Code Talk: Challenges for Architects

Most of the architects I have known are not comfortable with codes. They want to comply with applicable codes, but they find them confusing, tedious, contradictory, or even frightening. Codes are always being revised or superseded. It takes time to determine how a combination of applicable codes can be reasonably applied to a particular building type and scale, and it seems that the codes are changed almost as soon as the architect reaches a level of comfort with the requirements.

One of the reasons that it takes more than a little time to determine the application of codes to a specific project is that codes tend to be dense and voluminous texts that are full of “fine print”, numerous exceptions and cross references, and hierarchies that are hard to follow (i.e., “Which article has precedence in this situation?”). Further, the architect is usually charged by statute with the professional responsibility to account for the application of numerous, differing codes – on the same project. In some cases, state or local authorities have adopted parts of different codes that cover similar matters, adding their own hierarchies to interpretation of requirements, and the architects are challenged with having to determine how to resolve gaps and conflicts that have not been addressed by the state or local authorities. Codes that include graphic illustrations of requirements are generally easier for architects to understand, because many – if not most – architects tend to think graphically. In that regard, accessibility guidelines that rely on graphic illustrations have been much easier to follow than text-only codes. Code commentaries or handbooks such as those available from ICC and NFPA can be more useful than the codes themselves due to the use of graphic illustrations. Graphic illustrations can also be enlightening for code writing authorities where the illustrations are intended to cover typical conditions, and the pictures themselves may raise questions that are then considered and addressed by the authorities.

Another challenge for architects is how to satisfy the professional responsibility to apply code requirements in those situations where less than full design services are contracted. If contracted services are limited to preliminary phases of design or other design iterations that exclude detailed drawings and specifications, how should the architect account for code requirements in the preliminary design phases, and how should the architect account for code requirements that would normally be applied to the development of detailed plans and specifications? How should the architect alert the owner (and/or contractor) of the need for the owner or contractor to complete the process of code compliance related to parts of the design that are beyond the architect’s contracted scope of services?

I recall the advice or direction of one architect employer to make sure that what you do show on drawings is correct. His comment was not really focused on codes, but it could be applied to the question of code compliance in preliminary design. The code requirements to be considered in preliminary design tend to be large scale matters that would govern detailed development of a design in later phases. For example, a schematic design would consider zoning regulations such as building setbacks and building height and also allowable area and height as established by the applicable building code for the intended building use. That would be an appropriate design phase for consideration and documentation of building code construction type. The preliminary code analysis should reveal any applicable requirement for fire walls to divide the project into ‘technically’ separate buildings, and appropriate locations for such fire walls could be shown diagrammatically on the preliminary plans together with notation referencing the specific code provisions that would govern development of detailed design in a later phase. If it is not practical to even approximately locate such fire walls diagrammatically, those applicable code requirements should be included in notes that relate to the schematic plans. A similar approach can be followed for other code considerations that relate to the preliminary design, such as wheelchair accessible entrances that will require detailed design (e.g., accessible ramps, railings, door approaches, hardware, etc.) in subsequent design phases. Following this approach, each design phase would include code information appropriate to the phase and an indication of further design that is required in a subsequent phase.

One good reason to develop a comprehensive preliminary design approach to code compliance is to lay the groundwork for subsequent design development and documentation that will be performed by staff in the same office or on the same team. Another, perhaps more significant reason, is that architects are sometimes invited to defend themselves against claims of noncompliance where their services were limited to preliminary design and the code matters in question would customarily be applied to a later design phase (e.g., detailed construction documents). While an argument of exclusion by agreement may be valid, the time and cost to wage the argument after the fact may be a greater problem, especially if the project owner has encountered either an unexpected and costly construction change or post-construction change after the architect was dismissed from the project.

Posted in Codes, Design, Project Management

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