Saturday, September 11, 2010


I was pleased to have been invited by the International Code Council (ICC) to participate in the ICC Community Coalition Event held in Denver, Colorado during September 8 - 10, 2010. There were about 40 of us including ICC administration, ICC technology staff, ICC website consultants, ICC members who are code officials, architects, engineers, students, builders, and even some non-members. The objective of the meeting was to determine how ICC can better serve its members and the public through its discussion board, website resources, social media and organically creating groups to share their experience and specialized knowledge.

The ICC has realized that there has been a disconnect that developed between active online members and the code council. The old online discussion board which had been well used by the public and membership to answer questions and exchange ideas was taken down. Then another discussion board was brought online that was poorly received due to its integration with "Communities of Interest". On top of that the council's entire website had become cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to search, and unreliable. Active online members went looking elsewhere for discussion boards and found other places to communicate.

Some of us had an inkling that ICC was waking up to the problem when we had been asked to respond to a couple of online surveys that seemed targeted at getting to heart of our discontent. But what an even better gesture when some of us were invited to participate in this event in Denver where we were encouraged to speak freely and the attenders pulled no punches and expressed everything that annoyed them about the ICC's web presence and resources. And ICC staff, in particular Michael Armstrong, SVP of Membership and Outreach Services, were excellent listeners, willing to admit mistakes, and came prepared to show us a preview of ideas they had for improvements. Even better, they accepted constructive criticism of these improvements and made the committment to gradually role out a new discussion board and website features and resources.

Valerie Mach of Web Teks, Inc. very ably moderated most of our discussions. Tom Walker, President of Web Teks, Inc. helped us appreciate some of the more technical aspects of website development. Sanjay Gupta, ICC Chief Information Officer gave us good feedback on our concerns and discussed how the improvements would be sequenced. Michael Armstrong, ICC SVP kept us in touch with the bigger picture and reassured us of ICC's commitment to improving. DaMika Lofton of Web Teks, Inc. was a great host in organizing handouts, travel arrangements, and making the event an enjoyable experience. Kyle Volenik, Web Content Editor for ICC was very enthusiastic about his role in expanding ICC into social networks.

I won't spoil the surprises and don't want to give away too much so I will leave it for ICC to make their formal announcements when they are ready. I wanted to share with my readers that they should look forward to the improvements and be ready to accept a more user-friendly code organization. These changes will help the public appreciate the value of building codes and increase the professionalism of its members.


Monday, July 12, 2010


“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 contractor, and a reasonable attitude to give you a chance of getting what you pay for.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I had a most unusual experience occur recently with a local building inspector that reminded me to question what I do as an architect from time to time.

I have been involved in a substantial 7-figure renovation of a house in Westchester Country, NY. During construction it was revealed that a section of the house’s second floor joists would have to be replaced. We decided to replace the old 2x8 joists with I-joists (, which can support longer spans. This allowed us to open up the first floor and remove some walls and posts. It was a great solution to the problem.

Then the local building inspector got into it. Upon completing the framing inspection, he asked the builder if they were going to install the fireresistance rated drywall for the ceiling under the I-joists. The builder said he was planning to use regular ½ inch drywall and knew about nothing else. Next the builder calls me. Being quite familiar with the NY State Residential Building Code, I confidently tell him not to worry about because using fireresistance rated drywall is not required in the code. Just to make sure I am correct, I check the state code and the local ordinances. I find nothing.

So I send the building inspector an email asking him about his request and telling him I know there is no such code requirement. In part, he writes back:

"Whenever we receive plans showing TJI's it is our policy to ask for 5/8" Fire Code Rock covering on all ceilings. It would be a shame to have this residence receive a lesser standard of fire protection than any other in Town…" 

Now I am ticked off. We go back and forth and the bottom line is that we are going to have to put in the 5/8” fireresistant drywall ceiling or else the building inspector will find some violation to cite at the job for a fine of $2,500. I consult with the builder and homeowner and we agree to comply with his demand to keep the job moving. However, this matter keeps nagging at me and I finially decide to do my own research in the area of fire safety of I-joists and to send the building inspector an email with my conclusions and criticisms of his way of working. Here is what I wrote to him:

"Dear Mr. [Building Inspector]:  

