If you’ve ever been to Redlands, California, you may have seen its many historic buildings. There are dozens of Victorian-style residences and Craftsman era homes that date back more than 100 years.
I was recently talking with an acquaintance here in town that owns (and was looking to sell) an older home from the late 1800’s. He was telling me all about some of the renovations that he thought were necessary in order to bring the home up to code and make it habitable as a residence. There was a lot of work that needed to be done – ranging from replacing old electrical and plumbing work to repairing some damage to the structure that was a result of age and unstable land.
At one point, I was asked what I thought should be done about the structural issues due to the unstable land beneath the home? He was very concerned about what the city’s building department might require to repair the structure in order to sell it. Since Helfrich-Associates has performed many investigations of structures that were built on unstable property, I knew he was probably dealing with issues that could range anywhere from minor cracks in the floors, walls, and ceilings, to difficulty operating doors and windows, to significant and serious foundation movement. If not repaired, these issues could discount the property value.
Let’s face it – a building built 100 years ago probably isn’t as safe or as efficient as one built today. That goes for older repairs as well. Why is that? Well, for one thing every time there’s a catastrophe where a building’s construction is at fault, we learn a little bit more about how to repair and build more safely.
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When it comes to new structures, all buildings need to conform to the current building code. A local city or county building agency is tasked with enforcing the building code for projects that are built within their jurisdiction. The code is very specific about many aspects of a project, particularly with respect to fire safety, structural integrity, and other life safety issues. These codes change with time (as the construction industry learns from past mistakes), and in general they have become more conservative. Upgrades to the building code have dramatically improved the quality of construction and performance of structures over the past 100 years, and they continue to improve each year.
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The building code and its implementation by local building departments generally recognizes that most structures more than three years old (the building code is updated every three years) do not meet all aspects of the current building code. Because they have little influence and authority over existing structures that are safe to occupy, building departments do not inspect existing structures unless there has been a code violation report filed on the structure.
Following a catastrophic event, however, damaged structures are inspected by the building department and are determined to be safe to occupy or are tagged for limited use until the damage is repaired. Engineers are required by their licensing to report dangerous conditions to the owners and to the local building department.
Voluntary repairs are generally intended to improve the structural stability of the building. Most building departments encourage owners to improve conditions, and they do not require that all aspects of the current building code be applied to the structure if a voluntary repair is proposed. The owner and the engineer for the project should agree, within financial constraints and safety considerations, on what the scope of the repairs will be. If extensive repairs that cannot be funded are recommended by the engineer, the owner is placed in a difficult position of having to disclose to a prospective buyer that recommended repairs were not performed.
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For older existing buildings and structures that are almost certainly build to an old code, it’s a different story. If a building sustains damage or is not holding up well, the code often allows non-code-compliant elements to remain in a structure, and this usually does not require that every repair be performed in strict accordance with the current building code.
This type of damage usually involves structures built on unstable properties (landslides, deep fills, or near moving slopes), or structures that are being damaged by water (caused by roof leaks or surface and subsurface water intrusion, or plumbing leaks), or structures that are damaged by wind, earthquakes, vehicle impact, tree impact, tree root growth, among many other causes. Local building officials usually recognize that in extreme cases the cost of bringing an old structure “up to code” can approach and possibly exceed the value of the entire property (structure and land).
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So what can a property owner do if they discover that their property is on unstable land? Properties on landslides and those that have experienced soil and slope movements are examples of projects that require significant judgement and communication skills to determine the most appropriate repairs. First and foremost, there is the question of safety: Is the property safe to occupy? If the answer to this question is no, then the structure should be vacated and red-tagged until repairs are made.
If on-going movement is a concern, foundations can be underpinned and supported using adjustable supports that can level the home as movement occurs in the underlying ground. Very stiff foundations can be constructed beneath a structure to ensure no distortion movement of the foundations.
It is often impossible to stabilize a property that is within a neighborhood known for land movement. Many landslides affect multiple properties, and it is generally not possible to isolate one property from the effects of adjacent property movement. In these cases, a comprehensive evaluation of the potential future movement is often recommended.
Based on this evaluation, we may recommend monitoring and periodic measurements of movement before a repair decision is made. Other considerations include the rate of landslide movement, the depth of moving soil, the effect of surface water and groundwater on the rate of landslide movement.
As soon as a property owner suspects there are significant repairs necessary due to potential code violations, natural disasters or unstable land, the best course of action is to get a professional assessment by a qualified and experienced engineering firm. The building codes are complex and open to interpretation. Unless you work with them every day or have experience with your local building department, it is easy to find yourself in a bad situation after spending a lot of money.
Building departments are staffed with professional engineers. Having an engineer involved in your project often eliminates time consuming debates or wasted repairs that won’t receive final department approval. While there is expense involved when hiring an engineering firm, you’ll receive expert advice that often pays for itself in the long run.
What’s your experience with code compliance on your building projects? Did the building code make your projects easier or more difficult? Let us know in the comments, below.
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