Home & Garden

About the House: Taking a Look at California’s New Building Codes

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 06:12:00 PM

I’m not a fan of the building codes but I have to admit that they do a lot for us. That may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as a building inspector. “Aren’t the codes what that’s all about?” you may ask. Well, not really. Not for me.  

The codes inform the examination of buildings and they remind us to do certain things, but the problem that I have with them—and it comes up again and again—is that they make for lousy design criteria. They’re a good way to check on our work and, again, to remind us to consider certain dangers and problems—but if your design is nothing more than code compliance, what a boring place you will have constructed. I’d even go further and say that a really wonderful building is more than likely to have conditions that don’t meet code and a really safe and well-built building is going to go far beyond the code in many ways. That’s why there are so many other documents and learned practices that are essential to good construction. 

Building to the codes does not assure good quality construction. The building codes are checklists of safety and quality-assurance items. Nothing more. I’m glad they exist but they bug the bejesus out of me. One of the reasons they bug me so much is that they are open to a great deal of interpretation. They often lack clarity and, ultimately, like the law, they require a judge (in this case, a building official) to make the call. One official says one thing and the next official says another. This drives all builders crazy, especially when dollars are on the line. More than a few fights are apt to break out across the planning office counter. I’ve seen my share. 

Last year, California adopted a new statewide set of codes (e.g. building, electrical, energy) that are referred to as Title 24. The California Building Code of 2007 (or CBC 07) was adopted in 2008. That’s pretty good timing for codes. We’re often adopting them two or three years late. It takes a long time for red tape to come off the reel. 

The CBC represents many small changes and a few larger ones. I thought I’d devote this week’s column to a listing of some of the more notable ones that might just catch your eye as you plan or complete your next building project. 

Here’s one I’m happy about. For years a window has been adequate to meet the ventilation requirement for bathrooms, but now a vent fan is required if the room has a bathtub or shower. We’ve long known that windows didn’t cut it in making sure that the steam got shunted away (saving the paint, the framing and lot of other things from being steamed to death), but now it’s a requirement. I approve. 

Grading. Even though better builders and designers know better, grading the soil away around the building has not been a requirement until now, just an option. Now it’s a requirement. The soil must slope away from the building site at a 5 percent slope (or five inches in 10 feet). There are some alternative ways of meeting the requirement, but it’s really good that they’re making this a requirement. Many buildings (especially around here) suffer from moisture accrual underneath and from foundation failures that could be avoided to some degree through simple grading. 

Damp-proofing is now a requirement. Damp-proofing is the process of installing drainage elements that move water away from the foundation and basement walls to inhibit the intrusion of moisture. Most of our current buildings have no damp-proofing built into them and as a result, many have damp or wet basements and crawlspaces. Like grading, this is not a perfect solution, but when used widely it can greatly decrease the number of houses that have these problems and decrease the intensity of the problem where they do appear. Further, when installing foundations, damp-proofing is cheap and quick. There’s no good argument against it except that too many builders are either poorly informed about these methods or in too much of hurry to get paid. Anyone who claims to be providing waterproofing is either planning to jump out of a plane over the jungle with a lot of cash or is just plain stupid. There ain’t no such thing as waterproofing for foundations. 

Another thing that I’m very happy to see is that span tables (how we choose a 2x6 as opposed to a 2x8) just got easier. Most common species of wood are listed in simple tables for the sizing of floors, ceilings and rafters. A formula (using the dreaded Modulus of Elasticity) is no longer needed for most projects, although this has meant a slightly stricter interpretation (i.e., you may get bumped up to a larger size in some situations). 

Here’s one that I’m sort of thrilled about (because I am a total geek and have no life). Shear wall nailing (that’s the way they nail those seismic panels in your basement to prevent earthquake damage) now has a clearly stated minimum number of nails that will have to be used (and where they must be placed). While this won’t prevent a lot of dumb stuff from being called seismic retrofitting, it will force any job with a permit to meet a moderate standard, and this is good for us. 

An important area in which the code is growing and improving is in demanding that buildings don’t leak. Now this sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many buildings leak and how little can be blamed on building codes in these cases. Well, that’s changing. Two new portions of the CBC 07 will require that city inspectors check flashings (those mysterious but oft-mentioned building components that shed water to the exterior in myriad fashions) and for a “weather-resistive wall envelope.” This also sounds mysterious but it’s incredibly important to have this spelled out. What’s being asked of the municipal inspectors now is that they check the building paper, window interface and various exterior elements to make sure that water can’t get inside. A set of adjoining codes will specify that these “weather-resistive barriers” conform to a set of nationally accepted standards and that they be placed over a range of projections and trims. Similarly, another set of adjoining standards applies to our troubled friend stucco. (These are all produced by the American Society for Testing and Materials. These geeks are so pasty-white from hanging around the lab all day, they make me look like George Hamilton.) Stucco is often mis-installed and often leaks, so having a nice rigorous standard for its installation is a darned good and long overdue thing. Good job, CBC. 

I continue to scratch my head over the code’s lack of concern for the matter of falls from windows. The standard for window height (where a window is at least six feet off the outside ground) is two feet from the floor. Now, being a parent, I have known a lot of 3-year-olds, and I haven’t met one who would be impeded by a two-foot climb to a window sill. Decks require 42-inch railings (and that’s 42 inches above a built-in seat!). What’s different about falls from windows? I don’t get it.  

Let’s just cover a couple of others. Handrails are very important and just got a lot more specific. Whatever you have now probably won’t comply. They have to stand off from a surface (no stuck-on mushroom shapes any more) and have to be smaller than what used to pass. The maximum diameter for a round handrail is 2.25 inches and… well, it’s very complicated.  

Stairs are now tougher and that’s a good thing because people fall on stairs. Old people fall, drunk people fall, inattentive people fall and everyone falls when things are slippery. Falls on stairs can be devastating. Now, stairs must be at least 11 inches deep with a 10-inch run from nosing to nosing and no more than a 7.75-inch rise between treads. This is far more comfortable than previous standards and it gets my applause. 

The last item I’ll mention is going to be a mess and I’m not fully clear on the intent. A doorway has threshold that you have to step over, and historically we have relied upon this as one way to we keep water out. It’s a curb of sorts. Well, the new CBC says that a doorway may not have a threshold higher than a half-inch. That’s about half the typical threshold and it’s going to be a bear getting this to keep water out. Also, the threshold for a sliding door will be limited to three quarters of an inch in height. To the best of my knowledge, nobody makes a door like this, so for a while, this will be very complicated. When we do manage to comply, I will be on the lookout for a lot of leaks at these doorways. Oh boy, more work for me.  

I’d like to offer that my knowledge of these obscure matters would be measurably depleted were it not for the Herculean (and extremely geeky) efforts of Mr. Douglas Hansen of the absolutely essential Code Check books. If you don’t own one or more of these easy-to-use, spiral-bound wonders, and you have anything to do with construction, you are seriously missing out. Douglas is also a long-standing member of our local chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors. 


Ask Matt: Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.