Maine builders ready for new statewide standards

Ryan Chambers (left) and Joe Meek carpenters with the Glenburn-based D.A. Carson Carpentry Inc. work on a residential construction site in Eddington.  They said that they were not aware that the statewide building code goes into effect soon, but would be glad to see it happen.  (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
Ryan Chambers (left) and Joe Meek carpenters with the Glenburn-based D.A. Carson Carpentry Inc. work on a residential construction site in Eddington. They said that they were not aware that the statewide building code goes into effect soon, but would be glad to see it happen. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 11:51 a.m.

For years, electrical work and plumbing done in Maine has been subject to state codes, standards that cover communities from Kittery to Madawaska.

But the actual building of the buildings — from the foundation through framing, finish work to the last roofing tile — has not been subject to a statewide code. Many communities have had their own codes, but they’ve varied. Many more didn’t have building codes at all.

That changes on Dec. 1, when the first statewide building code goes into effect following bills passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci over the past few years. In addition to numerous construction-specific rules, such as they types of lumber to use in various applications and structural dimensions, the codes also specify weatherization and radon mitigation standards.

There are still a lot of questions in the builder and code enforcement worlds. In fact, some town offi-cials interviewed wondered whether many builders were even aware of the changes. Those involved in the construction sector say the change is a mixed bag.

On one hand, the statewide code will standardize the rules across the state. They will make sure homes are weatherized to the latest best-in-industry levels. And they will ensure property buyers get a higher-quality product.

But the extra quality and checks by inspectors will also raise the price of construction, some estimate by 10 to 20 percent. There are also concerns that the building process might be slowed if builders have to wait more often on inspectors to visit the home.

“I think overall it’s a good thing. As we work with design professionals from away for some of our larger projects, it won’t matter if they’re talking to Bangor or Portland or Waterville,” said Dan Wellington, Bangor’s code enforcement officer. “We’re all going to be speaking the same language.”

Enactment of the new code comes in several stages. On Dec. 1, any community of 2,000 people or more that has some sort of building code currently in place will be subject to the new statewide building codes. Any community of 2,000 or more that doesn’t have a building code will have to enforce the code as of July 1, 2012. That lag time gives those communities not currently set up to do building inspections time to figure out what system will work for them, said Richard Dolby, acting director of the Bureau of Building Codes and Standards in the Department of Public Safety.

Finally, for communities under 2,000 people, builders will still have to construct to the code, but the towns won’t be expected to enforce the code.

“I am optimistic it will work,” said Dolby. “We absolutely need a little bit of tolerance and understand-ing, from the folks working in city hall as well as the lumber dealers and the contractors. We’ve got to figure out how to get this down.

“We may stumble, not walk as straight as we ought to, but you know, it’s for the good. And it’s time.”

Dave Carson, owner of D.A. Carson Carpentry Inc. in Glenburn, said he thought the move was good in that it would force some builders to do things the right way, rather than the cheap way. He was con-cerned that the new rules would add cost for the customers however.

“More government involvement leads to more cost,” he said.

Towns are on their own to figure out how to enforce the code. The new codes will necessitate about 10 inspector visits to a new home site at various times, and some towns may increase their fees to cover the costs. They can also use third-party inspectors, professionals who are licensed to make sure construction is up to code. So far, said Dolby, he hasn’t seen a “groundswell” of private professionals stepping up to fill that market need.

But there are some.

Randy Bragg of the Old Town-based engineering services firm Carpenter Associates said some of his employees have taken the classes and tests to be certified as third-party inspectors. The hope is they can help code enforcement officers as consulting engineers.

“If they get a big project, they may want some horsepower to pack them up,” he said.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said the organization supported the overall concept of “harmonizing the building codes.” It’s important that towns with fewer than 2,000 people be exempted from enforcement, he said. And the ability to use third-party inspectors was a good thing, as well, he said. Additionally, the association planned to support legislation in the next session that would allow municipal code enforcement officers to work on their own time as private inspectors in other communities, to help meet expected need.

One question about the whole process, said Dolby, is what sort of liability insurance any third-party inspectors will need, and how they will get it.

Ginny Savage, the business manager for Breakwater Design and Build Inc. in Rockport, said her busi-ness would be impacted immediately. The code enforcement officers are going to want a lot more infor-mation about a project up front, she said.

Like Carson, she thought the code would be good, as every builder would be held to the same standard. Savage, and several others, thought the new statewide code would eventually mean that builders, like plumbers, electricians and other professionals, would be licensed in the state. It was a move she sup-ported.

“Building a home is the most expensive thing you do in your life. You have a mortgage for 15 to 30 years,” said Savage. “Why let someone that isn’t educated on the building process build a home for you?”

Savage, too, saw an increased cost to the clients. She estimated the codes may add 10 to 20 percent onto the cost.

Where’s that cost come from? Potentially, both from additional labor to meet code and in materials, suggested Ben Johnson, the code enforcement officer in Hampden. For instance, under the new code, builders will have to either insulate the foundation or the flooring system, which can be expensive. The amount of attic insulation is increased, as well, to a R-49 rating. All that will cost money, said Johnson, and a time when the economy isn’t doing so well.

Johnson acknowledged that those weatherization upgrades, in particular, will pay for themselves eventually in energy savings. But many home buyers are only staying in their homes for three to five years, he noted, and are reluctant to pay upfront costs for benefits that will take a while to pay off.

He called the move to statewide standards “well-intentioned,” but added that “it’s an awful lot at one time.” Because Hampden has an existing code, the town will be under the new code as of Dec. 1. Johnson and another inspector plan to meet with home builders and their clients ahead of construction, to ex-plain expectations.

Bangor’s Wellington said this change wasn’t a big deal for the city. Bangor had always followed the in-ternational code the state code is based on, he said. Essentially, the state has adopted the main parts of the 2009 editions of the International Building, Residential, Energy and Existing Structures Codes. The city chose not to adopt the updated code in 2009, instead waiting for the state’s move.

“For us it’s a normal transition from one edition of the building code to the next,” said Wellington. “For some of these towns, it’s going to be a shock. You run the whole range: there are some towns that have adopted local building codes 20 years ago, and never updated them. Many did not have building codes at all.”

For information on the new statewide code, visit the Maine Municipal Association’s dedicated web-page at http://www.memun.org/public/MMA/svc/SFR/BuildingCode/default.htm

You can also check out the state’s site at: http://www.maine.gov/dps/bbcs/

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