International Residential Code

Interpreting The Code

How the interpretations affect construction defect disputes
By Ben Teague

In construction defect disputes it is common to have differences in opinion over design problems and the experts witnesses usually argue back and forth over opinions regarding whether a construction procedure is proper or not, for months and even years before a jury or arbitrator finally makes a decision on who is right and who is wrong.

Building code violations, unlike design disputes, present a serious problem for the builder's defense team because the building code is based on written rules that must be followed. When the rules are not followed the builder has no defense, especially when the code violation causes a defect. When an expert who knows the building codes can confirm violations and resulting defects, the builder’s defense team has a real problem coming up with excuses for the problems.

During the mediation on a recent dispute, It became apparent that the only response to code violations is for the defense to claim that the building codes are open to different interpretations and the codes may be waived depending on what the building official decides to enforce and/or not enforce. There are some apparent myths in the CD business that defense attorneys like to lean on. They are as follows...

  • Myth #1. The Glossary Link IRC (International Residential Code) is open to anyone’s interpretation
  • Myth #2. The building official has the authority to interpret the building code as he/she sees fit as well as the authority to decide what to enforce and what not to.

I would like to address these myths and dispel them as incorrect so as to avoid any more confusion in the future.

The first thing to understand is why the need to interpret the code.

The definition of the word “interpret” is; to explain or tell the meaning of; or to present in understandable terms.

Note: In almost all cases where individuals are experienced construction professionals, the meaning of the IRC is very clear and understandable. The code is based around the intention of good workmanship, so its rules and requirements as written are completely clear and understandable to contractors who are familiar with good quality building practices. The IRC, as it has been published, leaves almost no room for an incorrect understanding of its meaning unless the person does not know how to construct buildings in a good quality of workmanship. It should be understood that the authors who wrote the building codes were trying to describe or prescribe a (one) specific procedure for the application for which it is written. The building codes are considered to be the minimum building requirements for the industry.

So, why is there a need to interpret?

  1. Interpretation of the building code almost always arises when someone who does not know how to build, needs some direction on proper construction practice in order to build to a good construction standard, or, screws something up and then needs some direction on how to follow good construction procedures. As a result of a lack of experience or knowledge of good construction practice, the builder/contractor does not understand the meaning of the language in the code and therefore can not follow it. This usually happens when classroom educated people (degree in construction management for example) become contractors with no prior experience. They seem to have the deep pockets to get work done but no practical construction knowledge to get it done properly.
  2. There are far more people in the building industry that don’t know much about construction than people that do. There are also more building inspectors in the inspection business that know even less about construction than the builders that know nothing about construction. The IRC allows the building official to interpret the code. If the building official doesn’t understand how to construct according to good workmanship practices, then there is no possible way for him/her to know how to interpret (explain the meaning of in understandable terms) the code. As a result of a lack of experience or knowledge of good construction practice, the building official will not know the meaning of the code and therefore not be able to properly interpret it nor will he/she properly enforce it. This is why there are so many code violations that go un-checked or are not enforced.

What authority does the building official have?

  1. Construction defect defense attorneys like to propose (incorrectly) that there is some kind of flexibility or ambiguity in the language of the IRC. The argument that the building official has the authority to interpret the code is a valid point. Section R104.1 states that the building official has the authority to render interpretations of the code and to adopt policies and procedures in order to clarify the application of its provisions. This code section also goes on to say that “Such interpretations, policies and procedures shall be in conformance with the intent and purpose of the code. Such policies and procedures shall not have the effect of waiving requirements specifically provided for in the code”. That makes it clear that the building official can not waive any of the provisions of the code. Note the word SHALL. The word shall has a strict interpretation and is not subjective in any way. So, defense attorneys and builders do not have a valid argument when they try to convince judges and jury’s that the code can be interpreted differently or that there is some flexibility within its rules and specifications. The only room for argument is when someone does not understand the language of the code due to a lack of construction knowledge. The 2000 IRC is published with the word SHALL on all 611 pages, multiple times in all cases. Sometimes the word SHALL is found dozens of times on a single page. In fact, the word SHALL is printed 6,404 times in the 2000 IRC, 6,902 times in the 2003 IRC and 7,465 times in the 2006 IRC. This fact makes it obvious that the author of the document was making an attempt to describe or prescribe a specific requirement for a specific situation and wanted a strict interpretation of the language.
  2. Back to the main problem which is that most people (builders as well as code enforcement officials) don’t understand what the building code author is trying to say because they don’t now how to build or construct a structure to good workmanship standards. When you deal with an inexperienced builder and code enforcement official (who is rendering incorrect interpretations) and throw in an attorney with absolutely no practical construction knowledge whatsoever, the twisted interpretations can appear to be something from a science fiction novel. This is where the false claim that the code can be interpreted subjectively comes from.

During mediation and other CD meetings, I have heard several people state that “the code can be interpreted differently”. This statement is absolutely mind boggling. Real construction professionals just roll their eyes and laugh when they hear these comments. In all cases this comment is made by an individual that knows almost nothing about construction nor have they studied the IRC.

I have read the 2000, 2003, and 2006 IRC from cover to cover and every single page is elementary and completely clear on its instructions and meaning. It is almost like reading a blueprint. The people at the International Code Council who wrote the Glossary Link ICC Building Codes are the most knowledgeable group of construction professionals/engineers in the world and their code documents are an outstanding testimony to that Fact. These professionals made the code clear and concise from a construction viewpoint and it is obvious that the author’s had only one meaning in mind, therefore there can only be one correct interpretation.

Builders/Contractors who do not follow the code and enforcement officials who do not enforce the code do not want people to know this. These are the only people who declare that the code is open to different interpretations and that the code enforcement official has the authority to pick and choose what happens on construction sites. These people are the same ones who try to convince the public that the code enforcement officer is the judge and jury and can interpret rules as he/she would like to. It is a disservice to the public, for whom the Codes were written to protect, for any person to improperly imply that the International Code Council’s Rules for construction practices is flexible, ambiguous, or subjective or that the building official has the authority to waive the requirements of the code.

The bottom line is that the IRC sometimes does need to be interpreted. (see the definition)The very bottom line is that if the IRC needs to be interpreted, It should be done by someone with an extensive construction background and who understands the meaning of the word SHALL.

So both myths are incorrect after you look closer at the facts and anyone who makes an attempt to promote them is usually trying to cover up construction mistakes or a lack of proper code enforcement.

By Ben Teague
© 2011


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