Based on your strong opinion regarding the lessened fire safety of I-joists, I have been doing more of my own research. A balanced approach seems to be that regular gypsum board cover on I-joist floors is a reasonable cover which gives occupants the time needed to egress a single family house. It is clear that uncovered I-joists are worthless in a fire. The IBC assigns 15 minutes of additional fire endurance to 1/2" regular gyp bd and 25 minutes for 1/2" type x. Various reports and sources make it clear that even noncombustible members behave unpredictably in a fire situation and laboratory results are never like the real situation. Sometimes materials behave better than expected, sometimes worse. It seems, until more definitive results are published and there is more agreement in the industry, it would be wiser to concentrate on regular drywall cover and inspecting for proper bridging, fireblocking, and smoke/heat detection.

Fire reports indicate that a very small percentage of the deaths are attributed to structure collapse and then not all of those due to I-joists. If you were really intent on preserving lives to a higher degree than everyone else you would have gotten the town to enact an ordinance to require residential fire sprinklers like in New Castle, not some unofficial policy like 5/8" type x when the science isn't really clear that there is any demonstrable benefit. The science and empirical evidence is clear when it comes to the benefit of sprinklers.

Short of that I was disturbed by your insinuation that I, as an architect, and every other town in NY and all other jurisdictions that don't have your policy somehow care less about people's lives. Because you are a building official in NY and not CT you might not be aware that I am a licensed CT building official besides architect. Since I took the exam about 5 years ago I still hold the record for the highest score in the state and I keep up my license with the 90-hours/3 years continuing education besides the continuing education I pursue for my architectural practice. The only reason I bothered to take the exam, become a licensed building official, is that I do care about codes and standards and their application and enforcement in building design and construction. I do care about the lives of my clients, contrary to your assertion.

What I find disturbing is when code officials take it upon themselves to create their own little parochial "policies". It is the same as the old fashioned "that's not the way we do it in my town". It goes contrary to the entire reason statewide codes and national model codes and standards have been developed. If you feel strongly about an issue or you think the science is all on your side, would it not be better to push for a statewide change or at the ICC level? Or is the argument not strong enough to be accepted by code enforcers at large? Frankly, why stop at just the ceiling cover on I-joists? There are so many things that could be better in houses than the minimums required in the codes. And certainly some others would enhance public health, safety and welfare, too.

I have provided in the PDF attachment and items below some of the available information on the subject that make it clear that your 5/8" type x "policy" is not the panacea you may think. I have attached the latest overview report from NFPA (of which I am also a member). It is very revealing because it does not list light construction or I-joists as in issue in resulting deaths or injuries from fires. In fact it indicates that fires have gone down about 50% in the last 25 years. How can that be so at the same time that framing is getting lighter and we are using more engineered lumber and trusses and everyone except [your town] is using 1/2" regular gypsum board? Could it be that what is more important is the increased awareness and enforcement of blocking, penetration seals, and detection? If you have more definitive information I hope you will share it with me so I can be more educated on the subject. In the meantime, our contractor at [Address withheld] Rd this weekend is either adding the 1/2" type x to the reg layer already on, or his removing that and putting up new 5/8" type x. It depends on how his light trims work out. I thank you for raising the issue so that I would could pursue investigating it myself. I am not quite so convinced as you are of your position but I don't think that means I care less about people's safety.

Here is a site for firefighters with a balanced summary:

From, this report shows how divided the experts are about the issue of i-joist fire performance.

Also see

I received no initial reply from the building inspector and I figured I had burned my bridges with him. A short time later I came across an article in SBC Magazine about a fire test demonstration that seemed favorable to engineered lumber and I sent it to him. You can read about it here:

The building inspector replied as follows: 

"Thank you for sending along the article. It has done little to sell me on the virtues of Trusses in general. This test has been widely discussed in the fire service. Before too much weight is given to this it is important to recognize who is putting on this show. The Manufactures and distributors of Trusses who derive their lively hood from selling this product to the general public have a different agenda than those of us in Code Enforcement and the Fire Service. The article states that a large number of the skeptics in the audience were older Veteran Firefighters and that the New members of the departments easily accepted the results. This does not surprise me because you learn from what you see, if all you have experienced from truss construction is this demonstration then it is easy to believe that they are safe. If however like me you have in excess of 25 years of hands on experience you tend to believe what you see and that is a dramatic departure from what the Industry wants you to believe. I strongly recommend reviewing current and archive articles from Fire Engineering Magazine or any Publication from John Mittendorf. retired Chief of the Los Angles Fire Department regarding Truss Construction. The important thing to remember is that those of us in the Fire Services are not trying to sell you anything and in many cases it is our lives that are put in jeopardy by these products."

