March 31, 2014

Some “Building Code & Bylaw Basics” worth knowing

So let me start by saying I am not about to reproduce even a condensed version of the BC Building Code in blog form … that’s just way too much information and it’s not exactly the most exciting of topics.  I was at Blue Man Group in Vancouver on Thursday … that was exciting.  Very colourful too.  Building Codes … not so much!

[close your eyes & picture now in your mind a large binder full of pages with very few diagrams written by someone with the sense of humour of a Latin teacher who collects stamps “for fun” … now you have a clear picture of the BC Building Code in hard copy]

You can open your eyes again …

Building Codes cover all sorts of aspects of building design / construction from dimensions of structural elements and fasteners (screws & nails), to fire ratings, heights of railings & when one is needed, where smoke detectors are required, how wide different plumbing drains need to be, design of foundations, etc etc.  Pretty much every part of a home has a building code associated with it … well OK, not the kitty litter … almost everything.  Then there are local municipal building / zoning bylaws, strata rules & “interpretation” of the codes by the various building inspectors.  Just to keep it fun for  contractors, architects, engineers, etc the bylaws can vary significantly by area.  What’s more, just because a neighbour did something one way or one method was approved in another district does not mean it will be met with approval when it comes to your wee project … the bylaws change over time and especially in recent years there have been a lot of changes with respect to building codes.  Some areas such as District of North Vancouver have more historical buildings compared to others and so there can be restrictions on what is permitted when it comes to the extent of renovations and/or materials to be used.

[picture a highly technical structural illustration with triangles, angles & numbers and lots of lines to make it look really complex … which is how architects and builders tell each other that the roof side bit must stick out from the house by enough so it doesn’t rain all down the side of your lovely new house]

There was a major update of the building codes in 2006 and then again in 2012 (which actually came in to effect in this area in 2013 ‘cos it was a wee bitty late in being published).  Personally I believe in working with the building inspectors and understanding in advance what they want to see rather than having surprises during a project … that’s never good.  That is one reason I make sure that any designs / plans we are responsible for are very detailed but also easy to understand so less is left open to individual interpretation, but also of course so the client is clear on what they are getting.

Did you know that in Vancouver you can no longer specify a knob style door handle for a new home … it must be a lever instead?  If only my granny had known ‘cos her house was full of knobs … OK, perhaps I should rephrase ?!  This was a very recent change within the last few months and one example of changes intended to make homes more accessible for those with reduced mobility / dexterity.  Another “interesting” fact; Vancouver is one of only a few jurisdictions in Canada that has it’s own building code whereas everyone else in BC follows the BC Building Code … picture another really expensive big binder full of pages of very dry reading material which is different but no more exciting than the first binder you imagined 😉

Building codes, or rather how they are interpreted and implemented, also change as new products and installation methods become available.  The first home I bought and renovated back in Edinburgh (Scotland) in the early 1990’s was built in 1780 (and no, I didn’t buy it new before you ask) … as you can imagine when walls are 2′ thick and made of solid stone there isn’t much call for insulation.  Likewise when the shared stair case in the building is also made of stone and spiral in shape with 200+ years worth of foot traffic, you can be forgiven for each stair not having the exact same dimensions as the rest.  It was so much easier when I bought a “modern” place built in 1890 and at least the stair wells were square … so much easier for getting large things such as couches and stoves up & down.  However conversely I have worked in homes less than 10 years old where the floor is off level by 2″ within the length of one room … I know we live in the “throw-away” generation but I would rather like to think I could pass on my home to at least one generation before it crumbles to pieces 😉  I’m getting side tracked!

On another vein … In many parts of Squamish and Brackendale, for example, you will see homes built slab on grade ie. they poured a concrete slab directly on the ground & then built the house directly on that flat surface.  Fine & dandy if the home is up a hill somewhere.  Not so wonderful if you’re located in a flood plain … which in the case of parts of Squamish and Brackendale as it turns out is now anything up to 2 metres below the current flood control level.  Any way, where was I … oh yes … so now it is becoming an all too common issue for home owners in these lower lying areas closer to the estuary to find when they apply to build an addition that it has to start with a crawl space and elevate the livable accommodation several feet above the current home’s ground floor.  Just look around at new homes being built in these areas and see for yourself that everything appears to be “jacked up” on their foundations and/or the home is on a wee hill if the grade itself has been built up.  This isn’t to say that building slab on grade is against building code, but rather that within certain zones it is not allowed as part of the bylaws because of the potential for flooding from nearby rivers.   What seemed like a good idea 40 years ago has become a serious issue very recently … whatever you build new has to comply with the current building codes and bylaws regardless of whether the original home would be completely lost if there was ever a serious flood.  There used to be a bit more flexibility (in the case of District of Squamish) with regard to flood control level enforcement (FCL) but now this is all determined at a provincial level so that is one reason you may have noticed tighter controls recently.  So the moral of this story is … if you are looking at a home to buy or considering building an addition / extension, consider exactly where the home is located and what restrictions may affect how you can modify that home in the future as your needs change.  In Whistler as well as part of West Vancouver there are many areas where bedrock and sloping terrain plays a big part in determining what is feasible within your budget.  All areas have restrictions on the proportion of the land that you can build on (both in terms of the actual physical area the home covers and the accommodation area on all floors) and again this varies depending where you are … nowadays you can get much of this info by digging (excuse the pun) through local building / zoning bylaws online.

A little clarification on terminology as I hear this come up quite often; applying for a building permit does not literally mean you intend to construct a building or necessarily make major changes to an existing building or structure.  If you are doing a complete bathroom renovation, for example, then you would typically apply for a building permit first (think of it as filling out a form to say you want to do a renovation) and then when it comes time for the plumber to move a drain or run new water lines they would get the plumbing permit but reference the building permit which usually the contractor (or homeowner) takes responsibility for.  Likewise if there was any electrical work such as running new wires for recessed lighting then the electrician would be granted an electrical permit with reference to the building permit for that project.  The building permit is like a “catch all” for the project and what the inspector references when checking any framing, insulation / vapour barrier, fire separation requirements, etc.  I’ve mentioned this before but ultimately it is the responsibility of the home owner to make sure they have a permit for work being done where required.  As a contractor I do not expect homeowners always to know so we can guide them & we usually take care of the paperwork, but it is well worth educating yourself in this regard.  Plus if you have trouble sleeping a couple hours spent reading up on this stuff will probably help 😉

Well I hope at least one sentence of this was either useful or moderately entertaining … I guess I should have warned at the beginning of slight sarcasm and the occasional Scottish phrase / word.  Auch well it’s a wee bitty late for that now!

Some useful links:-