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Posted by Thomas Harrington on Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alternative Materials and Designs under the 2010 California Building Code

It may surprise you to read that the California Building Code (CBC) is extraordinarily flexible in some circumstances, enabling unique solutions to meet unique situations – provided the result meets the intent of the CBC. While this flexibility allows architects, engineers and contractors (Building Professionals) to be innovative it also empowers building inspectors (Building Officials) to use their discretion in approving their work. Creative solutions are therefore subject to the unpredictable interpretation of the CBC’s “intent” by the code police. Improving the odds of a win-win result where this potential conflict arises is the purpose of this and future articles.

The law favors innovative solutions to meet public policy

An issue about which the law allows flexibility in order to meet public policy is controlling runoff water. Sections 4.101-4.106.3 of the California Green Building Standards Code (CGBSC) require the control of surface water in new developments. The law’s intent is to prevent local flooding and to insure that runoff water ending up in public drainage is filtered and clean. While the CGBSC refers to alternative ways and means, such as French Drains, Collection Basins, Swales and Water Gardens, there is no mention of design requirements or specific construction materials in the code’s one-page discussion.

There’s good reason to enable site-specific solutions instead of mandating them: public policy is often ahead of the technologies available to meet it. Sometimes the best solution has not been agreed upon by the governing building professionals (in our case the International Code Council who are the professionals that write the model codes for California). Sometimes the technology may not exist at all.

A perfect example of this involves attic ventilation in the tinderbox situations of high-density homes built next to equally dense combustible vegetation as exampled by the 1991Oakland Hills Fire disaster. Because of this and similar conflagrations, the California Building Standards Commission adopted Section 701A.3.1 of the 2007 CBC, which governs “Wildlife-Urban Interface Fire Areas.” Having learned that traditional eave or cornice attic vents could allow sparks from nearby fires to enter homes and wreak havoc, the 2007 CBC revision now prohibits venting under eaves and cornices. However, it also grants what appears to be a self-contradictory exception, stating "...Eaves and cornice vents may be used provided they resist the intrusion of flame and burning embers into the attic area of the structure." The same Section first states categorically that you cannot have eave or cornice vents and then as an exception allows you to use these type of vents requiring only that the vents when used must "resist the intrusion of flame and burning embers..." Yet it provides no guidance how to design or what materials to use for a vent that resists the intrusion of flame and burning embers.

Don’t mistake this vagueness as legislative indecision. Instead, the law taps into a long standing tradition of competent Building Professionals collaborating with experienced Building Officials to resolve a problem in the field.

The law favors local problem-solving over state-wide, one-size-fits-all mandates

In addition to encouraging new solutions where there aren’t established ones, the CBC enables builder-inspector collaboration to find better ones than those mandated by law. Section 1.8.7 of the 2010 CBC titled Alternate Materials, Designs, Tests and Methods of Construction states "...The provisions of this code, as adopted by the Department of Housing and Community Development are not intended to prevent the use of any alternative material, appliance, installation, device, arrangement, design or method of construction not specifically prescribed by this code."

Although there are conditions in Section 1.8.7 that more narrowly define this collaborative process, which I will discuss in future articles, the basic premise is obvious: the CBC favors local problem-solving over state-wide, one-size-fits-all mandates.

As we all know, where there’s room for collaboration there’s room for conflict. What happens if a builder and a building inspector can’t find agreement? A builder may challenge the inspector pursuant to CBC Section 1.8.8, which renders the building inspector’s judgment subject to appeal and review by an oversight board.

There are other specifics of the CBC that must be considered when implementing alternatives to those methods prescribed by the codes. I will discuss those in future articles.

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