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Home Improvement Guide 2007
Get ready
Before starting any home improvement project, research and planning is the key to successful results.
Building-permit basics

When most people think of essential people in home improvement, they often think of contractors, tradespersons or architects. But there's one person who can make or break a project with the stroke of a pen: the building inspector.

Whether you're giving the old place a makeover yourself or working with a contractor, in most cases you will need to have your project approved by your local building inspection department before you begin construction, and even destruction.

"Pulling a permit" and hanging it on the outside of your house is just the beginning of your relationship with your building inspector. Look for them to stop by at key stages of your project to make sure your work is "up to code" (that is, meets minimum building code standards for your city, county and state) and grant occupancy when your remodel is complete.

Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. In fact, the convoluted yarn ball of overlapping city, county, state and federal building codes in the United States has long been the bane of the construction industry.

Codes, codes and more codes
No one questions the need for building codes; after all, they've been around since the Code of Hammurabi in 1800 B.C. to protect the public from slapdash, slipshod and unsafe workmanship.

But do there have to be so many of them? In the United States alone, every town and county has its own building code fashioned after one of four national models: BOCA (Building Officials and Code Administrators), CABO (Council of American Building Officials), ICBO (International Conference of Building Officials) and SBCCI (Southern Building Code Congress International).

Paul Fisette, director of the Building Materials and Wood Technology program at the University of Massachusetts, says some of the differences do make sense.

"In California, we might be very concerned with seismic issues; in Florida with moisture, rot and termites; and in Massachusetts with snow load and cold and insulation. So there is certainly a regional sensitivity that is illustrated in these various codes," he says. "But I do think you could take care of this in one code."

Toward that end, three of the code organizations formed the International Code Council (ICC) in 1994 and have developed a nationwide set of standards which, according to the ICC's most current information, has been adopted by the governments of 36 states and the District of Columbia.

"Many states have statewide codes," says Fisette. "But even of those, in New York for example, if you build in New York City they have tougher codes than the state of New York. So city codes can be more difficult to satisfy. The safe thing is to always talk to your local building inspector first."

-- Posted: April 4, 2007
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