My Turn: Inspectors should use common sense

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 21, 2012

By Bill Ward
Special to the Salisbury Post
On March 30, the Post published a column by Dana Hart, “The changing of the code: New guidelines take effect.” Hart is director of Rowan County Building Code Enforcement.
No one argues the necessity of building codes, especially with all of the old buildings still standing and being restored in Salisbury, as well as new construction. However, certain basic construction principles already govern structure safety and accessibility.
Having worked as a sales engineer overseeing the installation of medical imaging systems, I have worked with architects, plant engineers, and construction supervisors to determine if floor or ceiling structures would support specific equipment’s weight. Except for a matter of formality, the practical usefulness of a building inspector was questioned, because those directly involved with the equipment installation typically had equal or greater knowledge of an installation’s requirements.
Interpreting the code
Hart’s mention of the N.C. Building Code being updated every three years triggered the memory of a freelance job I did years ago for one of the largest engineering firms in Charlotte. They did safety, security and environmental design including industrial HVAC. During one of our conferences, I was asked about re-writing the building code for North Carolina to make it more readable and easily understood. As an experienced technical writer, I was eager to accept the challenge. The problem, common with state projects, was lack of money.
But the reason the suggestion was made was very revealing. The man who was concerned with the highly convoluted and often times confusing language of the code was a professional engineer and then chairman of the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors. He said engineers spent a great amount of time during their planning and design processes just trying to interpret the building code.
Years later here in Salisbury, my wife and I encountered one of the most inflexible individuals ever when we were having work done on a fairly new building that we own. I don’t know if it was code interpretation or an inspector overcome with his own power and authority.
We hired a remodeling contractor to do some work on this building. We had him tear out a couple of walls and move some electrical boxes. The original contractor who had designed and built the structure identified load-bearing walls for us. When a drive-by discovery was made by a building inspector that we were having this work done, my opinion was that the inspector was out to set an example of us, by making a number of unreasonable demands and requiring costly changes to finished work.
If it isn’t already written into “the code” by the state legislature, then it should be stated that a building inspector, within certain obvious limitations, can use common sense and exercise some degree of judgment and latitude, particularly where newer structures are concerned. If a building inspector has at least two brain cells to rub together, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Pain in the neck
To give one example, we were told that a wall in our handicapped-accessible restroom, spacious and well-equipped with handrails, had to be torn out and moved six inches. I am handicapped and had visited that restroom several times in a wheelchair and using a walker. I could spin the wheelchair around in the center of the room and had no trouble maneuvering the walker. But some government employee wanted a wall torn out and moved six inches. That meant also moving plumbing to relocate the toilet and sink.
I ask again, where is the common sense? The N.C. legislature should look at these pain-in-the-neck building codes and allow some flexibility.
A Marine general once commented about “the book,” a euphemism for the myriad regulations governing military services, reinforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The general colorfully said: “The ‘book’ is a set of guidelines, not something chiseled in stone. Room exists for common sense and personal initiative. Anyone who doesn’t understand that you cannot always go ‘by the book’ is not fit for command.”
Building inspectors should take heed.
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