should only apply to streets, intersections, and roundabouts – places where cars are traveling at some speed past people. But sometimes you encounter places where the designer will wrap the entire accessible parking space in a sea of detectable warnings.

Check out this image of a CVS parking lot. Imagine being a blind person navigating with a cane and trying to make sense of where it’s safe to go in this parking lot. Hopeless.

The 2010 ADA refined the requirements to require detectable warnings only at curb ramps in the public right-of-way and on transit platform edges. This actually creates clarity for blind people who are detecting the domes with their feet or a cane; they will encounter them in more predicable places. Unfortunately, the CBC has not kept in step with this change, so architects in California are still left to interpret what locations are hazardous vehicular Areas. This is a perfect example of when you should to take your site plan to the building department early on and get an interpretation.

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