You've heard me talk about building code and you know I believe you should always build above code if possible.
The Building Code ensures that your house meets the minimum standard for health and safety. Separate codes deal with minimum standards for plumbing, electrical and HVAC. All building inspectors will approve a renovation on the basis of its meeting code. But here's the thing: with minimum code, the key word is "minimum."
If your house is properly built to minimum code it should be fine. "Should" isn't much of a guarantee, though. I believe that minimum code is a starting point, and you can do better.
Years ago, there was no national building code or any provincial or even municipal codes. But things have changed. The building code is now a thick book with hundreds of detailed instructions and dozens of tables outlining exactly how to construct a building.
The instructions are specific. For example, the table describing floor assemblies in the Ontario Building Code tells you how to build a floor. For each span there is a size of joist and the spacing required. Meet the specs and you've got a floor that meets code.
The code specifies hundreds of other things; the number of electrical outlets in a room (one every 10 feet), the width of stairwells (minimum 36 inches in most cases), the amount of insulation in a wall (R17) or attic (R32), or the correct stair rises and runs.
But the building code is open to interpretation -- one contractor's interpretation of the code may be different than another contractor's. That's why a building inspector needs to review the work and judge if it meets requirements. If the building inspector is in doubt, or disagrees with the contractor's decisions, changes to the job will be required.
Build above code
Working above minimum code means that you are building in contingency - this means building in added longevity: Do you want the project to last 2, 3 or 5 years, or 20 years, for example? I see contractors proudly advertising 5-year guarantees on bathroom renovations - I wouldn't be so happy about that. Build a bathroom that surpasses minimum code and it should last for decades.
"Building above minimum" can also mean using higher quality materials, which might make the job more expensive (and explains why a lot of builders stick to minimum code). There are constant improvements to many products that add extra strength, performance and durability - but code only specifies the cheapest material that will meet requirements.
Changes to Building Code
Minimum code changes to reflect new knowledge. New products, new materials, new methods all have to eventually be tested and possibly allowed by code if they work.
Years ago, ice and water shield didn't exist - there was only roofing felt. Now, minimum code requires ice and water shield around the roof perimeter - maybe one day it will be required over the whole roof. Is it a good idea to use it over your whole roof? Sure. But most builders - and contractors - don't want to spend the extra money. That's because they think homeowners won't pay more for better products.
In the meantime, I'm going to build beyond code, because I believe in doing it right the first time. And I think, given the chance, homeowners will always pick better over cheaper.
What if you wanted to use pre-made concrete sections instead of joists for your floor? What if you wanted to build a straw bale house? Or a steel house? What if you had a breakthrough idea that could make building a house better and cheaper but the materials were not specified in the code?
You'd be out of luck (unless you applied for and were granted variances in your building permit application). Building code is designed for your building to meet minimum standards for life and safety. It doesn't handle innovation or change very well.
National Building Code
There's a new national code in place today that provides a different kind of specification. Where the old prescriptive code said you had to build a floor with a 10-foot span from 2-by-8 spruce installed at 16-inch intervals, the new, objective-based code just tells you what the original intent of the prescription was and lets you figure out how to get there.
That means contractors, engineers and architects now have more options open to them when it comes to building your home. There's more design flexibility - which is a great thing. But it also means there is more to know. And homeowners: you have more to educate yourself about, if you want to properly manage your home renovation.
New ways to build to code
New, environmentally friendly, energy-saving products you want to use will have an easier time coming to market and passing code.
You will have to pay more for objective-based, code-approved plans because engineering costs will rise. Someone has to prove that the alternative meets the objective and put his stamp on it.
Because the construction will likely be different, the cost to build your innovative alternatives will be higher.
I am looking at a number of alternative building methods myself that I will be revealing soon.
The prescriptive provincial code is still in place, and most construction will continue as it has, so don't worry - you can still have a floor made from 2-by-8 spruce, 16 inches on centre. I'll still be renovating traditionally built homes, but I'll be exploring new ideas and incorporating the best ones into my building operations.
Let's remember minimum code means your home is being built to the lowest allowable standards. Let's build better than minimum. You deserve it.
Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV. Go to http://www.holmesonhomes.com