Working with Building Officials

While Owen and I often point out the problems associated with dealing with codes and the officials who administer them, the flip side of this is that establishing a good relationship with the building authorities can make projects possible that would otherwise be denied. Building codes do generally allow alternatives to the common methods of construction, at the discretion of the administrator. For this reason alone, it can be productive to work with the authorities in finding ways that can work for both of you.

The policy that has been adopted by many building  jurisdictions is that alternative methods and materials are fine, as long as the application is accompanied by an architect or engineer’s stamp of approval. This often means employing a professional that is licensed in your state. While this might seem like a costly nuisance, the benefits can make it well worth the cost.  Not only can this make the project pass code, it might make you aware of some structural aspects that really deserve more refined attention than you thought.

For instance, buildings generally must conform to codes regarding seismic stresses that might be expected in your region. The professionals know ways of doing this  that will meet the structural guidelines of the codes that might not occur to you.

When you assess all of the factors that go into living sustainability, you might realize that building a code-approved home that happens to be near mass transit, employment, good schools, frequented stores, etc. is the better choice than setting up camp out in the country beyond the reach of code authorities.

Earthbag building is still too new for most architects and engineers to have any experience with it, so this adds to the difficulty in getting it approved. This situation has improved recently since the folks at Precision Engineering (who are licensed in 27 states in the U.S.) have studied the technology and come up with ways to build that will pass most codes. I’m sure that there are other engineers and architects who are willing to assist with this as well. If we want alternative, more sustainable buildings, we need to keep pushing the envelope.

4 thoughts on “Working with Building Officials”

  1. What method have you found to be helpful in approaching officials? It seems that there’s very much a risk to this; if you “go official” and they approve, you have some benefits, but if they say no, then you’re kind of screwed, because they’ll know of your plan, can anticipate that you’ll be ignoring codes, and drop the hammer on you later.

    Or am I overestimating the initiative and malice of build code officials?

    • Well first of all, I don’t see them acting in malice, but rather the whole system running amuck to a degree. This seems to be the nature of giant bureaucracies.

      One good method is to learn as much as possible about the local code situation from builders and websites. Many counties are now posting their requirements on the Net, and many builders will happily answer a couple of questions. Doing some research in advance will help you know what questions to ask.

      Edited to add: Yes, there is a risk. Do this before buying land! Know what you’re getting into. Talk to those who have already built with alternative materials. Knowledge is power. Learn as much as you can.

  2. We have to smile from here, O. because,
    actually, what it comes down to is this:

    Happy is as happy does to RELIEVE said
    jurisdiction code officials from said liabilities.

  3. The tables are turning. Just a few months ago it was virtually impossible to get an engineer or architect to approve earthbag plans (other than 1-2 stock plans from Cal-earth). That’s all changed now with Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. entering the earthbag movement. That means my hard-nosed “move to remote rural areas” message has to be dampened a bit. Most don’t want to live in remote areas and now they don’t have to.


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