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Navigating the complex world of building codes

News | March 1, 2009 | By:

There are no simple answers, but there are successful strategies.

It’s a story that’s becoming all too familiar: An awning company takes a job fabricating a simple entrance canopy. It’s the type of installation that this company has done hundreds of times before—but this time, that company is given a veritable laundry list of additional requirements. Provide evidence that the material meets NFPA 701; demonstrate compliance with section 3105.3 and Chapter 16 of the International Building Code; submit four sets of revisions, each with a dated seal and signature of a registered design professional. Suddenly that simple job has become complicated … not to mention more expensive for the customer.

Whether you work with awnings, tents or fabric structures, you’ve no doubt noticed that the building code environment has become more complex in recent years, and pulling a permit can be a chancy business. It can be a bureaucratic nightmare, in fact. But the hard truth is: Either you’re dealing with building code issues now, or you will be in the near future. Keeping in mind that there are no easy answers when it comes to building codes and permitting issues, there are some strategies you can develop that might make this part of the job just a little easier.

Learn the language

The International Building Code (IBC) is the model building code for the United States. It’s most relevant to fabric structures and commercial canopies and awnings. The International Residential Code (IRC) has the most impact for residential awnings and canopies, and the International Fire Code (IFC) is most pertinent to rental tents. All of these codes are written by the International Code Council (ICC). Copies of these documents can be purchased from the ICC, but if you’re not in a position to buy your own, it’s possible that your local library has copies in the reference section. Find a copy of the code you need, and know what parts of it are applicable to your designs.

Obviously, you know more about fabric products than your code official does, and by becoming familiar with the code as well, you can be your own advocate when code issues arise—issues such as size limitations. Steve Flanagan, president of Yeadon Fabric Domes Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., knows the requirements for air structures erected for temporary use. “Our biggest issue on temporary installations is size limitations,” Flanagan says. But by being familiar with the code, he knows how to address those limitations and often advises the official on placing extra exits or how to work with height requirements on suspension systems above playing fields in sports domes.

To make doing business even more challenging, the IBC and its counterparts are only model building codes; each state, county and town is free to make its own modifications and requirements. Knowing the IBC is important, but familiarizing yourself with the local code specifics is equally important. Take, for example, California’s recent adoption of the IBC. In California’s Chapter 31E, on Tents and Membrane Structures, the section that refers to structural requirements (3105E.1), the language used is reminiscent of NFPA 102 rather than Chapter 16 of the IBC. If you’re installing a tent in California, you need to know that idiosyncrasy and what to do about it.

Install like no one is watching

Poet Crystal Boyd coined the phrase “dance like no one is watching,” a concept that can—and should—be applied to your work. Even if you have a job or installation that doesn’t require a permit, make sure that you aren’t cutting any corners, and are following the code. In the long run, it will be worth it.

“It’s like a stoplight,” says Tom Markel of Bravo Events Expos Displays in Buffalo, N.Y. “You have to stop whether a cop is there to see you or not.” In fact, Markel goes a step further and, once a month, provides his local official with a list of jobs that he’ll be doing or has bid on in their district. “It’s a matter of respect,” Markel says, adding that while this tactic has resulted in officials showing up on tent jobs that don’t require a permit, once the officials realize that he’s following the code, the resulting trust level makes the permitting process easier on future installations.

Know your product

It sounds deceptively simple, but you need to be aware of the structural capabilities of your own product. “Sit down and exam your product,” advises Greg Schmieler of Laurel Awning Co. in Apollo, Pa. “Any changes you need to make need to be examined before you ever set foot into a code office.”

What this often means, particularly in today’s code environment, is having the product engineered, or having engineered drawings readily available. For tent rental companies, this information is probably available from the tent manufacturer, while fabric structure companies often have such expertise on staff. It’s more of a challenge for awning companies, however, who often do custom work.

Finding an engineer who is both familiar with fabric work and willing to do small jobs can be difficult. How do you find one? Take advantage of trade associations, both locally and nationally. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) is made up of state societies that should be able to help you find someone in your area. Also, contacts made through local business groups such as Rotary International can help. One awning company found its engineer at a home show. Take into account that you may need to invest some time training him or her about the nature of fabric products and installations.

Keep your friends close—and your code officials closer

Code officials are responsible for public safety, and most of them take that job very seriously. However, every code official or fire marshal has her or his own way of approaching fabric products. How do you keep track of it all?

Markel has his own strategy. He does installations in a variety of communities and keeps a spreadsheet that includes every jurisdiction in which he’s worked. “The worst thing is that every jurisdiction handles it differently,” he says. “I keep a history of what happened, who the contact is and what they require.” That way he has a better idea of what to expect for the next installation.

Bob Helmsing, MFC, of Lawrence Fabric Structures Inc., St. Louis, Mo., has similar issues with working with a large number of communities. “We’re located in St. Louis and have well over 100 towns within 50 miles,” he says. His solution is to have a part-time employee whose focus is to pull permits, allowing him to get to know the areas, the officials and their requirements. “We used to have individual salesmen pull permits, but it kept them from selling,” Helmsing says. Once you’ve had a permit approved for a tent installation, see if the official will be willing to keep it on file to aid with future jobs.

Both Markel and Helmsing insist on pulling permits themselves rather than having the client do it. “It saves me time in the long run,” Markel says. “When you send the client in, they don’t know the process or how to answer any questions the code official may have.” You also don’t want a situation in which a client has assured you that he has contacts that will guarantee obtaining a permit, only to find that he failed and is stuck with a finished product that will never be installed. Pulling permits costs time and money, so be sure to factor that into what you charge your client.

Do your homework

“You have to know your contract language,” Schmieler says. If you haven’t read your contracts lately, take a fresh look at them, making sure you won’t get pulled into issues that weren’t part of the original job, such as installing sprinklers.

Not only do companies have to be savvy about their current building code market, but they also need to keep an eye on the future. Codes typically are updated on a regular schedule, the time frame depending upon the code source. What you know today may not be relevant in a few years. IFAI’s Code Committee is involved in a number of projects designed to help keep member companies informed and to assist association members with code challenges.

Building and fire codes have become part of today’s business environment and are not likely to go away. While it’s not always palatable, learning to work within the system is a must for today’s awning, tent and fabric structure companies. “Five years ago, I answered a couple of questions a month on codes,” says Spencer Etzel, Maximizer Tent Products/The SEC Group in Wilsonville, Ore. “Now I spend half the day on it.”

“Learn the code, understand the code, get to know what the officials are looking for regarding public safety,” Yeadon’s Flanagan says—and that’s good advice for any market. As Helmsing puts it, “There’s no magic button to make it easier; you just have to follow the steps.”

The key is to make sure you know what the steps are—and when to take them.

Juli Case is IFAI’s Information and Technical Services Manager and the chair of the IFAI Code Committee. She is also a member of ASTM, NFPA, and ICC, and serves on the Technical Advisory Committee for the ISO committee for textiles.

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