Contracting Part V: Working with the Building Department

Wonder what it’s like to work with your local building department while acting as your own general contractor? You might think that in the progression of the contracting series 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. Further, you won’t be ready until you have the bank funding. Actually, although a common theory, this is wrong in my opinion.

Talk to Your Building Department

building_deptartment_over_the_counter_staff.jpgI 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. Some think that officials 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 anything building related, don’t hesitate to ask those who will be inspecting your work.

Building Positive Relationships

Creating a good relationship with the building department is a fabulous idea. If you have a relationship built on trust, you’ll find it easy to move forward with 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 frustrated, become a teacher.

Become an Educator not an Adversary

Building Department AlliesThere is so much information available these days about building with bales. Direct your building officials to this website so that they can learn more about the technique. Show them images of completed homes. Let them read case studies and independent testing results from www.EcoBuildNetwork.org. Your best bet is to inform them that straw bale construction is now an approved building technique in the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC) Appendix S. The IRC is the model code used in almost every state in the US for residential construction. Chances are good that if you show them that the International Code Council (ICC) sees the value of straw bale construction, there must be strong merits involved.

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 a cutting edge building department under your instruction. I have found this approach to be very useful in the past and continue to use it today.

Know What You’re Talking About

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. 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.

Anonymous Initial Contact

First Contact with the Building DepartmentHere’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 where the building departments will still be closed minded, and you might never get your building approved.

In those areas, it is important to know that in advance 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. However, not when it faces certain denial from the building department. Build under an approved IRC section such as the “alternative design, materials, and construction…” clause and keep your wording simple and nondescript.

Assets, not Obstructionists

In summary, the biggest thing to remember 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. Keep in mind that you can learn more about contracting with our Be Your Own Contractor Training Series.

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2 Responses to Contracting Part V: Working with the Building Department

  1. Life Unplugged Tue, February 2, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Building codes is a topic often overlooked by by alternative building websites. These are good tips.

  2. Dave Wed, December 21, 2016 at 9:43 am #

    Seconded. At one point in my life, I was a zoning inspector and met frequently with other building officials. As you say, some may laugh at alternative technologies. The key is being knowledgeable-enough to proceed and hopefully convince them of several alternative options for single-family home building. Most of the improvements in the quality of life have happened through the facilitation of communication, not stagnation. It can only serve our own interests to do our due-diligence in working to help the general public and administrators understand the benefits of well-planned and executed structures. Having the International Residential Code (IRC) updated to reflect this change in options is a boon.

    Thanks for all your work, Andrew.

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