Codes and Residential Design

Codes and Residential Design

Some people may believe that designing a house is simple, perhaps easy.  It is not.  The American Institute of Architects has long held that the design of a house is one of the most complex projects an architect can undertake.  Why?  Because there is more happening per square foot than any other type of project in a house.

Rand Soellner used to design laboratories, NASA projects, Air Force electronics facilities, water treatment plants and he agrees that residential design is the most complex type of project.

The 2012 International Residential Code is 904 pages long.  How many people who think that designing a residence is a simple matter have studied that or even know that hefty set of legal requirements even exists?  Licensed architects do know.  Mere residential designers may not.  The difference is: architects have a license.  The State requires that they design their projects in accordance with the State adopted codes.  So, real architect are required to comply with such weighty volumes.

There is also the International Energy Conservation Code.  Each state either fully adopts or amends the IECC and the IRC.  Architects designing project must comply with the full IECC and the IRC or as a minimum, the State modified version.  Many states reduce the requirements of these codes; once in a big while, they might add to them.

These sorts of codes, governing the design of houses covers a vast array of subjects that affect the arrangement, size and operating and performance characteristics of future houses.  Like what, for instance?

Well, let’s look at something small and relatively simple: windows.  If you, a lay person were to set out trying to design a house, you might think: “Hey, this is my house, I will make my windows however I want and that will be that!”  Not so fast… that is not necessarily true.  For instance, how many people have studied the International Residential Code and know that windows on the upper levels of a house, where the floor levels are at least 6 feet above the ground must have their window sills at least 24″ above the floor level?  This change occured during the last decade.  So, if you are planning a house, you must keep your window sills at least 2 feet above the floor where those floors are about the height of a man above the ground.  Okay, now we are ready to resume designing, right?

Once again, not so fast…  You think that now that you have learned one thing.  One thing out of thousands, that you are ready to size your windows?  No.  Not by a long shot.  Here’s another requirement: did you know that in a residence, all bedrooms have to have what is called a “Secondary Means of Egress?”  This means, that in addition to the door through which people normally enter the bedrooms, you must have another emergency way out of that room, leading directly to the outside of the house, in case of fire, smoke, or other emergency.  Why is there such a requirement in the IRC?  Because people have died in the past in catastrophic  and horrific tragedies in which people have burned to death or died of smoke inhalation in their bedrooms when they were trapped in there, because they couldn’t get out small windows or no windows, or windows which did not lead to a safe outdoor area away from the house.  The fire marshals of each state notice when such nasty events happen, then modify the building codes to hopefully prevent such horror from happening in the future.  That is how codes end of being forced to change.  How could anyone not agree: that it is a bad thing for people to be burned to death or inhale smoke until they die in their very homes?  Of course.

Okay, so, what has this got to do with this one aspect that we are examining in this one micro-study of one set of decisions for a house: your windows in your bedrooms?  Well, did you know that all windows serving as a secondary means of egress on the 1st floor or “ground floor” of a house must have a minimum of 5.0 square feet of net clear opening?  And that all upper level windows serving as a secondary means of egress must have at least 5.7 net square feet of opening through which a person can escape?

All right.  Do you now think you know what you need to plan just your bedroom windows?  Nope.  Here’s some more legal requirements that the architects of houses must know: per section R310.1.2 (2012 IRC), the minimum height of this emergency egress clear opening must be a minimum of 24″.  And, per section R310.1.3 (2012 IRC), the width must be at least 20″.  You may infer from this that if you make all your windows have a 24″ wide x 20″ tall egress opening you will meet the requirements, right?  Wrong!  If you multiply 20″ x 24″ you will only get 3.334 square feet!  That does not add up to the required 5.0 or 5.7 NSF required!  So, you have to think about several things here: the actual size of window required that will meet the Minimums, or be greater in width and height, but that also satisfies the Total required NSF size required by code.

And we haven’t even touched the “fun stuff,” like will the windows Look good?  What will you be looking at when you walk around your house or sit near those windows?  This means that when at architect arranges your Site Planning, he or she is also thinking about what aligns with the view directions from inside your house to those exterior features, sometimes miles away, like a distant mountain range!

What a lot to think about!  And we haven’t even addresses such features of only these bedroom windows such as energy efficiency.  Do you think that tinted windows or totally clear windows are the way to go for energy?  No.  Neither.  There are special coatings these days that reduce summer heat gain and minimize winter heat loss.  Not to mention, the number of layers of glass in a sash.  Only a few decades ago, single pane glass was the norm.  Not today.  Anything less that double pane insulated glass will have a hard time meeting the energy codes that reduce the amount of electricity your house will consume as a direct result of the type and arrangement of glass in your residence.

And we haven’t even touched the other types of glass required in your house in other locations, like special safety glass near bathtubs and showers and stairways.  There is so much to know!  And the material of the window frames. That one decisions can impact the cost of your door and window package by tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention how much or how little maintenance you will have in the future.

We hope that just this one, very small example will begin to display how complex designing a house really is, and why licensed architects are the ones trained to do this.  Health, Safety, Welfare are the main requirements of an architect’s design.  He or she takes a sacred vow to uphold these concerns in everything they design for you.  Most architects also make sure that their creations are beautiful, but don’t talk too much about that; they understand that most people take that as a given when they engage an architect.

Rand Soellner Architect  1-828-269-9046

We have not even mentioned all the other vast array of items involved in your house that need to be designed, specified and arranged: roofing, siding, structural systems, plumbing, heating ventilating and air-conditioning, wall materials and finishes inside and outside, fireplaces, colors, textures, stairs, outside living spaces, furniture, appliances, garage, social gatherings and how they will function in the spaces provided, lighting and control switching, computer wiring, cabinetry and other built-ins, closet shelving, pantries, flooring (structural and finish), site slopes, access to the street, vehicular maneuvering on your site, guest parking, sewage system and location, potable water locations and access to your house, electrical and equipment rooms and the gear inside them, storage requirements, the views!, doors, handrails, insulation (thickness, R-value, location, ventilation), hobby rooms, spaces that you can use most of the time then allow guest to occupy occasionally, landscaping, exterior paved areas, views from and to your house, waterproofing your house above and below ground, flashing, sealants and much much more!  And there are code regulations associated with all of them, above and beyond your functional and aesthetic desires.  Your architect keeps it all working together harmoniously.

So, the next time you think that designing your house might be a simple matter, consider just the windows in one bedroom of your house and all the legal, energy, and aesthetic decisions and requirements that went into the decisions affecting their specification, size and arrangement.  Now multiply that by about 10,000 and you might have something near the magnitude of the scope of decisions your residential architect makes on your behalf while designing your new house.

Do what you do best and earn a good living at it.  And consider understanding that what an architect does required decades of training and experience to help you have a wonderful place in which to live.  Enjoy!

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