BUILDING CODES ARE OPEN TO INTERPRETATION, BUT ONLY BY THE BOSS

In the part of my career which could be called ‘long ago’ there was a point in time when see-through fireplaces were being built in homes in cities around mine, and in states surrounding mine, but not in my own home town. That’s because the chief building inspector in my city had a unique way of reading and interpreting the building code: in sentence fragments. The part of the building code concerning see-through fireplaces said, “A  fireplace must have a back and sides of noncombustible material.” Our town’s chief building inspector chose to enforce that single statement as three separate sentences. Working back to front they were: 3. Both back and sides had to be noncombustible; 2. A fireplace had to have sides; and 1. A fireplace had to have a back. The logic used by the chief building inspector concluded that a see-through fireplace has no back, yet the building code requires a back, therefore the building code prohibits see-through fireplaces. His tenure lasted 14 years, and that’s exactly how long our no-see-through-fireplace restriction lasted. Subsequent chief building inspectors have used  a different logic for the same statement, interpreting that because a see-through fireplace has no back, and no back is the same as nothing, and ‘nothing’ is noncombustible, therefore see-through fireplaces meet the building code. Now you know that fireplace structure can be based on sentence structure.

By the way, even a see-through fireplace still must have a safety feature to prevent drafts on one side from blowing flames and embers out the other side – that is a pane of tempered glass on at least one side. Even that is subject to interpretation, so let’s hope your local chief building inspector understands complete sentences.

 

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Andy Bozeman

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