Building With the Future in Mind Since 1955

If a builder builds a house for someone, & does not construct it properly, & the house which he built falls in & kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.’

From the Code of Hammurabi, Babylonian law code, 1772 BC

Cast of the Code of Hammurabi

Cast of the Code of Hammurabi

“I have to do what?”  … is a frequent response from homeowners that come up against the modern codes that blanket construction projects.   As an example, here’s a list of code challenges from just one of our recent remodels:

  • The existing window sill needed to be lowered to allow a firefighter safe access into a bedroom in the event of a fire rescue.

  • A ventilation fan close to a stove that was not a standard oven hood had to be ordered with a kitchen fire rating so it would not trap grease and start a fire.

  • A fence plan had to be adjusted because there was a high pressure gas line running under the homeowner’s yard and the city feared it would get punctured during excavation./blockquote>

  • A window that showed up on site lacked the required tempered glass because it was within 24” of the doorway, thus avoiding a dangerous domestic crash scenario.

  • A closet dimension needed to be adjusted to accommodate a clear access space in front of the electrical panel so a future electrician could actually reach the panel.

  • A bathroom floor plan had to be reconfigured to accommodate minimum side clearances for a toilet placement that allowed adequate elbow room.

And these code requirements were all on just ONE project…  an easy project with a happy ending, which is not always the case.  Consider this one, in which a client came up against watershed regulations so stringent and costly that they completely abandoned their plan to expand their house.   In another case a client was faced with having to go through the expensive and time consuming variance process because their street had been reclassified after they had bought their home.  Our role, in all cases, becomes assisting homeowners in meandering through the regulatory spiderweb.

2012-09-06_14-28-09_196You’d think this would be straight forward, since all projects have to adhere to the same building codes, right? Wrong!  Here in Bellingham we are subject to 13 separate code books: building, mechanical, fire, gas, electric, energy and on the list goes.  In addition, the city has its own municipal code and each neighborhood has unique requirements, some more than others.  The county and the city have criteria that address critical areas, zoning, land division and shorelines.   One house may border a creek or be on a busy street and thus subject to rules that another house in another location is not.

Why so many codes and regulations?

Some might accuse our bureaucracy of finding more ways to collect revenue through endless hoop jumping by contractors and homeowners…but in fact, the codes play an important role in our safety and well being.  The codes have evolved from the “eye for and eye” approach of the Babylonians to a prescriptive and performance approach that outlines specific objectives for designer, builder and homeowner to meet.

The codes can seem just plain daunting at times.   More than once we’ve headed down a design path with a client only to be rerouted due to the limitations of the code.    That’s why we visit the city or county planning office early on in your project — sometimes more than once.  Some of the most stringent limitations have to do with setbacks, water issues and use of space.   Hitting these roadblocks can be frustrating, but taking a creative problem solving  approach with the planning officials can lead to a successful outcome.  More than once I have watched a planning official smile with satisfaction when they find a regulatory path that allows a homeowner to move forward with their plans.

Having said that, here’s a word of caution.  Building officials and examiners must constantly wade through the codes for each project, interpreting what is, and isn’t, applicable.  Step by step your project is reviewed by many a person. And  if one person finds a more restrictive rule that another has overlooked, they are bound to apply the more restrictive rule… and this can occur after you are well into your project.  Thankfully, though, this usually happens in the plan review stage, but sometimes it can happen during construction… during a site inspection!  This is an unhappy truth about the system, but an accurate assessment.


Clearly, the earlier these limitations are discovered the better.   But it’s important to acknowledge that money invested in discovery and
design that does not come to fruition shouldn’t be considered money wasted.  In the bigger picture, sometimes it takes professional advice to rule out pathways and options in order to achieve the correct path.

Setbacks and easementssetbacks

Space limitations can affect your project, so getting clear information about your setbacks, easements and utilities is a crucial step in the preliminary design phase of any project. Our local regulations on where you build on your property can get pretty complex.  The jargon alone can be daunting… backyard setbacks, sideyard setbacks, flanking streets, arterials, side streets. Then throw in utility easements which can also affect what you want to do.

