Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Building codes: Back to the future

Three cheers for Jim Bartl.

Ever heard of him? If you're a builder you probably have. Bartl is code enforcement director for the county's Land Use and Environmental Services Agency. He's been working for years, slowly and deliberately, to get the county's and more significantly, the state's building codes -- which dictate the county's -- to be more flexible and to recognize changes in the way developers and planners want to build projects.

It's because of Bartl that North Carolina adopted a rehab code for older buildings, so owners of older buildings no longer have the devil-or-the-deep-blue-sea choice of either spending a fortune to bring old buildings up to modern codes, or to tear down and build new.

Now, the codes are changing for live-work units. A live-work is a place where you can live AND have a business. A century or more ago, this was common and perfectly legal to build. You could open a business and live above it. The jargon is "vertically integrated." It's an urban form dating at least to the ancient Roman empire. But those buildings have been hard to build legally in places such as North Carolina, where codes were written as though everyone would build only new, suburban-style, single-use-zoning developments. Even when zoning allowed them, as in Cornelius, the building codes made it difficult to build economically and created odd rules about which floor you had to live on, and work on.

Bartl knows that traditional neighborhood development, or transit-oriented development, or whatever you want to call it, needs codes that allow such live-work spaces.

"Until now," writes Bartl in a memo, "there was no provision for any use other than residential in the IRC [International Residential Code]. Since live-work units mix in a commercial use (the “work area”), they were driven out of the IRC, into the International Building Code (IBC). This incurred an increase in code-related construction requirements (use separation, construction type, egress, fire prevention) far in excess of any low risk hazard present in the work function. The added requirements drove the construction costs up, and inevitably drove the units out of the affordable housing range."

Finally, last year, he reports,
the International Code Council Final Action Hearings approved a live-work code change to both the IBC and IRC. The change will be incorporated in the 2009 IRC and IBC, and likely will be available in North Carolina in a few years. Until the, he states, the county department will accept residential project live-work proposals, using the ICC-approved live-work code.

Note: If you're planning to build something based on this blog posting, please contact Bartl or his department for the fine-print rules that I have probably oversimplified here.


Anonymous said...

As someone who recently became acquainted with Code Enforcement through a renovation project, I never thought I'd hear someone cheering for anyone in said department. What complicates the matter of building codes is that inspectors all seem to have their own interpretations of those codes.

I know, I know, the inspectors ensure that the building is safe, habitable, etc. But, the greatest victory in finishing our own renovation was knowing that we'd no longer have to deal with the Mecklenburg inspectors.

Anonymous said...

This isn't a major accomplishment. Most live/works being built today aren't truly live/works. They are often purchased by investors and/or people who want to operate a business on the ground floor and lease the upper floor residence to another party, or vice versa. This code provision is limited to a building where you both live and work in the unit, severely limiting the market potential.

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