There has been so much talk over the years around the “straw bale building table” about building codes and how they get in the way of our ability to build with natural materials. I have heard people talk about how building officials have ruined their dreams time and again, and stories about building officials requiring so many “over the top” details in a home that building it became impossible. You can imagine, therefore, that I tend to shock people when I tell them that I actually like building officials and that I prefer job sites that have an inspection process over those where no building officials visit the site. Let me explain.
If you have ever been to a job site where no building inspections take place and no plan review is required, you may have seen what I have seen: a house that is built below code with several omissions and/or mistakes which put the occupants at risk. For example, deciding to save a little money by not installing collar-ties between your rafters could lead to the roof’s collapse and your death or injury. That’s certainly not worth the money saved. Just because you are not required to build to code doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. A lot of thought has gone in to developing the building codes we use both here in the States and abroad. You may find that some are overkill and some are unnecessary based on the scope of your project; however, I strongly recommend that you adopt as many of the code provisions as you can in order to provide a safe home for you and your family.
Building codes are a minimum requirement for structural safety (among other things); however, if you want a really well built house, exceeding that minimum may be the way to go. All of the houses I have built over the years have been built to exceed minimum code requirements. Here’s an example of where this may be applicable to you that I give at the straw bale workshops I teach: Floor joists, when installed to meet code, will still have a considerable amount of deflection in them making for a slightly bouncy floor. I prefer my floors to feel solid, even when my kids are running around on them, so I always either increase the joist size or decrease the spacing between joists when I build. You will of course need to balance whether the extra costs involved in exceeding code requirements is worth it to you. For me, I want the best end product I can possibly build, every time.
Communicating With the Building Department
Many people view building departments as the enemy. I would like to propose that if you change your view of a building department, you may appreciate their input that much more. I look at building inspectors as allies, a “free” set of eyes on the job site. Sure, you pay for the permit, so their eyes are not exactly free, but they are available to you to ask as many questions as you want during your build. Anytime you call the office with questions or ask an inspector on site, you can get advice from a seasoned professional. This is very helpful if you are building alone and have limited experience yourself. This treasure trove of advice can become skewed and a bit more complicated as soon as you start working with the bales though. Once you start with the baling and anything related to the unconventional side of your project, that expertise may quickly drop off and become skepticism. There are ways to avoid the moment of transition to unconventional from becoming a turning point in your project, and taking a turn for the worse. I’ll outline some general guidelines that I recommend you implement from the very start of your communication with the building department in order to create a positive and trusting relationship with them.
▪ Speak to the building department with respect. The old adage “you only get one chance to make a first impression” is true. If you go in there with your hackles up, ready for a fight, you will probably get just that. If, however, you go in with respect and a genuine desire to move forward with your project while working together with the inspectors, you will have a much better chance of success.
▪ Be willing to learn and teach. If you have done your homework well, you will have read books, watched DVDs, taken a hands-on workshop, and learned everything you can about straw bale construction. Chances are that your inspectors have not traveled the same road so share what you have learned. Give them a copy of your DVD to watch or book to read. Share applicable web links to technical data with them. The more “cold hard facts” on straw bale construction you can offer them, the better.
▪ When you call and talk to your inspectors before the project begins, make sure you are as knowledgeable as possible about the topics you are discussing. Ask them what their concerns are about the bale portion of the job and then get back to them with specific details about those concerns. For example, if they are worried about the bales being a fire risk in the structure, don’t just say “not to worry, bale homes are really fire resistant.” Although a true statement, they will likely need something more, something from an official viewpoint. Instead, direct them to the video footage of the ASTM fire testing in which bale structures passed with more fire resistance than conventional homes. The more you can teach them about bale construction, within the context of your mutually respectful relationship, the better.
▪ Be humble, but don’t play dead. It is especially important at the beginning of your relationship with the building department to create an understanding. If they require you to jump through a lot of hoops, take a close look at those hoops and see which ones are really not that big of a deal and start jumping. For those that are unrealistic, over the top or otherwise something you simply refuse to do, make a stand and explain why you are making your stand. Be sure that your stand is backed by facts and details you can back up with official documents whenever possible.
