Two of the biggest obstacles I hear about when dealing with and designing homes and other structures out of shipping containers are permitting and building codes. It’s important to talk about both, because, frankly, if you don’t meet building code you won’t get a permit. There’s something of a symbiotic relationship going on here, right?
So, lets talk about building codes. What are they and why are they important?
First, building codes are nothing more than a minimum standard set of guidelines by which architects, designers, engineers and contractors ensure the health, safety and welfare of the public in building construction. Building codes and zoning requirements can change from state to state, city to city and town to town. Geographic differences pose perhaps the most varying changes to local codes. For instance, you wouldn’t necessarily build a wall or design a hvac system the same in Florida as you would in Maine or in Missouri or North Dakota, as the climates throughout the year are widely different in each location. So it’s important to be up to date on the codes that affect your building site.
As I mentioned, building codes are set to provide for a minimum standard. It also sets definitions of terms governed by the code such as dwelling unit. These terms are outlined in the code and in the case of a dwelling unit are defined by minimum limits on size and square footage. In the latest edition of the Florida Building Code Residential, Section R304 the minimum area and horizontal and vertical clearances allowable are 120 square feet, 7′ in width and 7′-6″ in height. This is important when designing with shipping containers because you have a fixed shell that only gets smaller when you add interior studs, insulation and finishes. And violating these minimum standards will make getting a permit nearly impossible and will most likely necessitate costly redesign of the building. Not cool, right?
So, if you’ve successfully designed your container home to meet your local building requirements, then your next challenge is to receive a building permit for construction. While this is typically handled by your contractor, some homeowners do go about the permitting process themselves, especially if they plan to act as their own general contractor. Be sure to check with your local planning department to see if this is an option for you.
Now, while typically you need to go through the design process first to ensure compliance with building codes, when building a home out of what is considered an alternative building material/system it’s a good idea to get your code enforcement and planning officials on board early and make them a part of the whole process. In my experience, no matter what the project type, when you get input from your local officials early in the design process they are more likely to be an ally for your project rather than simply the enforcement officer. This means that they will be more likely to work with you when you propose alternative building solutions to code requirements, more inclined to point out possible red flags when it’s easy to correct in the drawing phases and even advocate for the project when it does come time to issuing a permit.
All that being said, the important lessons to take away here are:
1. You CAN permit shipping container homes. Anyone who says that you can’t or that it’s too difficult most likely isn’t skilled or educated enough to be designing buildings in the first place.
2. It is in your best interest, and the interest of your building project, to hire qualified design professionals and to elicit the help of your local building and planning officials when permitting alternative homes. We are not Ogres out to eat your children or gouge you out of thousands of dollars that you could have spent on that fancy plasma cutter. We are trained professionals who WANT to see your projects get designed and built according to your vision. Let us help you.
3. If someone tells you “you could just build it yourself without a permit”, RUN – even if your city/township doesn’t actually have a code enforcement department.
4. Always, always, always design AT LEAST to the minimum standard set forth in the IBC (International Building Code). We’re talking about structures that house your most precious possessions – your family – so why would you NOT want to ensure a minimum standard of care in the design and construction of your home?
Ok, I’m off my soapbox. I know I have more than a few friends out there who have designed and permitted shipping container homes or other alternative building types. Please feel free to comment on your own experiences and even correct me if you feel I’m just a raving loon. 🙂