Building Code Anxiety?
Five rules of building codes and standards every mason contractor should know
Navigating the array of design and construction requirements of any contemporary building code is more than a little daunting. It’s frustrating, often counterintuitive, confusing, and just when you think you have things figured out, things change. There are, however, a few steadfast rules to building codes and standards we should all know.
Like most people in the masonry industry, my bookshelf (and by virtual association, my computer) is packed with various masonry resources — from guides and manuals, to product literature and articles, and of course the ubiquitous building codes and standards covering the design and construction of masonry systems. What I find bewildering isn’t the overwhelming volume of information, but instead how each of these resources has evolved through the decades to meet the market-driven needs of their time.
Consider the three masonry standards shown in Figure 1, which represent the state-of-the-art design and construction practices from 1953, 1983 and 2013. I find it fascinating to flip through historical masonry standards to see how requirements have evolved (and yes, my friends do indeed give me grief over this uncommon pastime). What I find astonishing, however, is reflected in Figure 2, which shows the relative thicknesses of each of these standards.
Rule 1: No one knows everything in the building code, but you should understand your core area of responsibility.
Simply stated, if you are a material supplier, you should be familiar with the standards and requirements that impact your products; if you are a mason contractor, you should understand the requirements that govern the construction of masonry; and so on. I can often anticipate the follow-up rebuttal: “Who has the time to keep up with the ever-changing requirements of building codes and standards when resources and time are already so stretched?”
There is no question that few people have the luxury of spare time, and coupled with the particularly less-than-entertaining nature of codes and standards, one can certainly understand the lack of motivation to simply pick up a code book and start reading. Yet, consider for a moment the perspective of the designer or specifier, who is equally tasked with navigating an ever-expanding set of building code regulations, and who more than likely does not have the ability to focus on a single construction material. Considering this, don’t maintain a working understanding of the building code requirements simply as an academic exercise. Instead, do so as part of your business and marketing strategy. Educate and brand yourself as the go-to resource to the designer/specifier, thereby making their job easier and encouraging them to use you (and masonry) more frequently on future projects.
I admit I cheated slightly in comparing the relative size of the three masonry standards in Figure 1 in order to emphasize a point. A closer inspection of each of these standards will show some similarities, but some differences as well. For example, the 2013 masonry standard introduced several new masonry technologies (pre-stressed masonry, AAC masonry, alternative design methods, etc.) that are not captured in the prior versions. Yet many masonry applications are covered in each standard, albeit very differently.
Consider the masonry veneer section taken from the 1953 ANSI Standard A41.1 American Standard Building Code Requirements for Masonry:
Section 9. Veneers
9.1. Requirements. Installation of veneers shall be in conformance with generally accepted good practice.
9.2. Load. Veneers shall not be considered as part of the wall in computing the strength of bearing walls nor shall they be considered a part of the required thickness of walls.
There is a commentary accompanying the 1953 standard, but nothing is provided for Section 9 on veneers. Effectively everything one needed to know about the installation and design of masonry veneers is captured in these two sentences. I won’t bother transcribing the veneer requirements from the 2013 standard, as doing so would consume more space than I’m allotted for this article. For context, however, let’s say it would require some creativity to fit the 2013 veneer design and construction requirements into the space used by the entire 1953 masonry standard, which brings us to our next rule of building codes:
Rule 2: Building codes and standards are complicated, but not all encompassing.
As much as building codes and standards attempt to be comprehensive, there is always some condition, some facet, some scenario that isn’t covered. Despite the requirements for veneer expanding from two sentences into a stand-alone chapter over 60 years, there are still gaps in the provisions — gaps that may not even have existed until external market drivers created them. For example, current prescriptive veneer detailing requirements limit the maximum width of the air space behind the veneer to 4.5 inches. The standard doesn’t prohibit larger air spaces, but does require them to be engineered. Unfortunately, the standard lacks specific guidance on how to design veneer assemblies with air spaces larger than 4.5 inches, and with energy codes requiring more and more insulation, designers continue to struggle with efficient means of integrating masonry into a holistic building design.
The simple solution obviously is to plug this gap by adding more guidance covering the design of large-cavity veneers (which, I’m happy to report, is already under way). Yet this isn’t a comprehensive solution. Technologies will continue to evolve and market drivers will continue to change, thereby creating new gaps no one could have anticipated today. It’s impossible to say how many masonry projects were lost at the earliest stages of design because a designer concluded that 6 inches of insulation couldn’t be fit into a 4.5-inch cavity. However, I can point to multiple projects where masonry was used — and in some cases converted from another material into masonry — because the designer reached out to their resource for solutions. Hence the importance of building code Rule 1.
Occasionally I romanticize about the simplicity of historical building codes and standards — not that I think it would be practical or prudent to revert on decades of improvements (and admittedly, some “improvements” are debatable), but there is nevertheless a degree of tranquility I find which comes with simplicity. This brings me to the question I receive most often in one form or another: “Do building code requirements, specifically those covering the design and construction of masonry systems, really need to be so complicated?”
