Today I want to talk about what it is like to work with your local building department while acting as your own general contractor. You might think that in the progression of events the next piece of the puzzle would be working with your bank, not the building department. After all, you won’t be working with your building department until you are actually ready to build and you won’t be ready until you have the bank funding. Actually, although a common theory, this is totally wrong in my opinion.
I suggest that people talk with their local building department and use them as a resource. Most people think the building departments are out to ruin the experience of building a home, that they are all angry people who want nothing more than to make a builder’s life miserable. Of course, their are a few inspectors and plan reviewers out there like that, but they are NOT the norm. Most building department employees are trying to help people build a safe home to the best quality possible. Use their knowledge to your advantage. If you have questions about floor joist sizes, beam spans, window sizes and location, anything building related, don’t hesitate to ask the people who will be inspecting your work later on.
Creating a good relationship with the building department is a fabulous idea. If you have a friendly relationship and a relationship of trust with the folks at the building department, you will find it very easy to move forward through your project. If you bump heads with the department from the start, you may be in for a rough ride. Keep in mind that they may not be well versed in straw bale construction. As a result, you may need to educate them on the advantages of the technique. If they say you cannot build with bales in their jurisdiction, they are probably just afraid of an unknown building practice and not comfortable signing off on it. Instead of getting mad or depressed, become a teacher. Let them know that you totally understand their hesitation. In fact, if I were a building inspector or plan checker and someone came to me wanting to build with straw, I would probably say no way myself if I had never heard of it before, wouldn’t you?
There is so much information available these days about building with bales. Send them to this website or to the technical work on www.ecobuildnetwork.org. Let them see images of completed homes. Let them read case studies and independent testing results. Let them read other state approved codes so that they can see the validity of what you want to do. If you become the teacher, you can open them up to new ideas and help them see the value of this practice, especially in this time of “green building” where everyone wants on the wagon. Let them become cutting edge under your instruction. I have found this approach to be very useful in the past and continue to use it today.
Getting back to an earlier point: when you ask the building department for help, it is important that you balance your requests with a show of your own knowledge. In other words, be sure to instill in them a sense of your level of comfort with contracting and or building the home. If they feel you are clueless about how to build, that will not serve you well. If they feel you are well educated in the trades and process, and simply have some questions you want to ask to further your education and dedication to doing things right the first time, they will admire that.
Here’s a final tip for the initial contact with your building department. Knowing that you want to build with bales is great. Knowing how the building department feels about bale construction before you present it to them is priceless. Call up anonymously and ask about getting a permit for a straw bale house. If they laugh at you or hang up on you because they think you are kidding, you know you have some work to do before you make your own presentation. The reason for this is that there are still some areas, around the World I am sure, where the building departments will be so closed minded, you will never get your building approved. In those areas, it is important to know that so you can take a different approach to getting your plans approved. It may mean that you build a post and beam house with cellulose insulation if you are actually building a straw bale, post and beam in fill home. Or you may build a “masonry wall system” home if working with load bearing straw bale walls. The point is, you can use different words to describe what you are doing 1. without lying and 2. without raising red flags. I always advocate bringing straw bale construction out in the open, but not when it faces certain denial from the building department. Build under an approved code section like “alternative forms of construction,” and keep your wording simple and nondescript.
In summary, the biggest thing to remember, whether you are building with bales or a conventional home, is that the building department can be looked upon as an asset, a help to you as you move forward. Building a quality relationship with them will serve you well. Be knowledgeable and friendly. Ask for help when you need it. Be honest and trustworthy. If you hold all these pieces in front of you, you will gain an ally in your quest for the perfect home.
About the Author
Andrew Morison is a specialist in straw bale and green construction. He has shown thousands of people how to build their own straw bale projects through his comprehensive series of instructional straw bale, concrete foundation, and plastering DVDs, as well as his hands on workshops. You can check these out at www.StrawBale.com/store.
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