The building code in any jurisdiction is the local contractor’s Bible, with not 10 but thousands of detailed commandments.

Codes can dictate anything from the angle of a roof to the distance between studs to the composition of the shingles and a lot more, depending on local law and preference.  Contractors who ignore building codes can inflict upon themselves a host of hellish complications, ranging from orders from inspectors to start over to fines to forced work stoppage. And flouting the code can have financial repercussions that reverberate through a company’s credit history and supplier relationships.

A customer unhappy with work that he believes is shoddy can use the code as proof of the quality he expected. Disputes about work quality can also embroil subcontractors, who might resort to filing ‘mechanics liens’ against property owners, essentially making legal claims on the properties until the financial disputes are resolved.

That’s how building codes become political hot buttons, experts say. Liens, contractors’ rights, homeowners’ rights, customers’ rights and public safety all become entwined in complicated policy discussions at the state and local levels, said Brian Perlberg, counsel for the Associated General Contractors of America. By pitting contractor organizations against associations of property owners or sub contractor trade groups, such issues can take on a political hue, he says. All of this is why knowing and following building codes is a smart business move, experts agree.

High winds, high risk

Look no further than Miami-Dade County, Florida, for evidence of the financial consequences of minimal code standards. After the grisly devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, county officials ruefully assessed the damage to low-cost houses that had roofs flipped like bottle caps in howling 165 m.p.h. winds.

Construction experts proposed a number of corrective measures for new structures. One of them was a change in the way roofers install plywood roof sheathing.

By using the so-called “ring shank” nail to fasten the sheathing, rather than the common nail, researchers from Florida International University found that they could double the holding power of the panels – at an increased cost of about $15 on a typical building project. [1]

So the humble ring shank nail – whose stem has ridges or grooves that serve as wedges to keep the nail firmly in place – is now ensconced in the Miami-Dade Building Code, as well as the Florida Building Code.

That is the kind of information that contractors must familiarize themselves with and navigate carefully when they venture into a jurisdiction like Miami-Dade. Many building codes similarly reflect standards unique to local climate and experience.

Local building departments take code violations seriously. At minimum there will be fines for code violators. In Miami-Dade, says code enforcement specialist Mayte Salgado, contractors and building owners who knowingly violate code restrictions are given 90 days to comply, meaning they must obtain the proper permits and remove unapproved work. Continued non-compliance results in a $510 fine and a violation placed on the building. For the contractor, it can mean no more work.

“We can put a hold on his license,” Salgado says.

National standards, local priorities

The American National Standards Institute, whose membership develops minimum standards for buildings, offers widely accepted codes for everything from fire safety standards to building egress to construction procedures.

ANSI, via its International Code Council (ICC), provides the standards but it’s up to individual states or counties to adopt them. “It’s just a book on a shelf until a jurisdiction uses them,” says Edward Wirtschorek, manager of standards for the ICC.

Florida and Miami-Dade, both model their standards accordingly, as do many states and local jurisdictions.

In Florida, the building code is the product of decades of research and acquired wisdom and also incorporates wisdom gleaned from responses to mishaps and efforts to prevent recurrence. It adds up to nine hefty volumes, with page after tightly-printed page spelling out every conceivable contingency. On top of that are individual volumes on plumbing, energy conservation, mechanical systems, accessibility and more.

The volumes are modified and updated regularly by the 26-member Florida Building Commission – architects, engineers, code enforcement officials and building industry representatives, all appointed by the governor — with input by county buildings departments, like that of Miami-Dade.

The language of the Florida code is rigorously specific. For example, in the volume titled “Building,” there’s a section about the uses of fiberboard, specifying that, for jointing, the material “shall be manufactured with square, shiplapped, beveled, tongue-and-groove or U-shaped joints.” Contractors are told the exact width of a panel of gypsum wallboard to be used in floor framing (1/2 inch) or the size of those ring-shank roof nails (12-gauge) and their spacing (4 inches).

There’s not much wiggle room there, contractors say.

Not surprisingly, the Florida Building Code is exacting in its attention to hurricane mitigation – just as California’s code pays scrupulous attention to the potential effects of earthquakes and Minnesota’s to accumulations of snow.

Among other things, the state code specifies “wind loads,” or the rates of wind pressure buildings must be able to withstand. For particularly exposed regions of the state, notably in South Florida, from the Keys to Palm Beach, the wind loads range from 175 to 165 m.p.h. The numbers for Northern Florida are somewhat lower, falling as low as 115 m.p.h. in some counties.

A high wind load can add significantly to the cost of new construction. According to the Miami Herald, “Generally, the higher the projected wind load, the higher the cost of construction. Depending on location, builders estimate wind codes add from 1 percent to 5 percent to home prices – thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars.”

Reconciling safety and cost

Here, then, is another controversial issue, pitting consumer safety advocates against budget-minded contractors, who’d like to see wind load standards reduced  — all in all, another potential problem that can affect the working builder’s bottom line.

Nowadays, contractors even have to pay close attention to building codes in neighboring states, Perlberg says.

“With the downturn of the economy, a lot of contractors started hunting for work across state lines – in markets they normally didn’t participate in,” he says.

For example, some states give competitive preferences to in-state contractors, while others don’t. The same with immigration requirements. Some states require verification of citizenship status for workers on public projects, others don’t.

The codes may be a patchwork, but the financial risk of ignoring them is universal.

Photo Credit: teguhpriyatna, Twenty20