Planning departments, plan checkers, building departments, and building inspectors all have a strong impact on the success of a project. They also have an impact on how much you enjoy your project during and after the fact. It is no secret that the best relationship to have with your inspectors is an amicable one. Just how this is accomplished can be a bit more mysterious.
Know The Process
No one is expected to know everything about how a planning or building department works, especially owner/builders. Nonetheless, you can make your relationship with these departments much more enjoyable for both parties if you spend some time getting used to the process and the requirements before you step into the mix. In other words, ask the officials what is expected of you. Ask them if they can walk you through the process, timelines, and requirements before you actually file an application. This way, they see you are committed to making their job easier and they will not feel pressured by time to answer your questions. I have seen city planners, building officials, and special committee members smile broadly at applications that are filled out completely and have everything the members need to make their decision.
Start with quality drawings
As with the application process, details will help you get your drawings approved quickly. Since you already know exactly what the building department and/or plan checkers are looking for, you can deliver a complete set of plans that are fully detailed. Be aware of the code provisions that govern straw bale construction in your area. Whenever possible, reference a specific section on the plans to show that you fully understand how the code affects your particular building. It is important to give enough detail to keep the plan checker smiling without loading the plans with so much detail that one of two things happen: 1) The plan checker has a hard time focusing on the things that really matter and gets caught up in peripheral information and/or 2) Minor details that are not crucial to the plans will become part of the approved drawings. If this happens and you change your mind about specific details at a later date, you may have to go back through the approval process to accept the changes.
Provide Engineering Calculations
Most jurisdictions that have an adopted code provision for Straw Bale Construction have actually adopted provisions that are out of date. The field of straw bale construction is changing so quickly that the code writers have not been able to keep up. There is new engineering out there today that is not found in any code provisions I have seen. Building officials will accept any type of construction, even if they do not have a provision in the code for it or if it differs from an existing provision, as long as it is backed up with engineer approved documents. Some engineering documents are available that give approval to a specific type of wall assembly. The testing has shown the walls in this specific assembly are safe and effective and so the approval is in the study. Other details may need to be passed by your local engineers. If that is the case, it is a good idea to conference with an engineer who is accustomed to working with straw bale construction. Have him or her speak with your local engineer when designing the wall systems.
Be Prepared for the Inspections
This is true for any type of construction. Nothing angers an inspector quite like having them visit the site for an inspection when you are not ready, especially if your building site is far from their office. Be absolutely sure you are ready for the inspection before you order it. Have the building permit and cards on site and available. Make sure some one will be present at the job site that is capable of answering any questions the inspector may have. Keep your job site clean. A messy job site is a dangerous job site. Nothing will tip the inspector off to your attention to detail and safety quite like a clean job site.
Be Friendly But Not Submissive
There is nothing wrong with questioning a building inspector on their findings. If you do it in a clear and polite manner, the official should not have a problem sighting a specific section of the code for you in regards to a cited violation or a change they want to see made. Don’t get carried away here. If the requested change is no big deal, do it with a smile. If the inspector is requesting a big change, ask for them to show you the exact place in the code that spells out the requirement they are citing. If you know the code, let the inspector see that. Ask them how their findings differ from section “xyz” which you feel supports your construction method. If they can show you the provision in question and you agree, simply thank them and make the changes. Keeping the inspector happy can be very simple.
I like to have a pot of coffee available to the inspectors when they show up, or perhaps some doughnuts. The little things help to keep the inspectors smiling when they show up at your site. Finally, if you know some one who has dealt with the building department and inspectors before, especially on a straw bale home, ask them what suggestions they would offer. Sometimes, specific inspectors are hard nosed about certain details that may or may not be obvious to you within the code, for example: nailing schedules. If you know that they are likely to look specifically for certain things, do those things ahead of time. At the same time, there are inspectors who feel they have to point out something wrong with your project. If you know you have an inspector like this, leave something for him or her to find. Don’t make it dangerous, but a simple and obvious mistake allows the inspector to point something out and you can accept their request with a smile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Morrison has a passion for straw bale construction that is matched only by his desire to teach his knowledge to others. He has a wealth of experience in designing and building both conventional and straw bale homes. After years of building, he has moved his practice entirely to consulting and teaching. He shares his knowledge with thousands of people via his DVD series and this website and teaches roughly six-eight hands on workshops each year. For more on his workshops, please visit www.strawbale.com/store/category/workshops. Andrew received a BA degree from Hampshire College in 1995 for Glacial Geology. He also has a degree in construction technology.
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