Friday, November 12, 2010

Dealing with the Building Department

The critical thing you have to remember when dealing with the Building Department is that they are just doing their job.

In some places the rules that govern them may seem misguided or unjust--but once you know the rules you should skate through. The first thing to understand that it is their job to guide you through the process of obtaining a permit. Secondly, the rules are there to make sure that what you build will be safe for you and your visitors.

In Canada the laws governing construction and permitting are based on old British precepts. Your home is your castle and you can build whatever you want--no accounting for taste! This also means that if you draw the plans yourself they have to examine and accept them so long as they meet code.

They have brought in stringent guidelines in Ontario and to be candid, it is like the "Do as we Say Festival", from The Simpsons episode. They tell you that these are the handrails that you are allowed to build and they will dictate design in a quite fascist way. You may need to do some research on the rules... not the guidelines and make what you design for your home fit the general guidelines.

A contractor does not have the right to design building plans or deck plans or addition plans on behalf of a homeowner in Ontario.  You need to take courses and get a BCIN Certificate, and then you will need a couple of million worth of "Errors and Omissions Insurance" to design decks. I design hundreds of permit plans for decks everywhere else in the world... but I only design concepts in Ontario. We have a couple of BCIN designers that we have do the working drawings if the homeowner can't handle it.

They did this in Ontario primarily for budgetary reasons. If they dumb down the design--it will take the examiners and inspectors less time to approve and inspect. If you put anything on their desk that they don't understand they will tell you to have an engineer stamp the drawing. You will then be astonished to find out that there seems to be less than 10 engineers in Canada that specialize in wood details... which makes it a little difficult to do anything not in their specifications, not to mention being exorbitant in price.

Don't give up--learn the rules and build what you want, it just may take you a few attempts to get it through. If you can make it seem like common sense, stay friendly and kind they will get used to--or tired of you and eventually acquiesce. Please don't build their standard details if you can help it--they are ugly and uninspired, outdated and I personally despise looking at them.

In Florida because they have to deal with hurricanes even a garden shed needs engineers stamp. This is purely a safety issue. Garden sheds flying around in 120 mph wind can be akin to a bomb. There are thousands of engineers and they are reasonably priced.

In California most projects also need engineering, but it is the possibility of earthquake or landslide that is the issue. Again, they seem to be reasonably priced and they are very used to it.

In many rural areas in the US you may be surprised to find that you won't even need permits or inspections for a deck or pergola. Some areas simply don't have a building department.

Now, you need to remember that not everyone is sane or kind or competent. There are bad building inspectors just like there are bad politicians, lawyers and priests. Every 100 clients we meet up with someone that is truly disturbed. There are some building inspectors that are looking for kickbacks also. I have had building inspectors nitpick everything about simple projects and cause delays for no good reason. I have personally had examiners put 5 red marks on a plan that by OBC (Ontario Building Code) should not have been there. When I argued they finally agreed but later in the project they caused other problems. Imagine a 4x8 deck and having them demand that I put in 12" sonotubes and triple 2x8 beams to support it.

Sometimes it is just not worth the fight--

If spending an extra couple of hundred dollars for extra materials or to tip the inspector is what it takes to stay on schedule, then that is the prudent thing to do.

The thing that building inspectors need to remember is that we are just regular guys, building decks and trying to make a living-- We are not the enemy. We are all just doing our job.


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