Archive for December, 2010

It's My Property – I can do what I want!

December 10, 2010

“I should be able to do whatever I want on my own property.”

Over the years I’ve heard many complaints about building codes and zoning laws.  The Building Code with regard to home construction is the biggest issue I deal with.

Chapter 1, Section 101 of the International Building Code states:

101.3 Intent. The purpose of this code is to establish the minimum requirements to safeguard the public health, safety and general welfare through structural strength, means of egress facilities, stability, sanitation, adequate light and ventilation, energy conservation, and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment and to provide safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.

As an engineer, it is my job to represent the interests of my clients to the best of my ability, but at the same time I must also keep in mind the safety and security of all potential occupants.  In fact, the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics for Engineers states numerous times, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Structures built as cheaply as possible without appropriate oversight start to disintegrate after only a few years and pose a hazard to those living in them.  I’ve seen:

  • Molding and crumbling ceilings due to water intrusion – caused by improper or no flashing or lack of roof, bathroom and/or kitchen ventilation.
  • Rotting walls from improper use of house wrap, poor waterproofing at exterior seams, windows and doors and/or bad plumbing.
  • Rotting floors due to inadequate foundation ventilation, lack of a moisture barrier in the crawl space, insufficient clearance between the soil and lumber and – once again – shoddy plumbing.
  • Improperly installed electrical boxes and fixtures
  • Sagging roofs and or floors due to inadequate framing.
  • Bowed walls – again from inadequate framing

I’ve had people tell me, “So what?  It’s my money and my house.  If it falls down around my ears, what’s it matter?”

What matters is that these cheap skates will not be occupying the house alone.  It is assumed that immediate family will also occupy the home and extended family and friends will visit from time to time.  Will these self same people be OK with it when the house falls down around their ears with their grandchildren inside?

Often, the houses built this way become rental property. Would the builders occupy a house without complaint if the ceiling fell down around their ears and mold grew unchecked in the bathrooms and laundry?  How about if the wind blew through the house during the winter, more than doubling heating costs?

It is presumed that the property will be sold at some point in the future and there will be new occupants.  All occupants, present and future, deserve to know that the house they are inhabiting, visiting or purchasing was built to a minimum standard of care and meets minimum safety standards.

Zoning is another hot topic, but not one I deal with frequently on a professional level.  This is where the “I should be able to……” really raises it’s ugly head.  This argument is great until a neighbor does something unacceptable.  Lets review some examples I’ve actually seen that became problematic not only for the neighbors, but for entire communities.

  • A mushroom composting facility near residential property.

For the uninitiated, this is not compost made from mushrooms; it’s a facility that creates the growing medium for mushrooms.  It’s caustic and it stinks.  One such facility near Everson stunk up the entire town and made many physically ill.  Do you really want to do this to your neighbors?  Do you want your neighbors to do this to you?

  • Toxic waste near open wells.

The mushroom composting facility watered their toxic stew of rotting vegetation, chicken manure and flesh (yes – chicken flesh) mixed with nitrates next to an open well with direct access to the aquifer that provides drinking water for thousands.

  • Salvage yards and illegal dumps– junk cars and appliances rusting out in full view of your new $750,000 home.

Yup – just the view I expect everyone wants.  Now consider what you can’t see – toxic fluids from these heaps leaching into the soil and ground water.  Yum.  One illegal facility in Whatcom County was on the banks of the Nooksack River and, as the banks eroded, toxic garbage was dumped into prime salmon spawning habitat.

Building Codes and Zoning Laws are not put there to hurt anyone, but are designed to protect everyone – including the chronic complainers.

Anyone who purchases a home where the proper permits were purchased and inspections were made can be reasonably assured that it is:

  • Structurally sound
  • Weather tight
  • Personal safety issues, such as egress, smoke detectors and the like, have been addressed
  • Indoor air quality has been assured
  • The plumbing won’t poison them and has a reasonable life span before requiring repair.
  • The electrical outlets and switches won’t electrocute anyone under normal use.

When purchasing a home, one can view the local zoning ordinances to see what will be permitted on adjoining properties and they give legal recourse to property owners if the neighbor decides a salvage yard or composting facility would be a good idea.