Determining Appropriate Documentation: Code Requirements

  • 07 July, 2020

One of the most common misunderstandings about building codes is that the requirements are always "black and white" and very clear to follow. That is simply not true.

Let's start with the perception that code is set, fixed, and 100 percent clear. While there are certainly some elements of the code that are clear and direct, there often is much room for interpretation. This makes sense if one considers that it would be nearly impossible to develop codes to govern each condition encountered in an architectural project. Instead, the code normally addresses the biggest issues, often those impacting or influencing the health, safety, and welfare of the site/building users.

Sometimes, the design team finds itself in the position of not knowing exactly how to comply with code. Here is an example that I encountered a few years back: My project was a municipal government office building that included a strong, public-facing entry which was required to be part of the accessible path to the building. This meant (among other things) that wheelchair access needed to be provided from the front directly to the building entry. The grades were a bit challenging, but a switchback layout provided the needed compliance for maximum ramp slope and landings.

One modest "bend" in the ramp was required to navigate around stormwater and landscape features close to the building entry. The bend was very slight, something close to a 15-degree pivot at a landing. The accessibility code for this project noted that 90-degree turns in ramps required a full 60 inches of clear wheelchair turning diameter. A very clear diagram was provided in the code to facilitate compliance. However, the design team considered the ramp pivot for our design as very minor, and not requiring the full 60-inch clearance at the landing. The thought process was that, while it made sense to have the 60-inch clearance for a wheelchair to safely navigate a hard 90-degree turn, the ramp as designed had only a 15-degree bend and would not require any special maneuver by someone in a wheelchair. As a result, the ramp was designed and submitted for permit review without the 60-inch clearance at the landing.

When we received our plan check comments during building permit review, the issue was raised by the building official. He felt that a 60-inch-diameter turning clearance was required at the landing because the ramp had a bend. He agreed that the code didn't address ramp landing width requirements beyond those that included 90-degree bends, but our ramp had "a bend," so his interpretation was that we needed to provide the 60-inch turning clearance at the landing.

OK, game over! The local building official stated his case and we needed to comply, right? Not exactly. The design team then submitted the issue for a state-level building code interpretation, and the state building official determined that our ramp, as designed, met the intent of the code. We presented our findings to the local building official and he accepted them.

In the end, the design team did devise a simple tweak to one side of the ramp to create a slight "V" at the landing. This provided the 60-inch clearance anyway, while not compromising the design objectives. As I eluded to before, the building code is often "gray" as opposed to "black and white," leaving many issues up for interpretation as a project is designed.

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