Building Codes: A Bare Minimum That Won't Keep You Safe            Decker Home Services

By William Decker, CMI - Decker Home Services

Recently a woman died in an apartment fire in the upscale Lakeview neighborhood on Chicago's north side, and her death was totally preventable.  It is tragic that there have been many other such deaths and injuries and that they were all easily avoidable.  Why do they happen?

I am a home inspector.  I usually inspect houses, condominiums and apartment buildings before a real estate purchase so as to inform the buyer of the condition of the property.  Buyers want to find out whether there will be expensive problems with the house (sinking foundation, leaking roof, leaky pipes, etc) but they are also are concerned with safety hazards.  Local building codes are the guidelines that are applied when a house is originally built, but these codes only represent the bare minimum and do not (and cannot) solely ensure the property is completely safe or that the work is of high quality.  Home inspectors evaluate the house using the local building codes, but also using the national construction codes and the industry best standards, we inspect to a much higher standard.

If the building codes are the government's way of protecting the public, why did this woman die? First, a little clarification is in order.

Chicago has a history of dynamic and leading edge architecture and construction.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 lead to what are probably the most rigid and complete fire and building codes in the nation.  These changes lead to an almost complete ban on wooden frame houses (for awhile) but also to changes in all the aspects of construction.  Chicago's building codes requires that all electrical wiring be encased in metal piping, that all water supply piping be metal and many other requirements that are stricter than most other parts of the country.  And because Chicago is the 900 lb. municipal gorilla in this area, most of the surrounding towns and suburbs have also adopted these standards.  But, if this is so, why did this woman die?

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What are building codes?  The national trade associations, representing electricians, carpenters and plumbers, as well as the construction material manufacturers, produce standards for construction materials and techniques.  These reflect the national "building codes", such as the National Electrical Code (NEC) and the International Residential Code (IRC).  Because there are always new materials and construction systems being developed, these national codes are updated regularly.  Many smaller municipalities, through local legislative action, merely adopt these national codes and usually make minor changes based upon the specific local conditions in their areas of the country.  Larger cities will sometimes develop their own building codes, using these national standards as a template, but most of these local building codes will be specific to their cities.  Because the adoption of building codes is a legislative process, there is a great deal of consideration given to political concerns, sometimes overriding national safety standards so as to cater to special interests and campaign contributors.  Politicians, most times, have to trade off different constituencies just to get laws passed.  Building codes are as much political documents as they are technical documents.

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Construction considerations: Let's face facts. Developers and construction companies are in business to make money.  They will design houses and apartment buildings that are appealing to the perspective buyers, but they also have to keep an eye on the bottom line.  Houses must be built and sold for the builder to make enough money to stay in business and build more houses.  Construction materials cost money and workman must be paid.  After construction is complete, the builder has to sell it at a price that is both acceptable to the buyer and allows him to meet his expenses and make a profit.  If people want perfect and completely safe housing, they will have to pay for it, but no one wants to pay those prices so there are always compromises.  Building codes provide the builder with the basic, bare minimum legal standards required for construction.

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Code inspection considerations: As the house or building is being designed and constructed, municipal code inspectors will look at the various plans and systems (plumbing, electric, structure, etc) but these code inspectors cannot ensure complete compliance.  There is too much construction (remember the building boom of the late 2000s) and too little money in the city budgets to make sure that everything is 100% safe.  I happen to agree with a statement made by the past Chicago Mayor, that the responsibility for construction quality and safety is the contractor's, not the government's.

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Grandfather clauses: A house built in 1924, or even as recently as 1994, does not comply with all the current construction standards.  New construction techniques and materials are developed and new code requirements are developed as these materials come into use and, as is always inevitable, new problems are discovered.  What was perfectly safe and acceptable in the middle of the last century can be very dangerous in the 21st century.  The homeowner cannot be reasonably required to have his house rebuilt every 5 years, so the local governments allow "grandfathering" of older houses and buildings.  Simply put, the rule is that if the construction was code compliant when it was built, it will "grandfather" as compliant even when the requirements change.  Older houses that may have bare knob and tube electrical wiring are still considered, legally, to be in compliance with the current building codes even though they are, in fact, dangerous.  Usually, these defects will not be required to be upgraded to current standards unless they undergo significant remodeling or change.  Even when the remodeling is done, many homeowners do not see the need to pay the extra expense of doing the upgrade and have the workman only do the bare minimum (there's that phrase again).

So, let's look at the issues involved in the recent fire.  Why did this woman die?

