Natural Building: Building Codes, Building Permits and Homeowners’ Insurance

Considering natural building? Learn how to navigate building codes, building permits and acquire homeowners’ insurance.

| August 2013

The Natural Building Companion Book Cover

"The Natural Building Companion" is a thorough resource for those garnering information on natural building to those prepared to take the building plunge.

Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

Natural buildings not only bring satisfaction to their makers and joy to their occupants, they also leave the gentlest footprint on the environment. In The Natural Building Companion (Chelsea Green, 2012), a complete reference to natural building philosophy, design, and technique, Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton walk builders through planning and construction, offering step-by-step instructions. The following excerpt is from chapter 11, “Before Construction.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Natural Building Companion.

Building Codes, Building Permitting, and Homeowners' Insurance

Building codes are often seen by designers and builders as an obstruction to overcome in making progress on their project. A healthier and more productive approach may be to approach codes respective to their intent, which is to create a set of guidelines for safe and appropriate construction. While it is true that codes can be onerous and frustrating, especially for innovative and developing technologies that have yet to gain full acceptance in the code community, they do keep a lot of people safe and help avoid a lot of building mistakes. Certainly the more restrictive the code, the more likely conflicts and problems are to occur with innovative practices. Jurisdictions without mandated building codes provide ample opportunity for unfettered exploration — as well as for the building of poor-quality structures. Ultimately, most of the potential ease or difficulty lies with the proclivities of the code official, who has the ability to take an ignorant or narrow-minded interpretation of the codes or to invite an open-minded and logical discussion into the application process.

Codes vary widely across North America. While there are national standards in the United States and Canada, they are further refined and enforced by state or province, county, and/or municipality. This jurisdictional specificity is responsive to circumstances such as seismic conditions and climate that vary from region to region (e.g., California’s seismic engineering requirements, and frost-depth minimums for certain foundations in New York). Accordingly, a design that is compliant in one state may be well out of compliance in another. Some states, such as Vermont, have no statewide or county building codes, and therefore the only building code jurisdictions that must be respected are those of the few cities in the state (the state’s towns do not have building codes). Vermont does, however, have a mandatory statewide energy code that must be considered in the design, construction, or renovation of a building.

Code inclusions for natural building technologies vary widely as well within established codes. In the case of both earthen (such as adobe and rammed earth) and straw bale, there are regions of the United States, such as the Southwest, that have specific code inclusions that mandate compliance with prescribed code regulations. This has the benefit of ensuring successful permitting of a project, providing that there is full compliance with the code. The obvious downside is that restrictive code requirements force the hand of the designer and builder in uncomfortable ways; a clear example is the provision in New Mexico’s straw bale code that restricts the use of load-bearing straw bale construction. Many other jurisdictions have guidelines for appropriate construction practices in their codes that may influence conversations with code officials but are not requirements for compliance. A few restrict the use of certain techniques entirely, while most make no mention of them whatsoever.

The majority of jurisdictions do not have a full restriction or a formal required code and instead feature a total absence of code requirements for natural building. This means that conversations with code officials can be expected upon submission of the permitting application. Herein lies the heart of the process of gaining permitting approval for a natural building project: developing a strong relationship with the code official. Behind all the rules and regulations, there is a person with whom you as an applicant will be working to understand how the project can navigate the code requirements of your jurisdiction; the nature of this relationship — adversarial or amicable — will greatly affect the outcome. Here are some tips on how to work with your code official:

anita heuss
9/19/2013 11:53:11 AM

I live in an area that did not require building codes until a visit by Katrina in 2005. In it's aftermath they have been instituted and although people grumble about them like they do everywhere you will not find very many people truly opposed to them. Although some people will find a way to profit from anything the codes are there to protect people and property. They are a common sense approach to people taking advantage of uneducated home buyers and armature builders who put themselves and their families at risk for a lack of working knowledge of the trade. Books on the building code are available in most book stores and are a good investment if you want to work on your own building project or work in the trade.

8/31/2013 9:46:59 AM

Carroll; While I agree with you that codes put money in the city,county & states pockets. You might hate that & who doesn't. Codes are there for a reason. And, don't give me that common sense BS! Because there are a lot of people out there that don't have that!! I've worked in the residential, commerical & industrial settings as a Journeyman Pipefitter & I've seen crap that these "common sense" people that your spurting off about that will make your hair stand up straight & just wonder why the building hasn't either caught fire or blowned up, yet. NO I HAVE LEARNED OVER ALL THOSE YEARS THAT I WORKED AS A FITTER COMMON SENSE GET THROWN OUT OF THE WINDOW, FIRST!! Build by the codes, pay the money & you will live for another day. Don't follow them then don't be surprised if you/ or one of your loved ones get hurt from one of your common sense mistakes!!

8/28/2013 7:52:15 AM

Americans are over loaded with laws and regulations. Building codes only put money into city, county and state pockets. Common sense and building experience should be the only code you need. These codes are supported, encouraged from the wood and building industries. We are over burdened from all of this. It's intrusive. It's legalized robbery. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. No, I do NOT support this in a world full of homelessness and particularly here in America. Not so much the Home Of The Free unless you've got the money.

8/23/2013 10:29:37 AM

There are two additional resources that are ommitted from this article. IAPMO produces the Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement, written to provide sustainable requirements in harmony with any other construction code for both non-residential and residential buildings. It is important to note that while the International Green Construction Code is a valuable resource, its requirements do not apply to low-rise residential buildings. ASHRAE also produces a great resource; the ASHRAE 189.1 Standard for high performance building (not low-rise residetial). A standard is written slightly different than a construction code, but still offers potential builders guidance and requirements to safely implement sustainable measures.

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