Yes, kind of…and no, not really. I suspect there is little debate that markets evolve, applications change, and technology improves, all leading to corresponding changes in building codes and standards to maintain relevance. But from 40 to 400 pages in 30 years, has masonry really evolved that much?
Part of this issue of evolution is recognizing that building codes and standards live dual lives. On one hand, everyone expects a building designed and built to current codes to perform flawlessly. Yet building codes define only the minimum requirements deemed appropriate “…to provide a reasonable level of safety, public health and general welfare…” (2015 IBC Section A101.3). This raises the somewhat counterintuitive Rule 3 of building codes:
Rule 3: Building codes define minimum, and concurrently maximum, requirements.
We all recognize the minimum aspect of building codes and standards; materials, designs, construction, and so on must comply with the minimum requirements set forth, which in turn are intended to yield a minimum level of performance in service. But how do maximum requirements come into play? In the simplest form, an owner can choose to go above code, but cannot be required to go above code (with a few exceptions). For some people within the critical decision-making path of selecting construction products and systems, the goal is simple: provide the lowest-cost alternative that meets the minimum code requirements.
Defining code provisions as maximum requirements may not be completely accurate, but for those who want only the minimums, anything above code is perceived as an added cost and therefore undesirable. Cost perceptions can be further compounded during the initial design phase. The less confident designers are in the execution of their designs in the field, the more conservative — and therefore more expensive — their designs are likely to become. Whether you are a mason, mason contractor or material supplier, instilling in the designer the confidence they need to provide the most efficient design possible is critical — not just within the realm of a material producer or mason contractor, but from the perspective of the designer who is focused on the final as-built work. This brings us back to Rule 1 of building codes. If designers trust you as a resource and trust the services and products you provide, they are more likely not only to use masonry, but also to design it in the most efficient way possible.
Consider two masonry systems: concrete masonry and adobe masonry construction. Each is covered by current building code requirements and can be used in an array of building applications, but obviously adobe construction has a much smaller portion of the overall market share. I could list a dozen reasons why there is such a large disparity between the concrete masonry and adobe masonry markets, but I’ll focus on codes and standards.
A quick review shows that the design and construction requirements for adobe construction fundamentally haven’t changed in 40 years or more. As code requirements evolved, adobe didn’t. As new code requirements were introduced for new construction, adobe remained stagnant. Today, the IBC limits the use of adobe to only the lowest seismic and wind risk areas of the country, further treating adobe exactly the same as wood frame construction from a fire safety perspective, despite its clearly being non-combustible.
I’m not picking on adobe, but this does illustrate the point that adobe wasn’t maintained through the years as concrete masonry and other more prevalent masonry systems have been, and as such, was subsequently limited in use by code – which I’m speculating (without too much of a stretch) further limits its opportunities for use and growth. This brings us to Rule 4 of building codes:
Rule 4: Building codes are biased.
This rule is not likely to sit well with some, but ask yourself, are the limits placed on the use of adobe construction because adobe can’t be safely designed, or is it largely driven by the fact that the adobe masonry provisions haven’t been maintained to the same degree as other, more prevalent forms of construction?
Without question, there is a tremendous commitment of financial and staffing resources necessary to simply maintain relevance in building codes, let alone promulgate and grow one’s market without the shackles of building code limitations. Here’s the more unpleasant part: the larger the investment of resources, the bigger the potential return on market growth and share.
Furthermore, while the amount of construction that is put in place varies from year to year, it always remains finite. As new systems are added to the code (think ICF construction in the past 10 years, steel studs 20 years before that, or tilt-up 30 years beyond), they are all competing for a finite number of projects. Simply maintaining relevance in the market has become a challenge. Material-based industries have clued into this, investing more and more into building codes and standards as a means of attempting to provide their product or system some form of competitive advantage…and thus exacerbating code bias and raising our final building code rule:
Rule 5: Building codes don’t just impact your markets; they define your market’s existence.
There are countless cases similar to adobe where markets slowly eroded away, probably not perceivably from one year to another, but certainly measurably when considering larger blocks of time. There are also instances where products and systems weren’t just limited or constrained in their application, but outright prohibited from being used. In my experience, these latter cases were almost exclusively a result of those with a vested interest not paying attention to how building codes treated their products.
We all share the common goal of wanting our companies to grow and to see the collective industries we work within thrive, which unquestionably takes more than simply focusing on one aspect — even one as important as codes and standards. As you ponder these five rules of building codes and standards, I’ll leave you with these simple questions: Who is representing your interests in the development of the next generation of building codes? Do they understand your issues and concerns? And do they have a solid plan to overcome code-imposed hurdles to foster market growth and your success?
About the Author
Jason Thompson is the Vice President of Engineering for the National Concrete Masonry Association. His duties and responsibilities include overseeing the technical activities of the association including research and development, design, construction, and testing standards development, design resources and tools, and creating and delivering seminars and lectures covering these subjects. Jason is also active in the development of building codes and standards for masonry structures and systems where he represents NCMA and the masonry industry through the Masonry Alliance for Codes and Standards.