Residential Building Code Compliance Debate

January 2018 | Blog

In November 2017, the Board of Kootenai County Commissioners decided not to adopt the most recent version of the International Building Code for new residential and commercial construction starting in 2018. 

According to staff writer Brian Walker of the Coeur d’Alene Press, in his Dec. 12, 2017 article titled, “Building Code Debate Rages On,” Commissioner Chris Fillios is in favor of keeping building codes updated and isn’t recommending any change in the building permit process. Commissioners Marc Eberlein and Bob Bingham are in favor of giving property owners the option of following the codes. Eberlein supports a “Basic” building permit (no building inspections or certificate of occupancy) and an “Upgrades” permit (that includes inspections and a CO). Bingham is proposing that single-family residential property owners on five-acres or more have the option of foregoing the building permit system. 

In anticipation of a public hearing and formal vote by the BOCC, Edwards Smith’s principal, Andy Smith, sent the following letter to the commissioners for their review and consideration:

Dear Messrs. Bingham, Fillios and Eberlein:

I am writing in response to the ongoing debate about building code compliance, whereby a property owner can bypass the formal permitting process, or an owner of a property that is at least five acres in size can choose to bypass the formal permitting process.

Let me start by saying I don’t know an architect or builder that isn’t frustrated by the building codes at times. It can be argued that there are specific situations where they do not apply very well. As much as we can debate the merits of building codes, we understand that the overarching intent, per the Idaho Building Code Act 39-4101, is uniformity of building codes and uniformity in procedures for enforcing building safety codes throughout the state to 

  • Promote the health, safety and welfare of the occupants or users of buildings and structures;
  • Require minimum performance standards and requirements for construction and construction materials, consistent with accepted standards of engineering, fire safety, life safety and accessibility for those with disabilities;
  • Establish minimum standards and requirements in terms of performance, energy efficiency, effect upon construction costs and consistency with nationally accepted standards;
  • Permit the use of modern technical methods, devices and improvements; and
  • Clarify and establish roles of the various jurisdictions.

While this is the intent, how we achieve this is up for discussion. Some view this as government intrusion. Others, such as the future owners of a home, see this as protecting them from what the current owner does to the property. 

How do you know if a car is safe if the industry isn’t regulated? Regulations don’t guarantee the car is well built, but ensure it has met minimum safety standards.

It is important to understand that anyone in Idaho can purchase some liability and worker’s compensation insurance and call themselves a builder. Unlike doctors, lawyers and even barbers, there is no standard testing, accreditation requirements, apprenticeships or licensing required to go into business as a builder in Idaho. Most individuals start out as laborers, learning from the person hammering nails next to them. There may be a transfer of knowledge, but no guarantees that the knowledge is correct. 

Often, the building inspector finds himself the instructor in the field, teaching the trades what is expected regarding minimum codes. At this time, there is no independent system in place in construction, other than the building codes, to ensure everyone is working at the same base level of competency. Building codes and the inspection process act as the system’s guard rails for the consumer. 

Improper building standards result in destruction and death. The role of the government is to act and protect the community in areas that are greater than the individual’s ability to protect themselves. This is the reason building codes were enacted in the first place. We are not talking about regulating a bad haircut. We are talking about hard-earned money – often life savings – going into the construction of someone’s home. This isn’t a do-over proposition. Consumers hope they have picked the right builder, but, even if they haven’t, building codes help ensure the home is at least minimally safe. Without accountability in construction, the community will attract the worst, not the best builders. The saying, “regulations aren’t for the saints; they are for the sinners” very much applies to the construction industry.

Do we expect consumers to educate themselves enough to know if the builder is doing the job correctly? This is not realistic – any more than the consumer educating herself to have the knowledge of a physician before going into surgery or understanding the law before meeting with an attorney. The difference is, the consumer has some assurance of a basic level of competency when dealing with these professionals, due to minimum standards in licensing, that is missing in construction. 

Additionally, there seems to be some misunderstanding as to the role of the building inspector and building department. The role is the assurance of health and safety – not inspecting the performance or quality of a home. The building inspector examines the structure to be sure it has met the minimum standard of the code, not if it was installed in a way that would enhance its performance. 

It is not the inspector’s job to ensure doors are installed correctly, the trim was properly done or even that a countertop was installed right-side up. His concern is that smoke detectors were installed and work properly; that railings and decks are safe. The quality and performance of a building are between the builder and owner/purchaser, but the minimum expectations of health and safety are verified through inspections and Certificates of Occupancy. 

Some have cited the collapse of roofs due to snow loads during a particularly heavy snow winter as a reason to consider the codes ineffective. The faulty assumption is that the winter in question was “normal” when, in fact, we received three times the usual snowfall, followed by rain. Codes attempt to deal with the norms of an area for recorded events over a 100-year period, balanced against cost and common sense. That winter was not the norm. And, thankfully, because we continue to learn about snow loads, soils, structure, water, etc., codes evolve over time to address that increased knowledge.

It has been suggested that there’s no data to support the argument that buildings built without code compliance will have inferior value and drive down property values. It stands to reason that if two identical homes are for sale next to each other and one was not inspected and, therefore, not issued a Certificate of Occupancy, they do not have the same value. If a home is devalued and sold, it will bring the overall market down. This is not protecting the consumer.

If an optional permitting system is implemented as Mr. Eberlein suggests, there has to be a notification process in place to alert and protect a potential buyer if inspections and a Certificate of Occupancy were not obtained. While Mr. Bingham’s proposal offers a recorded document stating that a home was constructed without following a regulated code enforcement regimen, I cannot understand why it would be acceptable to build an unsafe structure on five-plus acres, but not under five acres as Mr. Bingham’s hybrid solution suggests. 

Let me be clear: I am not in favor of either option nor am I in favor of abolishing the building codes or the Building Division, for that matter. Abolishing codes will certainly have a negative economic impact on Kootenai County once word gets out that the county allows substandard building.

As a Commissioner, you took an oath to all residents of Kootenai County to protect and manage the mission of the county government you are in charge of. It states,

“It is the mission of Kootenai County government to provide professional service with regard to PUBLIC SAFETY, essential service, preservation of natural resources and the responsible management of public assets for the common well-being of our citizens.”

In conclusion, we need building codes and the department that enforces them. We believe changes are needed in the process and would welcome a permanent advisory committee be formed to work through the issues, but the Building Division serves a vital role in holding the construction industry accountable. Additionally, it protects consumers, providing the assurance that their home meets at least the minimum standards for structural and life safety issues, as well as protecting adjacent property owners. Finally, the work of the Building Division of Community Development ensures a positive impact on our economy, providing the confidence homeowners need to continue to build in Kootenai County.


Andy Smith

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