The Massachusetts State Building Code was created to ensure that new and existing structures are safe. To ensure that all buildings are constructed and maintained to meet minimum safety standards, the law requires that each city and town appoint a qualified official to enforce the code. These men and women hold the title of Building Commissioner or Inspector of Buildings, but are usually referred to as “Building Inspectors”.
If you are planning a construction project, you must understand the legal requirements set by the code which the Building Official is required to enforce. This is just as important as knowing how to perform the actual construction! The Building Official has little or no leeway in varying from the requirements of the code. From the information required on a permit application to the materials and methods used for construction, the rules have been set; we all must follow them. Below are a few of the most common areas where code officials are asked to “bend the rules”. To do so, however, would put them in violation of the law!
Building permits are required
Permits are required for virtually all construction work, including small projects such as reroofing and window replacement. The only exception is for very minor “ordinary repairs”, such as patching a roof leak, or replacing a few siding boards. Any work which changes or adds to a structure or any component of a structure is regulated by the code and must be done properly. This is because a building is a very complex system, and all components play a role in safety ,stability and weather-tightness. By obtaining a permit, you are notifying the official that work is to be done. The work will then be inspected to ensure it complies with the code. If you are in doubt whether a permit is required or not, ask first. Taking out a permit is much easier than paying the consequences for illegal construction!
Doing construction work without a building permit is a violation of the code. Ignoring this rule and “looking the other way” is a violation by the Building Official.
Permit applications must be done right
Massachusetts requires the Building Official to collect and review certain information by way of a permit application before a permit can be issued. The permit application provided to you must be filled out completely. Most items on the application are required by the State Building Code. Some are required by state law, and some by the municipality.
The code requires information about the project itself and who is responsible for the work. Statelaws require information such as indicating where any demolition debris will be disposed of and who, if anyone, on the project holds Workers’ Compensation Insurance. This form must be filled out for every permit by state law. (If you are a homeowner doing all the work yourself, there is a check box to indicate this.)
Most municipalities also must collect information specific to that city or town. This could include wetlands information, zoning information, sign-offs from other departments, etc. Some items may seem silly, or not apply to your project, but all information is required for a reason. The inspector doesn’t enjoy reviewing long and complicated applications any more than we enjoy filling them out. Remember, they may have hundreds, you only have one! But only by giving details can we explain what we intend to do. If your application is not complete, it simply cannot be approved. That’s the rule.
The appearance of your application is your only chance to make a good first impression. Grubby, incomplete, coffee stained applications filled in with illegible scrawling tells the code official that you are not serious about this. When reviewing hundreds of applications, some are easy – some are not. Do yourself a favor and make yours one of the easy ones!
Plans are required
Building plans are a necessary part of your application, and are required by code. There are minimum requirements for these plans – another thing the Building Official can’t change.
Plans are those drawings we used to call “blueprints”. The more complicated a project, the more plans and details are needed. Minor projects require permits, but don’t need building plans. No plans are required if you are going to reroof your house or put insulation in the attic. Adding front steps, a deck, a shed or rearranging rooms calls for simple plans to explain the project clearly.
Note that the word “plan” is also a verb! We plan a project by drawing it out, with every component selected as needed to make the project work. If you can’t provide decent drawings, how will anyone know you’ve thought this thing through, or even know what you’re doing? Your project may be clear in your head, but the Building Official needs to see this on paper (or some electronic medium). Clear, well drawn plans are a vital part of the permit application – see above about making a good first impression.
Building plans are not to show what the project will look like; they are to show how it’s put together. How big is it? How are the rooms laid out? What are the joist, stud and rafter sizes? How much insulation? Window sizes, door sizes, stair dimensions, location of alarms, etc., etc., etc. All are necessary to demonstrate that you have planned this through, and know how a building goes together. Save the 3D pictures for family and friends; they don’t help the inspector.