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Grandfathering: When the apartment building was originally constructed, there was no requirement for the fire sprinkler system that would be mandated today.  The city has attempted to get the owners of older buildings to retrofit sprinkler systems into older buildings, but this is expensive.  The City Council, just last month, voted to delay the changes for another three years.  This was a political decision and it is common to blame the politicians, but these decisions are also made because the public (the building owners) doesn't want to pay the added expense and lobby to have deadlines pushed back.  This also happens in condominiums, where the home owner associations don't have the reserves and apply for extensions.  The blame can easily be spread around.  As the old saying goes, "It's all just fun and games until someone gets hurt".

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Lack of understanding:  In this building, each apartment was required to have a front door that was fire rated and that was equipped with an automatic door closing system.  These requirements are designed to keep fire and smoke from spreading from one unit to the rest of the building, containing the fire into a small area.  In this case, the apartment owners were concerned that their cat would be trapped and used a rug to keep this fire door open.  As a result, the fire and smoke spread to the hallway and, sadly, killed.

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Politics: When a tragedy like this occurs, people are rightly shocked and this shock turns to anger.  They want to know who's responsible.  if something bad happens, there ought to be someone who is to blame and can be made to pay (either money or jail time).  The local municipality does not want the blame (politicians are like that) and deflect away from themselves.  Legally, they are immune from blame, but seeing deeper, the fault lies with us in expecting that government can ever fully protect us.  The truth is that everyone and no one are to blame.  No one in that no one person is really to blame.  Everyone because all the people involved have set up a system by which no one of them can be held accountable, including the homeowner and the general public.

As a state licensed home inspector, I am required to call out problems in houses, condominiums and buildings that I inspect.  I take local building codes into consideration but more importantly I look to the current national standards and industry best practices and especially when it concerns safety issues.  If I see a problem, I do not care if the local municipality allows or grandfathers the issue, I call it out.  This is because I work in my client's best interests, not those of the builder or the local government.

Here are some common safety and health hazards I see in many houses.  The interesting point I would make is that almost all of these problems can be easily and inexpensively fixed, but usually are not.

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Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) electrical outlets work to protect people from electrical shock and even electrocution.  They have been required, by  national construction standards, since the mid 1980s.  But many houses that were built before then, and never undergone significant remodeling, are missing this vital protection.  It is significant to note that adding GFCI protection to a house is very inexpensive.

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Arc Fault Circuit Interrupt electrical protection, required starting in the early 2000s, guards against electrical fires.  While more expensive to retrofit (changes involve replacing some circuit breakers and should only do done by a qualified electrician) the added safety is well worth it.

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Bare bulb light fixtures, with the light bulb exposed, are also unsafe.  They are usually found in closets, where they can set stacked up blankets afire, and in basements and garages.  The new concern with these light fixtures is the increasing use of the new energy-efficient compact florescent (CFL) light bulbs.  These bulbs contain mercury gas, and if they are broken this gas can be released into the house.  All light fixtures should be covered with some sort of glass covering or grill to guard against these hazards.

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All stairways with more than a couple of steps should be equipped with a graspable handrail.  "Graspable" means a rail that one can put their hand around and grip to avoid falling.

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Dishwasher drain connections should be equipped with a "high loop" or an air gap drain so that the water from the kitchen sink drain does not flow back into the dishwasher and contaminate the dishes with germs and result in food poisoning.  For this reason, dishwashers should not be drained, directly, to food disposer units.

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Doors that connect to attached garages should be weather sealed, fire rated and be equipped with an automatic door closing device.  If there is a garage fire, this will close off its spread to the attached house.  It will also make sure that no carbon monoxide from the garage (car warming up) will leak into the house.

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Kitchen stoves MUST have an anti-tip bracket installed on the wall behind the stove.  If the oven door is opened and a young child (especially a toddler, grabbing for a hand hold) they can push the door down and the entire stove can tip over.  Try it yourself.  If the stove tips, pull the stove away from the wall and look for a small wall bracket, usually on the right side.  Many appliance installation people have no clue about this bracket and don't atucally read the manufacturer's installation instructions.  While you are at checking this, look for any old packing material (Styrofoam, cardboard) on the back of the stove.  Many fires have been started because the installer missed removing this.

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Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced every 5 years.  Most of these detectors are equipped with a small radioactive source that ionizes the smoke and CO molecules to detect them.  These radioactive sources wear down, over time, and the actual detectors no longer work.  Remember, pushing the test button on these devices will only "test" the battery and not the actual detector.

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If you live in an older condominium or apartment building, please consider having the building equipped with a sprinkler system.  It may not be required, by the local building codes, but these systems save lives and allow people (and pets) extra time to get out of the building.  Strangely enough, the most common reason that people don't want a sprinkler system installed is because they are concerned with their belongings being water damaged if the sprinklers go off accidentally.

All of these issues can be easily addressed, and should be, even if the local building codes do not require it.  A certified home inspector can do a complete assessment of these issues for you.  Who knows, it may even save a life.

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