Do we stay secretive, challenge the building code professionals, or work togther to create a more diverse range of building codes through education?
Natural building is both more sophisticated and intricate and also infinitely more critical to the future of our planet than the conventional codes will ever be able to accommodate.
There is a listserv called the Natural Building Network (NBN) that comprises builders, architects, designers and others associated with the building industry from Santa Cruz to San Diego. An article from the LA Times (1/13/03) made its way to the listserv, about Pierre Constans who had built a 200-square-foot office from strawbale. The city of Ventura found out about it and fined him, plus he will have to pay $700+ in building permits, IF the building is "approved."
The story created a heated discussion among the natural builders on the listserv on whether or not to seek permits. And then Gary Duncan from Colorado got wind of the discussion and wrote a fine response, describing two of the solutions that have worked in Western Colorado. Here is his addition to the ongoing dialogue.
(1) Education of code officials.
The way we turned around the widespread reticence about strawbale permitting in the Smart Shelter [http://www.smartshelter.com/] service area was to get on the program for the regional code officials' organization meetings (all code officials are part of local/regional/state organizations, and they have program coordinators). We presented a slide show of reputable, successful and not-so-successful projects, along with check points, engineering, and "watch-outs." We made sure the presenters were qualified, prepared, experienced professional builders/architects. (Do not send amateur enthusiasts, no matter how well-intentioned. The code people will eat them for lunch). You may find, as we did here, that what appeared to be arrogance or hostitility to forms like strawbale was actually insecurity due to lack of information and resources. These people often have their heads on the block if what they approve falls apart. Give them solid case-study evidence, legitimate technical standards and access to competent consultants. This could be done at the California state level at a building officials' conference.
Following a presentation in 1998 to such a conference on the Colorado state level, I gave technical engineering presentations on load-bearing strawbale to four regional official gatherings (totaling 130 inspectors in one year). Since then, we only have one jurisdiction left in Western Colorado that does not approve bale buildings; some approve load-bearing.
Following that, I did the same thing with regional lenders on both the primary and secondary lending levels, then followed up with the regional meeting of certified appraisers. Consequently, for the past five years, we consistently appraise, finance, insure, permit, build and enjoy strawbale homes, totalling approximately 400 in the Smart Shelter service corridor, many with code regimens rivaling anything in California, plus historic district qualifications, exclusive of quake protection.
The key to this is to get the officials out of the office, off the firing line and set down as students in a classroom. But you better have your act together when that happens.
I have a 35-year professional-building track record, eight of it as a professional designer, some of it in physics and engineering, and I needed every bit of this along with thorough documentation and case studies, because they did indeed try hard to shoot me down, which is their way of testing my tenor and their assurance of legitimacy.
(2) The Natural Path Alternative to Building Codes.
We're piloting this solution here in two counties where it's in the formulation stage.
Basically, what the Natural Path Alternative does is delineate the problems of codes in general and, specifically, the idiosyncrasies of natural building, which is a perpetually-evolving technology. Critical to its evolution is the creation of community, continued experimentation in techniques, establishment of knowledgeable builders and consultants regionally, development of case studies and education of the code enforcement community.
This is accomplished in the Natural Path Alternative by establishment of a three- or four-member review panel to approve projects, consisting of one code official and two or three seasoned members of the natural building community. The building is built not on the basis of definitive engineering applied to pieces of the structure (and then padded ad infinitim with safety factors to protect the engineer and insurance company) but with the agreement that the builders can build whatever they want, providing the panel approves, and that the entire finished structure is to be load-tested to limits of about twice design standard minimums. If it fails, the owner eats it; if it doesn't, it is given a CO and is entered in the case studies.
At that time, the owner/builder has a responsibility to provide support for others' projects in the future, similiar to that which he has received. In this manner, the information and people in the natural building community in the region accumulate and evolve, together.
Thus, access to accumulated building community expertise is built-in, and the owner/builder cannot ignore it, which is the biggest problem we have here: plenty of profession knowledge, but amateur builders running off half-cocked, ignoring the accumulated experience. The system also professionally and systematically documents case studies of workable and unworkable systems. The unworkable ones are the most important.
Natural building is an evolutionary science/technology, and it only makes sense that the regulatory system that should instruct it (not detain it) must be dynamic too. We make a new technology, and we make a new system of supervision, one focused on accumulating education.