Building Code Alternatives

While this was originally written with regard to cob, it actually applies to any non-standard building technique.  Though it is my understanding that the following information is generally true, most jurisdictions (city, county, or state), can and often do, pass laws which deviate from the "standard" codes and practices which may be in use in neighboring jurisdictions.  Because of this, always check what your local rules and regulations are before deciding how to proceed.  For those of you living in countries other than the USA, I'm afraid I can't help you other than to suggest that you check for options available to you similar to the ones below.

It is encouraging to see people working to get important "old" building techniques added to the code, and there has been a great deal of success, particularly with straw bale construction.  Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, energy and money to fight a protracted building code battle, which undoubtedly results in fewer natural structures being built.  The following is intended to provide you with some ideas which may help you to deal with this issue.

Here are the methods (that I am aware of) which have been used to deal with the issue of building codes and building techniques which are not pre-approved in the code, in some cases there are potential consequences which you may not care to risk, I am not recommending you take any of these approaches, just listing possible alternatives that I am aware of:

  1. Some areas do not use building codes, so people can just build whatever they want.
  2. Some areas have what is known as an "owner-builder" clause in the code, which gives a great deal more latitude for people who are building a structure just for themselves.  These "owner-builder" codes vary greatly, so you will need to check on your local options and requirements if this is available in your area.
  3. The building codes generally allow for experimental structures to be built at the discretion of your local building department, but most building departments are worried about liability if it falls down or something else goes wrong, so this is usually not allowed.  In some cases, building officials are actively interested in alternative/natural building techniques, and may be willing to work with you to arrive at some compromise which will allow you to build.  You'll never know if you don't ask.
  4. In most cases, I believe that you can build pretty much anything you like if an Architectural Engineer will certify that the structure meets the code's structural, energy, fire, and safety requirements, but they may be required to back up their certification with test results from a national testing laboratory.  I would imagine that few Architectural Engineers will be willing to certify a structure without those laboratory results to use in their structural computations.
  5. In at least some (if not all) of the standard residential building codes, accessory buildings of up to around 120 exterior square feet are allowed to be built without any permits required for the structure.  UPDATE: The new international building code for those areas which adopt it allows for up to 200 interior square feet on unpermitted accessory buildings.  If you put in wiring or plumbing, these will generally require permits, even though the building itself did not.  Even if your local building codes allow for such a structure, in at least some areas, there may be restrictions on where these structures can be built, as well as how many of them you can build on a given piece of land.  In theory these small buildings are garden sheds or storage buildings, and you are not allowed to live in them, though some people do.  One approach that some people use is to buy a piece of land with a junker house or mobile home on it which is their "legal" residence, then actually live in their accessory building(s).
  6. Agricultural buildings generally have much lower code standards, so some have been built as "agricultural buildings" though generally you are not supposed to live in these structures either.
  7. Some people simply go renegade and build without approval, though in some areas they can and will make you tear the structure down if you get caught.  Also, this method generally cannot be used if you wish to hook up to public utilities other than telephone since the utility companies often have to get permits in order to make the connection to your building.  Though I have never heard of it, it wouldn't surprize me if someplaces require a permit for telephone hookups as well,
  8. In a few areas, the local building codes may actually allow cob, though it might be called something else: "poured adobe", "puddled adobe", and "monolithic adobe" are at least somewhat similar to cob if not the same thing, depending on one's perspective.  Other building techniques may be in the code under alternate, older or out of use names as well.
  9. If you have the option of moving to an area where codes are less restrictive or non-existant, here are some links that may help you to find the place you want to move to, but remember, this information may be out of date, incorrect, or local officials may be in the process of making changes that will go into effect before you can start building, always verify the information:

This should give you ideas of some possible approaches that may be available to when you seek to address the building code issues for your alternative structures.  Always check the actual building codes and laws for your area, don't just believe what a friend or for that matter a building official may tell you.  There are a number of rumours (i.e. I have no first hand knowledge of any of these incidents) regarding cases where a building official told someone that local codes didn't allow building a certain structure, when in reality the official was either:

  1. mistaken
  2. misinformed
  3. uninformed
  4. didn't want the structure built
  5. was on a power trip

I hope that you find some of this helpful to you in your natural building pursuits.

If you know of any other approaches for dealing with the building codes that I have left out, please let me know so I can add them to the list.


Shannon Dealy