There is no shame in admitting that you aren’t familiar with drawing plans – very few people are, including most contractors. And a $100 “Home Design” software isn’t going to teach you or even help you. Save your money! Amateur attempts at drawing plans are instantly recognizable, and put the question in the Building Official’s mind: “Does this person know what he’s doing?” Start your project off on the right foot, and find someone who can do the drawings for you.
As noted earlier, the purpose of a building permit is to notify the authority in charge that you’re doing construction, and have demonstrated that you know how to do it. You sign a legal contract with the city or town, promising to do it right, so help you God.
In order to follow through with this contract, the job must be inspected – often at several stages. This is why we take out permits! By code, no building can be legally used or occupied until it has been inspected and approved. Besides being a code violation, not calling for the required inspections is likely to come back to haunt you sooner or later. Your property insurance may be jeopardized, for example. The Board of Assessors will see the completed work at some point, and all the taxes you should have been paying for the added amenities since completed may come due. If you sell your property, the new owner may take on unknown liability caused by you. The list goes on, but the bottom line is: the project – and your contract – aren’t complete until the final inspection has been done.
When you get your permit, you should be informed how to arrange for inspections, and what inspections are required. If not, ask. The Building Official’s legal responsibility is to do inspections in a timely manner when called. It is your responsibility to call!
About the permit fee
- Permits are not required just “as a way to make money”.
- As explained, permits are required by the state. Massachusetts collects no fees. Fees are required by the municipality to help pay their bills.
- Building Officials don’t set the fee for your project.
- Fees are set by the municipality. Building Officials simply collect them for municipal use. They have no authority to change your fee.
- Building Officials don’t get rich on permit fees (usually*).
- The vast majority of cities and towns put permit fees in the “general fund”, used for covering the expenses of running the municipality.
- Most Building Departments have a fixed budget and the personnel have fixed paychecks, served by this general fund. Sometimes fees collected are enough to satisfy this budget, sometimes not.
- *A very few (usually small) communities do compensate their inspector directly from the permit fees. This is a throw-back from a much earlier time, and compensation can vary widely.
- If you have concerns about permit fees, don’t complain about it without being informed. All cities and towns put out annual reports outlining every dime that comes in and goes out, department by department. If you find something that doesn’t set right with you, bring it up to the proper authority (Mayor, Selectmen, etc. – not the Building Official).
They’ve Heard This Before
Being a Building Official means meeting lots of people and having lots of conversations about building projects. That means common phrases come up often. Unfortunately, many of these, though they may seem new to you, have been heard before (many, many times before). Here are a few which are bound to raise red flags with an inspector. The comments here may sound a little harsh, but remember, you started it. So think before you say:
“I tend to overbuild”
This is usually meant as, “Don’t worry about me, I’m going to put this thing together like a fort. If the code calls for 2×8 joists, I’ll use 2x10s.”
What the inspector hears is, “I haven’t got a clue what the code requires, but I’m going to use (what I think are) big pieces of wood, and lots and lots of nails.” This says that the vital construction details are lost on you, and you think good construction is all about bulk.
“I’ve been doing it this way for thirty years” (a favorite with contractors)
Meant as, “My way works. Why change now?”
First, “thirty” seems to be the number which everyone uses to convince the inspector. All Building Officials have heard 35 and 40 year olds pull out this number. Ten years doing things the same way is plenty to convince them that if you ever did follow proper procedure, you haven’t kept up with ever changing regulations.
“There are too many regulations.”
Believe it or not, most Building Officials agree there are too many regulations. They don’t make them, and often disagree with them; but they and we need to follow them. Let’s not whine about it.
“Since when is that required?”
Meant as, “In all my experience building, I’ve never heard this before”
The inspector thinks, “Doesn’t matter since when, it’s required. And please don’t pretend you have any knowledge of code or code development.”
“Do you require…?” (Fill in the blank – Bigfoot® footings, joist hangers, etc.)
Seems natural enough.
What the inspector hears is that you just want to show that you know what these things are, and maybe you’ve been told they’re important. Or you’ve been told by another inspector that they require them.
