“It passed inspection!”
“We got a Certificate of Occupancy!”
“The inspector didn’t say anything about it!”
These are responses I sometimes hear from homeowners, building owners or contractors after I have been asked to visit a building upon request because of an alleged problem with construction workmanship or quality. Often an owner and even a contractor may assume that because the building inspector passed the work or even issued a certificate of occupancy that the building meets some kind of standard for workmanship or quality of construction. That is essentially not true.
Building codes, no matter who publishes or adopts them, usually state in the opening pages “The purpose of this code is to establish the minimum requirements” for structural stability, energy conservation, safety and the like. So when an architect or contractor says the project “meets code” they only mean they have designed or built to the minimum standard- neither optimum nor best practices. If they tell you it “exceeds code” then maybe they have given you a superior outcome. Building inspectors can only enforce the minimum requirements of the building codes so they are not really the protection you need.
To give you some examples of why just meeting the building code should not be the only criteria, think about this:
- The building code will not prevent your house from having a bouncy floor so that your dishes rattle when you walk across the floor.
- The building code will not prevent your wood framed floor or stairs from squeaking all over.
- The building code will not prevent cracks in the concrete slab in your basement.
- The building code does not say your floor has to be level.
- The building code does not say your walls have to be plumb or square.
- The building code does prohibit cracks in tile, drywall, nail pops, wavy walls and ceilings, humps in floors, trim that is not tightly joined and windows and doors that don’t operate smoothly.
Pretty much everything that proves to be annoying or aggravating to a building owner after construction is not regulated by the building code.
So if what we consider to be “quality construction” is not really governed by building codes how do we define it and assure ourselves of getting it? Tough question.
If you have a contract with your builder it might have language like this:
- “Contractor agrees to furnish the materials for the project and work in a professional manner. All materials furnished under this agreement shall be construction grade and meet industry standards.”
- “The Contractor shall perform all work in a good and workmanlike manner and in conformance with all applicable government code provisions.”
- “…all work is of good quality, free from faults and defects.”
You can just imagine how many definitions there will be for “professional”, “workmanlike” and “good quality”. Contractors, architects and owners all may define them from their perspective and the way it best serves their interests.
If you are an owner, how do you protect yourself from the sloppy contractor who still meets code and get you a certificate of occupancy? If you are a conscientious contactor, how do you protect yourself from the crazy owner who expects perfection? If you are an architect how do your protect yourself from both of them? There are few things that can be done:
- This may sound self-serving coming from an architect but don’t go cheap and only want to pay for the bare minimum of drawings that may get you a building permit but don’t really provide the details for a higher quality of construction.
- Pay to have your architect provide written specifications that describe the level of quality expected on the project. Drawings alone will not do this. So when you think the floor was not framed level, you can actually measure it and know whether it meets the tolerances required in the specs.
- If you are an owner who intends to your own general contractor, be aware, that you will ultimately be responsible for defects that arise if you are not knowledgeable enough to understand construction documents or properly coordinate, schedule and monitor construction activities, even on a simple residential project.
- Be aware that there are standards in the construction industry that can be referred to in specifications or construction contracts that have to do with construction tolerances and performance. Many builders and architects are not even aware of these, such as, Handbook of Construction Tolerances by David Kent Ballast or Residential Construction Performance Guidelines published by the National Association of Home Builders.
- Don’t hire the cheapest builder or architect. Look at the work they have done. Check out some references. Of course, they won’t give you the bad ones, but good references are better than none. Generally, what kind of reputation do they have? Are they front-loading their schedule of payments so they get more money up front and don’t really have enough left in the hands of the owner to complete the job if they default? Have they provided a time schedule that shows they have actually thought through how to accomplish the project?
Lawyers will tell you that, if you get into litigation regarding defective work, the “standard of care” is what may determine whether the work was defective or due to negligence. The standard of care is usually determined by the standard that would be exercised by the reasonably prudent professional in that line or work. Well, that sure leaves a lot open to interpretation. You will probably get a slightly different definition of standard of care from every architect, engineer, building inspector and contractor you ask. So going the route of litigation is generally not a very satisfying experience for any party involved, including the owner.
Remember that the building codes state inspectors “enforce the provisions of the code”. They will not guard you from not getting the building you wanted as long as it “meets code”. You need a good architect, detailed drawings, written specs, comprehensive contract, a conscientious contactor and a reasonable attitude to give you a chance of getting what you pay for.