This complexity of overlaying rules and regulations, in addition to a new vocabulary, is why our clients turn to the Adaptations design team.

Critical Areas

Discovering your property has been classified as a Critical Area is another limitation that can complicate a project.   A critical area is an environmentally sensitive area. Specifically in Bellingham the following goals are addressed in our critical areas ordinance:

1. Protect members of the public and public resources and facilities from injury, loss of life, or property damage due to landslides and steep slope failures, erosion, seismic events, or flooding;

2. Protect, maintain and restore healthy, functioning ecosystems through the protection of unique, fragile, and valuable elements of the environment, including, but not limited to, ground and surface waters, wetlands, fish and wildlife and their habitats; and to conserve the biodiversity of plant and animal species;

3. Direct activities not dependent on Critical Area resources to less environmentally sensitive sites and mitigate unavoidable impacts to critical areas by regulating alterations in and adjacent to critical areas;

4. Prevent cumulative adverse environmental impacts to water quality, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat, and the overall net loss of wetlands, frequently flooded areas, and habitat conservation areas; and

5. Alert owners, potential purchasers, real estate agents, appraisers, lenders, builders, developers and other members of the public to natural conditions that pose a hazard or otherwise limit development.

Sometimes property owners feel that the critical area issue is so expensive and complicated to overcome that they choose another path altogether.  Others are willing to pay for a geological survey and the extra engineering that is needed to comply with the regulations around the critical area.  Sometimes the solution lies in adding live landscaping or appropriate structural elements to meet the natural stresses of the immediate environment.

At first this may seem like overkill…  until you visit a house that is failing due to natural environmental stress.  We’ve seen it:  foundations sliding downhill…walls separating.  Preventing such structural nightmares and protecting the integrity of our neighborhoods is at the core of some of these  critical area requirements.  So early on we need to address whether your property falls within this critical area designation.


Building near water sets into motion more questions, concerns and rules.  Examples that have come up on our past projects have included questions like:  How do tidal flood waters affect the structural plan? Is the stream protected because of fish?  What drains from a property into the waterways and how do you plan for that or prevent it?  If you remove trees for construction near a body of water, what type of trees can you replant?   How much of your property must remain pervious to water?


Look around your own neighborhood.  Behind these scenes there lie code requirements that affected this outcome.  You can see traffic coming at a street corner because of set back rules.  You have a place to park your car on your own property because of parking regulations.   Your well water is normally safe because of regulations regarding septic field locations.

The list goes on and on.  But no list is as long as requirements regarding fire safety.  Why?  Name a bigger threat to our structures, our lives, and the tendency over time to build our homes and businesses closer and closer together.The threat of fire has so shaped the spaces in which we live, work and recreate.

And when it comes to fire safety this picture is worth a thousand words… how must we build our homes to enable a firefighter with an air pack on his or her back to gain entrance through a window?

2012-09-06_14-12-24_835So this fire code often drives the size and location of bedroom windows.

Safety issues that affect a project often are not deal breakers when they are discovered but they do cost money in the form of design time.  It takes time to plan and then draw the details of a code compliant issue.

The alternative to good planning is not desirable.  Sure, it’s possible to get plans through permit review with less research and detailing but this often leads to confusion during actual construction.  The latter, however, is a much more costly approach.

So as you and your designer plan for beautiful timber-framed views or gorgeous fireplaces it is good to keep in mind the underlying rules that have to be adhered to throughout a design and construction project.   Much of what is paid for in the design process involves what you could call “behind the scene managing of the codes” as it applies to your project.

{This article was written by Maggie Bates, Designer, Adaptations Design Studio.  Some of the illustrations are from the “Code Check Complete, An Illustrated Guide to Building, Plumbing, Mechanical, and Electrical Codes.”}

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