As it turns out, the Building Official can’t require anything that is not required by the code. All requirements are created in the code, not by the Building Official. As a permit holder acting as a general contractor, it is your obligation to own a copy of the necessary code(s), and find these answers there.
“How far apart should I put the posts?”
This question simply can’t be answered, but amazingly enough it’s asked every day. If the inspector has time, you could get into a conversation like this:
Insp: “Depends on the design floor load, the size and type of posts, and the size and type of beam that will span the posts. Maybe someone should help you with the design.”
“Can I use 2×8 joists here”
Another “depends” answer could follow. This question also shows the inspector that you are not aware that the design is your responsibility.
Do we see a pattern here? The Building Official cannot do design work for you! Spans, material choices, window sizes, and every other aspect of the building must be designed – “planned” – by you before applying for a permit. It is your responsibility to do the research and verify that everything meets code (not simply “overbuilt”). If you’re not familiar with this process, you need to find someone who is. That someone is not the Building Official. They are not allowed to design for you!
“They don’t make me do that in other towns”
(another favorite with contractors)
Meant as, “I think you’re being too demanding. Nobody else requires this, so you must be overstepping your authority.”
This could go four ways:
First, you’re making it up to try to get away with less than the law requires.
Second, you’re right because even though the State Building Code applies in all towns, the other towns have zoning or other requirements different than this town.
Third, you’re right because the other inspectors aren’t doing their job. Further discussion is needed to clear this up. Ask what section of the code makes this necessary. If it is required, then you have no choice but to comply, regardless of what other inspectors may say.
Fourth, you’re right – the Building Official is overstepping his authority. This is not allowed! Inspectors must interpret the code every day, but they cannot make up rules. Whether it’s an interpretation of the code which you disagree with, an honest mistake, or simple bullying, you have the right to appeal if your permit is denied or your inspection fails. Be prepared to quote the code section in question if you expect to prevail. Simply saying “it’s not fair” won’t work.
Like cliché phrases, there are words that are so often misused or misspelled, they begin to grate on inspectors. This is not nitpicking – using any of the following identifies you as someone who lacks an understanding of construction:
- Sona tube, sauna tube, sonic tube, etc.
- “Sonotube®” is the brand name of one company’s cardboard concrete form.
- Other companies make cardboard forms.
- Do not say you’re building on Sonotubes®. A cardboard form is not a structural component. The concrete placed in the form becomes a “pier”, which holds up a structure.
- There is no reason to indicate Sonotubes® on plans. Show the piers.
- Bigfoot® – The brand name of a plastic concrete form, this one is to form footings for piers.
- Other companies make plastic forms for footings
- Like cardboard forms, plastic forms are not structural components. The concrete placed in the form makes a footing, which holds up a pier. Show the footing on plans, not the brand name of the form used to make them.
- The Building Official cannot require Bigfoot® forms. The code requires footings, not a certain brand of form.
- Joyce – This is a girl’s name. Horizontal framing members are joists.
- Beam – Used randomly for any structural member.
- Rafters, joists, posts, purlins, columns, etc. are not beams. You should know the difference.
- Cement – As in a “cement floor”. Cement is one ingredient of concrete.
- Vynal or vinal – As in siding. The word is vinyl.
- Lolly column – It’s lally column.
- If you can’t spell “column”, just abbreviate it (col.). The inspector will know what you mean.
- Sheetrock – Like Sonotube®, Sheetrock® is one company’s brand of drywall.
- The more proper term is “gypsum board” (gypboard). This is what architects call it, because they know.
- Fireproof Sheetrock – There is no such thing. What is probably meant is Type X gypsum board.
- Type X gypboard is specially made to resist the spread of flame longer than regular gypboard. Eventually, it will burn. “Fireproof” or “non-combustible” means a material won’t burn.
- Type X gypboard does not protect the wall behind your woodstove any better than regular gypboard.