Improving Relations Between Building Inspectors and Pro Contractors

by Janet Blake, FastenMaster Communications Manager

There seems to be a lot of tension between building inspectors and pro contractors with numerous opinions as to the cause. Whatever your opinion, the fact is that inspectors and contractors have the same goals in mind: safety and completing a project as efficiently as possible in order to satisfy the homeowner and move on to the next project. In this article, I hope to give practical advice for both inspectors and contractors on developing a better working relationship.

To get some perspective, I spoke with Lynn Underwood, Head Building Official for the City of Norfolk, VA. Lynn has worked in the building safety and code development profession for more than 30 years and is also a licensed contractor in Virginia. He authored the book, Building Code Compliance for Contractors & Inspectors that is not only a how-to for building inspectors but also offers great advice to contractors in preparing for inspections and improving relations with code officials.

Know the Code

For contractors, purchasing and understanding the most recent ICC code manuals are a requirement of doing business. Unfortunately, most do not know about code changes until failing an inspection. The 2012 International Residential Code book is the most current version. The ICC also makes code provisions available online for free here.

Many municipalities offer classes and there are several online educational resources found on the ICC website to help stay current with code changes. Building Code College is a new, free online training resource for understanding code. Building code consultant and former contractor, Glenn Mathewson's mission is to make code more accessible and understandable for both contractors and inspectors.

‚ÄúContractors too often ‚Äúlearn‚Äù code from failed inspection tickets and they are not always learning the truth. Inspectors and contractors need to work together and learn together. The safe construction of our built environment should be achieved through teamwork between these professions. I see tradesmen that understand a trade, but not necessarily code.  I see inspectors that understand the black and white code, but not the ‚Äúspirit‚Äù of the code and how to apply it to unique situations.‚Äù

Building inspectors often have a good grasp of the code they enforce but do not necessarily understand the intent of the code or recognize that exceptions are allowed. Lynn advises that instead of reciting code word-for-word, an inspector should take a step back and ask questions of the contractor before making a final determination. There are many situations where sound construction practices have been used that don't necessarily match up with the exact letter of the code.

Modifications and Alternative Methods

Two sections of the IRC manual specifically address the allowance of modifications, alternative materials, design and methods:

R104.10 Modifications. Wherever there are practical difficulties involved in carrying out the provisions of this code, the building official shall have the authority to grant modifications for individual cases, provided the building official shall first find that special individual reason makes the strict letter of this code impractical and the modification is in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code and that such modification does not lessen health, life and fire safety requirements or structural. The details of action granting modifications shall be recorded and entered in the files of the department of building safety.

R104.11 Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and equipment. The provisions of this code are not intended to prevent the installation of any material or to prohibit any design or method of construction not specifically prescribed by this code, provided that any such alternative has been approved. An alternative material, design or method of construction shall be approved where the building official finds that the proposed design is satisfactory and complies with the intent of the provisions of this code, and that the material, method or work offered is, for the purpose intended, at least the equivalent of that prescribed in this code. Compliance with the specific performance-based provisions of the International Codes in lieu of specific requirements of this code shall also be permitted as an alternate.

Lynn stresses that “code should not encourage (or discourage) the use of any particular construction material or method.” Some inspectors may find it easier to dismiss an alternative than actually taking the time to understand if it will fit within code requirements. Lynn advises that it is the responsibility of an inspector to dig in and research all alternatives in order to make a well-informed decision.

Many manufacturers make technical documentation available in packaging and on their websites regarding the code compliance of their products. In addition, technical support teams from these manufacturers will often reach out to code officials to review product code compliance and provide proper documentation.

Contractors making modifications should call and discuss with their inspector prior to inspection. Just because code is being met, doesn't necessarily mean an inspector is aware of the alternative. Having an open discussion, providing documentation and asking for approval will increase the likelihood an inspector will give an endorsement.

When an inspector understands the intent of code and is willing to look deeper than the wording on the page, they are better able explain the reason behind the code as well as be open to exceptions in building practices.

Ask Questions

Contractors should not be afraid to ask their inspector questions. Lynn states the prevailing attitude of building officials has changed considerably over the past few years as they are now trained to be more responsive to builders than they were in the past.

“Truly recognize the building inspector is the subject matter expert. If a contractor doesn't understand, ask the inspector to explain. What does this mean and how do I comply with that? Is there a different way to comply? If a builder is trying to understand the purpose, a good inspector should be giving the answer to what the purpose is and give the contractor guidance on how to build the next time.”

Lynn describes the bad times in his profession when there were “ogre” type inspectors. He points out that a lot of those inspectors aren't working anymore for that reason. The response of “because I said so” is no longer valid. Glenn Mathewson agrees that he has seen the same attitude shift in Colorado.

By asking respectful questions of an inspector, contractors demonstrate they are sincerely trying to understand and comply with code requirements. When inspectors are open to discussion, they demonstrate their willingness to take a contractor's concerns into consideration.

Scheduling Inspections

Contractors need to recognize that calling for an inspection when they are not ready is a guaranteed method for alienating any inspector. Inspectors have multiple sites to visit in a day and are often working in departments that are sorely understaffed. Why get off on the wrong foot by wasting an inspector's time? If contractors are courteous and prepared, inspectors are much more likely to be receptive to sharing direct contact information and best times they can be reached for scheduling future inspections.

Joining a Trade Association or the ICC

Contractors should consider joining or forming an association with like-minded members of their building community. Trade associations give contractors a voice in the building industry. Lynn suggests that contractors will benefit from sharing industry knowledge and experiences, not to mention having the power to affect change by coming together for a common cause.

Lynn also points out that many inspectors are happy to speak at association meetings regarding code changes. In this type of setting, contractors are able to interact with inspectors away from the jobsite without the stress of passing an inspection or struggling to meet project deadlines.

Contractors may also consider joining a local ICC chapter. Benefits of joining include registration to the annual ICC conference, discounts, training and the opportunity to advocate for code changes.

In Summary

Understanding code, allowing for exceptions and having respectful discussions will lay the groundwork towards mutual respect and improved relations between contractors and building inspectors.

A question for the building and code community - Do you have any suggestions for improving relations between contractors and inspectors?

Thank you to Lynn Underwood and Glenn Mathewson for their contributions in creating this article.

February 28, 2014 by Janet Blake (comments: 9)

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Comment by Jim Gage |

I'm always on the lookout for new and better. Unfortunately, many inspectors aren't. We submit drawings for a permit and what gets approved there, gets built. I have one city where LedgerLoc's aren't approved, but ThruLoc's go without notice. Inspectors haven't learned about new products and aren't interested unless it's a major engineering change; "SDS is approved, why do I need to study LegerLoc's? Don't they do the same thing?"
I'm not stupid; I go along to get along. Here's where local manufacturers' reps need to spend quality time: with the building departments. I can't risk my relationship with inspectors trying to push new products.
Please keep up the good fight! You guys are awesome!