Tips for Building a New Home and Home Renovations

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Photos By Bill McAllen
A construction shot shows the straw bales before plastering; note the roof overhangs that offer weather protection.

Once upon a time, people made dwellings out of rocks, dirt, grass, ice, or trees–whatever they pleased. They learned what worked through instinct and error; sometimes buildings rotted away, burned down, or caved in; sometimes they killed or maimed their inhabitants. Thus were born building codes. In 1758 b.c., the Babylonian king Hammurabi enacted the first building code, which mandated death for any builder who constructed a dwelling that fell and killed its owner.

Despite what you may think, today’s building codes are somewhat more kindly–and they aim to protect inhabitants from harm before it’s too late. Yet if you want to build your home of rocks, dirt, straw, bamboo, or unmilled trees, you’ll probably face regulatory discouragement. Building practices and codes have favored industrial building materials–concrete, steel, and milled lumber–and public health crises have given rise to mandated central plumbing, flush toilets, and central sewage treatment.

Although building codes were created to protect our health and safety, in a larger sense they encourage practices that are detrimental to our collective well-being. If you want to build your walls of straw and earth, collect rainwater for drinking, or water your garden with graywater, you can’t assume that getting a building permit will be a slam-dunk. As an architect who frequently escorts designs for earth and straw homes through the permitting process, I’ve seen acceptance increase tremendously over the past few decades. However, if you want to use “nonstandard” approaches, expect to put in extra time and effort.

Because every building department is unique, each nonstandard approach may be viewed differently, and even timing can affect how your submittal will be received (the first person to propose something unfamiliar usually works harder for acceptance). The best strategy is to fortify yourself with knowledge about the alternatives you want to use, the building codes, and the process of obtaining a building permit.

Secrets of codes and permitting

To begin with, here are some facts not widely known outside the building professions:

• Getting a permit has more to do with your building department than with the codes. Building codes are created at the national level, yet they are adopted, altered, and enforced at the local level.

• Building codes contain provisions for alternative construction. Section 104.11 of the International Building Code authorizes building officials to evaluate alternative materials, designs, or methods with respect to the code’s intent, and to specify and accept test results in support of those alternatives.

• Not all buildings require a normal permit. Some areas in the United States have no building codes. A few jurisdictions have special “owner-builder codes” that allow home construction with minimal government oversight. And most codes exempt nonoccupied accessory buildings under a designated square footage.

• Anyone can propose changes to building codes. Codes are altered or supplemented annually through a review and hearing process that anyone can participate in.

A code and permit primer

In the United States, building codes were born in 1625 to address fire safety and materials for roof coverings. They blossomed in the 1800s in larger cities to regulate such features as fire escapes, ventilation, water supply, toilets, and stair railings. By 1940, there were three regional code organizations in the United States, each with a different model building code. Those regional codes have recently been replaced by a single national family of building codes under the auspices of the International Code Council (ICC). These include the International Building Code (IBC), International Residential Code (IRC), and international versions of the Mechanical, Plumbing, Fire, and Energy Conservation codes, and they are now being adopted by building departments nationwide. There are also codes specific to various aspects of building, including the National Electric Code and other standards for materials, equipment, methods, and testing, which are referenced by the IBC. Check with your local building department to learn what codes are in effect and when new codes may be adopted.

Code adoption takes place at the local, county, or state level, and building codes are enforced through the permit and inspection process. Typically, a building department requires that you submit complete construction documents for your proposed building. You may also have to submit drawings to planning, health, and other departments for approval. When all the required parties have signed off and you’ve paid the mandated fees, you’re granted a building permit.

Who’s fixing the codes?

As one of the modern pioneers of straw-bale construction, David Eisenberg, coauthor of The Straw Bale House (Chelsea Green, 1994), understands the need for code change. In recent years, he has devoted himself to a program called Building Sustainability into the Codes, through his Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT). “One of the most important insights I’ve had,” Eisenberg says, “was realizing that DCAT’s goals closely parallel those of building officials: We all want safe buildings. We’ve made remarkable progress by developing collaborative relationships within the code and green-building communities, and defining a long-term vision of sustainability based on the common goal for both: creating a safe and healthy environment for our own and future generations.

“I long ago realized that what I really wanted to change wasn’t in the codes,” he continues. “It was in the hearts and minds of the people who write, enforce, and use the codes. Because once people can see the stream of unintended consequences flowing from what they are requiring people to do, the codes will change.” The DCAT website provides the latest news in that ongoing process, along with numerous resources, links, and an interactive forum.

DCAT is affiliated with the Ecological Building Network (EBNet), which was founded by engineer Bruce King, author of Buildings of Earth and Straw (Ecological Design Press, 1996). EBNet gathers technical information, conducts engineering testing, and disseminates information about both to facilitate legal acceptance of straw-bale construction and other environmentally friendly building materials.

What about now?

If you’re seeking a building permit, the best thing you can do is bring your most positive attitude to the process. Emphasize information and relationships. Research your materials and systems thoroughly, and do your best to turn your building officials into advocates for your project. Gather case studies and advice to strengthen your presentation.

As Eisenberg says, we can help code officials understand the crucial role they play in facilitating a shift to more sustainable practices. “We have found that working in this way enables us to connect code officials to the highest place from which they can do their work–not the details in the codes, but what it really is that we’re trying to safeguard: the health of present and future generations of humans and all living systems.”

The story of the North/Schwenter cottage

The North/Schwenter cottage was the first permitted load-bearing straw-bale building in California. Knowing that they were pioneers, architect Bob Theis and his clients anticipated difficulties. To their surprise, the seismic bracing was approved with only minor modifications, but the sticking points were unanticipated issues such as attachment of electrical boxes and the flame-spread rating of the bales in the walls. It took twelve weeks of communications and testing to get the building department’s approval. Because architect, clients, and contractor (Skillful Means Construction) were all new to straw-bale construction, Theis spent a lot of time getting input from knowledgeable people.

1. Preparing for the approval process

Adapted from an article written by David Eisenberg and the editors of Environmental Building News and published in the September 2001 issue of Environmental Building News.