The Importance of Interpretation
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BUILD cracks the code on cracking the building code.
[Diagrams by BUILD LLC]
As architects, we’re constantly coordinating with state, county, and city building codes on our projects. These codes cover the range of building components, everything from the exiting and accessibility requirements, to provisions on the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and fire prevention systems of a structure. They also span from big picture land-use issues regarding city zoning and allowable building uses, down to the detailed requirements of a handrail’s geometry. Nearly every aspect of a building, big or small, noticeable or concealed is, at some level, governed by building codes.
To those outside the architecture and construction industries, building codes may seem black and white. Either you need fire sprinklers or you don’t, either a door is required to be 36” wide or it isn’t, and so on. But as well-intentioned as the building codes are, they aren’t equally applicable or reliably definitive to all architectural conditions. In fact, it’s alarming how often the building code is left to interpretation. Even the definitions of building code terms can be riddled with contradiction and simply reaching consensus on a definition can send a design team on a wild goose chase. As an example, here is the definition of “impervious surfaces” in the city of Seattle land-use code:
Seattle Municipal Code 22.801.100
Impervious Surface means any surface exposed to rainwater from which most water runs off. Common impervious surfaces include, but are not limited to, roof tops, walkways, patios, driveways, formal planters, parking lots or storage areas, concrete or asphalt paving, permeable paving, gravel surfaces subjected to vehicular traffic, compact gravel, packed earthen materials, and oiled macadam or other surfaces which similarly impede the natural infiltration of stormwater…
A careful reading of this provision reveals that the city of Seattle considers permeable paving (paving or pavers that allow the infiltration of stormwater) to be an impervious surface. This seemingly contradictory definition opens up the gap of interpretation and calls the materials and techniques into question. Failing to understand the nuances of such a provision can also produce unnecessary cycles of permit corrections and undesirable changes to the design.
As the scale and scope of a project increase, the application of building codes and their terms also become less clear and conclusive. Add in complex issues like public access and parking and the code gets downright murky. Pertaining to the requirement of parking spaces in Seattle:
Seattle Municipal Code 23.54.030.B.1.b
When more than five parking spaces are provided, a minimum of 60 percent of the parking spaces shall be striped for medium vehicles. The minimum size for a medium parking space shall also be the maximum size. Forty percent of the parking spaces may be striped for any size, provided that when parking spaces are striped for large vehicles, the minimum required aisle width shall be as shown for medium vehicles.
Besides the fact that the building code could use the help of a few English majors, even an intelligent interpretation of this language leads to multiple conclusions, resulting in substantially different architectural solutions.
But this is where it gets interesting for a sharp design team. It is precisely these nebulous or convoluted code provisions that architects can really sink their teeth into. Interpretation is more than just figuring out what can and can’t be done, it’s also about finding opportunities and taking advantage of ambiguity. Good interpretation is about resolving mundane land-use and building codes with beautiful solutions.
This is easier said the done, and we have a number of strategies that greatly benefit us when it comes to navigating a complex building and land-use code.
Coordinate with the building department. This is key. We take advantage of pre-application meetings for the land use code as well as the building code, and we often find that simply how you ask the question can influence the outcome.
Bring consultants on board early. Bringing consultants on board greatly benefits a project, allowing the drawings to be accurate and informed early in the design process. The time saved in guesswork without the help of your expert team additionally saves money and headaches down the line.
Tap into the wisdom. It’s wise to have a few seasoned veterans in the loop who can save you hours of work with a simple nugget of advice or guidance. In Seattle, there are a handful of code consultants who, after previously training and working at the building department, now offer insightful guidance on an hourly basis. We’re also lucky to have some extraordinary mentors available to us.
Getting to the root of the matter. This is one of the most important instruments in our architectural tool box. Building codes may be vague or overly-complicated but we find that getting to the fundamental concern of the building department (the reason a code was put into place) can clarify the requirements and help determine the appropriate solutions. Even the most elusive of code provisions typically boils down to something very straight-forward, like life safety. Once everyone is clear on what is really being solved, the problem-solving becomes much more focused and, quite frankly, enjoyable.
Have a backup plan (or three). Having a plan B,C, and D on hand is a good habit to get into. Our architectural training taught us that the only limit to the number of possible ways to approach a design issue resides within your own problem solving skills. We’ve learned that you only need to have one more design solution than the building department has barriers.
The scale and scope of the First Central Station project, which we’re currently designing with a team of architects, is putting our code interpretation skills to the test. The project is a hybrid that few of the building code provisions apply to specifically: a campus of three separate mixed-use buildings including a park and underground parking. Nearly everything has to be interpreted to varying degrees, and it’s excellent training for the design team. As we navigate the land-use and building codes with the purpose of meeting or exceeding the provisions in the code, it’s the interpretation strategies listed above that distinguish between a design that merely satisfies the building code and an architecture that rises to the challenges of a diverse neighborhood and a growing city. It’s the thoughtful, creative interpretations that allow for beautiful results.
Cheers from Team BUILD