Now, this issue has made me start thinking about the industry’s quick change over to engineered lumber and whether or not the fire safety issues have been thoroughly investigated. So if any of you who had the patience and interest to read this have more information or sources for me to review please send them on to me. I would love to know what other construction-related professionals think of the fire safety considerations around engineered lumber, especially I-joists.


Joe Schaffino III - 05 05 08
That was a very interesting exchange of information and sentiments. Having been in the Fire Service for 28 years and with 5 years heavy fire response in all types of structures, I can say that building construction has changed for the better. The best protection will always be an effective sprinkler system, after that, membrane protection and fire safeing all penetrations floor to floor.

Ralph Maugeri - 05 14 08
Interesting account and informative research. I can’t comment on I joists as we don’t use them very much here in Florida, but we do use engineered roof trusses. The code in all of South Florida and I believe in central Florida where I now live and design calls for 5/8” type X on every ceiling that has wood trusses, including floor trusses.
One engineer I use and myself are inclined to agree with the fire stops and penetration sealing as the best means of fire protection. Still, I used to have faith in fire rated gypsum board. After your research, I’m not so sure any longer.

Mark Schockman - 01 10 09
I really enjoyed reading initial and follow-up thoughts on engineered lumber. I equally enjoyed the building officials comments.

By way of introduction, I am a Captain on a career fire dept., with over 25 years experience in structural firefighting. Additionally, I own my own consulting company with regard to post fire structural investigations. While I do not consider myself an expert, I do possess more than a fair amount of knowledge the subject.

It is not my intention to dispute your stand. I fully understand your position. In fact, most knowledgable individuals with your background, and if I may say so “standing on your side of the fence” (absolutely NO ill will implied) would think the same. Get the people out! And this minimal protection allows the owner to get out,,, just as you implied, at that point, the buildng is no longer occupied, and the minimal protection standards worked.

Here’s the problem. The building is NOT unoccupied. I have tosend my combat crews interiro to suppress what is often times a confined, or difficult to evaluate fire situation. You obviously see, that at this point, the building is in fact, occupied.

Discussion regarding implied danger, and ‘it’s your job’ aside, the reality is that firefighters are regularly injured, disabled, and killed, due to these engineered wood systems.

Please do not think that I, for one moment, support legislation to remove all engineered lumber systems from currnt and existing structures. Nothign could be further from the truth. All I am saying, is that we in the fire service are tired of other individuals state we do not know what we speak of, or that we are being over reactive.

As I indctaed, I do not disagree with your views, if I were on that side of the fence, I would see them as well.

May I make a suggestion. Please go to,, look under the fire section, and take some time to review the very recent, lab originated testing of different engineered lumber systems and their resistance and reaction to controlled fire scenario’s.

While I would never ask a building professional to embrace my personal opinion, I would expect a building professional, to consider the findigns of Underwriters Lab.

I welcome your thoughts.

My best regards

Mark Schockman, Captain
Lebanon Fire Division
Senior investigator
Fire Science Investigations

My response - 02-10-09
Dear Mark Schockman:

Thanks so much for such an thoughtful and intelligent comment. That is exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping for all along. Besides being an architect, I am also a licensed building official so I try very hard to these issues from all sides but I really appreciate your perspective.

I am going to take your advice and review the material at the UL Univesity website. I have a completely open mind about what is appropriate protection for I-joist and other leaner lumber systems. I understand that the structure should not put firefighters in jeopardy.

Thanks again for your comment.

[Originally posted on April 24, 2007 at]

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Questions are frequently raised about how reliable charitable organizations are when it comes to making proper use of donated money for disaster relief. Phil Underwood, a writer with the Phoenix Signs of the Times Examiner undertook his own little local investigation into religious charities and makes some interesting observations that we might do well to learn something from....