▪ Show them that you appreciate their input. Ask for their help on topics which you are not 100% clear about. This is a good thing to do around the conventional parts of things: foundation, framing, etc. Ask them to teach you some of the finer points of the code, but don’t make yourself look incapable. Remember, you are building a house, and you want to come across as well prepared to do that.
▪ Learn the building code. This one is huge, not only for your own success in building your home, but also in regards to impressing the building department. Having educated conversations about different aspects of the code will impress your inspectors and show them that you truly take the process seriously. You will also get a better house out of it in the end.
▪ Keep a clean and organized job site. When the inspectors show up on your project, they will immediately take notice of your site. If, for example, you have a job site full of debris, tools, materials, old food, and lumber scraps in random piles, they will assume your attention to detail is not very good. That type of site not only worries the inspectors to the tune of them looking closer at all of your construction details (what else are you ignoring in the construction process?), but also slows down your build (where the heck is the chainsaw file?). Better to remain organized and on top of these details.
▪ Be prepared for your inspections. Don’t call the building department and request an inspection before you are ready. No inspector likes to drive out to a site only to find a builder who is not 100% ready for them. That’s a waste of their time. Instead, be completely ready, have a pot of coffee and some donuts available, have your permit easily accessible, and be prepared to answer any questions he or she may have. You want to impress them and have them leave as quickly as possible. That speeds their day and yours.
As I recently shared on the StrawBale.com blog, we have reached perhaps the most exciting time in straw bale construction history with the approval of the proposed appendix on straw bale construction at the International Code Council (ICC) Final Action Hearings in Atlantic City on October 4, 2013. The appendix will be included in the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family dwellings. Further, an effort will also be made to add illustrations and explanations in the commentary version of the 2015 IRC.
This code was created by lead author Martin Hammer, Architect, with Kevin Donahue SE, Mark Aschheim PE, Dan Smith, Architect, John Swearingen, David Eisenberg, Jane Andersen PE, and members of the Global Straw Building Network including Laura Bartels, Andy Mueller, Bill Steen, Derek Roff, and Jacob Racusin. Martin Hammer also wishes to acknowledge the pioneers of straw bale building, especially Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox. He specifically wants to acknowledge Matts Myhrrman and David Eisenberg as authors of the first-ever straw bale code, in Arizona in 1995 as well as the many people involved in testing and research of straw bale building over the last 20 years, as well as the entire straw bale building community worldwide.
Moving forward in a continuing effort to increase acceptance of straw bale building techniques in an even wider market, a straw bale construction appendix is expected to be proposed for the 2018 International Building Code (IBC) in January 2015. The IBC governs all structures in its jurisdictions except one- and two-family dwellings which are covered by the IRC. This would create a path to permits for all residential structures not covered by the IRC (multi-family dwellings, for example) as well as commercial and all other governed structures (churches, schools, etc.). In addition, a peer review is under way regarding a required FEMA P-695 analysis of seismic performance of plastered straw bale wall systems. This review could greatly affect parts of the anticipated IBC proposal.
You can view the complete appendix by clicking the link in my blog entry “We Have a National Straw Bale Building Code” on StrawBale.com.
So whether your area requires you to get a building permit or not, study the best practices of quality straw bale builders. Buy books and DVDs that teach modern construction techniques. Take a hands-on workshop to learn in detail from industry experts. Hire a qualified architect, designer and/or engineer. Consider working with a consultant. Whatever you do, don’t build your house for you. Build it to last for your children’s children. If you put that kind of quality attention into your home and build to or even exceed the minimum requirements of building codes, you will create a work of art that will stand the tests of time. That’s what a home is to me and that’s why building codes matter.
Andrew has a passion for straw bale construction that is matched only by his desire to teach his knowledge to others. With nearly 20 years of building and contracting experience, he has now moved his practice entirely to consulting and teaching. He shares his knowledge with thousands of people via his DVD series, blog, and hands on workshops. To learn more, please visit www.StrawBale.com.