Well, this has got me a little CO'd.
June 7, 2016 11:57 AM   Subscribe

How important is a Certificate of Occupancy for an addition? Especially when it's all about one nonsensical thing?

We just finished construction on an art studio above our attached garage. We love it and had a pretty good experience with our builder. The one thing we don't have is a Certificate of Occupancy. Why? Turns out the township wants the railing on the stairs from our kitchen up to the new room to be located six inches higher than it is, and to have its ends curve to meet the wall. We're perfectly in love with the room, and like the railing just where it is. (Weirdly, it sits about my waist height. The township wants to move it up to around my breastbone.) So to get the CO, we have to have the contractor come out, rip off the railing, raise it, patch the old holes and repaint and entire wall that goes up almost two stories. So do we really need a CO for an addition? Especially in a house we intend to stay in for as long as we are physically able? And since the contract states the builder is responsible for building to code, am I right in believing he has to absorb this cost? Tell me there's a simple solution to this nagging situation.
posted by lpsguy to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Can you put in an additional railing and take it down once you have your certificate? I have... heard of people doing such things. (It can be hideous, like a 2x4 nailed to the wall, because you're just going to taking it down.)
posted by mskyle at 11:59 AM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

If your builder built something that's not to code, it is 100% on them to do whatever it takes to fix it. Anything less is unacceptable. Railing heights and returns are definitely a consistently-enforced part of the code, but as mskyle says you can often get away with installing a temporary railing for the inspection and taking it down afterward. The code doesn't say it has to look nice. If that's what you want to do, it's up to your builder to make it happen. Walking away from an addition that hasn't passed final inspection and been granted a CO is not OK.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:05 PM on June 7, 2016 [16 favorites]

Not having a CO can, in many instances, voice your home owners insurance, and if you are paying a mortgage, you are most likely required to have homeowners insurance.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:08 PM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Should you desperately need to get a CO in the future, you might have to then meet all sorts of new, far more expensive codes (ran into this issue at our church and it was super expensive; if only someone had gotten it at the time of construction!) This sounds like a relatively easy fix; you're taking a gamble if you don't fix it now.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:12 PM on June 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

You may also want to double check your local code. A 42” guardrail (with a lower attached handrail) is a standard code requirement for commercial properties, but a 34”-38” combination guardrail/handrail is commonly allowed by residential codes. Maybe your code is different, but possibly by calling it an “art studio,” you kicked yourself into the commercial code? And if so, perhaps you can talk to the code officials and clear things up if this is a residential hobby space rather than a commercial space (assuming that’s the case).
posted by Kriesa at 12:19 PM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Regardless of what you decide to do, you'll want this now. If you have to come back later and get it when this has been an established structure/addition they are going to grill you and go over the whole place with a fine tooth comb. They very likely will be able to find other violations and hamstring the process. Things that seemed only needed conditionally will suddenly apply, etc.

This is just how it is local to me, but i've heard of it elsewhere. They get pretty testy if you don't get the permits right when you are in the process of/completing the work.
posted by emptythought at 1:12 PM on June 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Be certain that the rail is installed to meet code because a 2x4 isn't usually acceptable. Railings and handrails are pretty strictly enforced as part of life safety issues and the builder should already know the appropriate code requirement.
posted by mightshould at 1:39 PM on June 7, 2016

Definitely check what is required by code. That said I saw on This Old House when they made period-style Victorian handrails that dipped down below code height they got around the required code height by adding a horozontal thin wire railings at "code height" that were unobtrusive to the design. Again, this depends on if that counts as a railing where you are.

ETA: here's what I mean.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:50 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The return to the wall is important. It only takes catching your coat pocket on the railing and doing endos down the stairs one time to ruin your whole day.
posted by Bruce H. at 3:53 PM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

You don't tell us how high things are in common measurements..
In addition to what Kriesa said, the Residential code does not call for the handrail to return to the wall. A "handrail" in the IBC (commercial) has to be centerline distance of 34" to 36" above the nose of the tread, no higher, no lower. It has to be grippable, there are a limited number of profiles, round 1 1/4" to 2" is acceptable. This part (grippable) is true for residential and commercial. A "guardrail" is required at 42" above the nose of the tread or surface of the landing if there is a drop of 30" or more. Guardrail does not have to be grippable. Guards are only required in non-residential.
Seconding the thought you got tossed into the non-residential code for some reason, whether fairly or not.
The other thing to know is that the local Building Official (usually the head inspector) can over-rule any portion of the code.
it might be good to clear up why you are being inspected per IBC (International Building Code) instead of the IRC (International Residential Code). If it is unfairly (brand new person making inspections that doesn't know any better is a possibility) it might be a good move to set up a meeting with whoever is the Building Official, all done in the friendly spirit of "I have a problem, can you help me out here?"
posted by rudd135 at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Where I live, there was no way around this. We had to buy the cheapest pre-fab railing, swap it out for the one we wanted to keep, pass inspection, then switch them out again. It's a dumb application of extreme adherence to all building codes (this is a mild safety code, not an essential structural check), but at least you can jump through the hoops to get around it.

Other long-existing things at our 110 year old house that had to change: no dimmer switch on the exterior outlet we used to plug in accent lighting; a mandated lantern fixture over our electrical box, even though it was 16" away from our main outdoor lantern fixture; no doorbox over the electrical box, so it just collects debris and spiderwebs and bird nests; an internal pull-down attic stair that opens facing a wall with about 3" clearance, because the stair is over an ingress to the kitchen and can't 'block' a doorway when folded out; sighhh so mannnnnyyy thhhiinnggsss whyyyy.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:22 PM on June 7, 2016

Keep in mind that if you don't get a CO, or get it and then put the original railing back, you might be on the hook for any damages if someone ever gets hurt on those stairs. Your insurance will take one look at the situation and NOPE right out of there.
posted by lydhre at 6:23 AM on June 8, 2016

Oh, an addendum. Your builder would be totally within his/her rights to say that they'll install a railing that meets code, but that they won't be responsible for taking it down and replacing it with a not-code railing after the inspection. They're putting themselves at risk if they do that and get caught, and not all builders will be comfortable with that. They have a duty to bring your addition up to code, but not to hoodwink the building inspector on your behalf. Some builders will go along with those kinds of shenanigans, some won't.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:07 AM on June 8, 2016

rudd135: "Seconding the thought you got tossed into the non-residential code for some reason, whether fairly or not.
The other thing to know is that the local Building Official (usually the head inspector) can over-rule any portion of the code.

The OP describes it as an artists studio; if they are operating a business serving clients that might be enough to flip them over to needing to meet at least some of the commercial requirements.

late afternoon dreaming hotel: " (this is a mild safety code, not an essential structural check)"

I'd argue that anything specifying heights on stairs is a significant safety issue. Sure your house isn't going to fall over if the hand rail is the wrong height but a user could be hurt or killed by a grip not at the expected height; especially if unfamiliar people are using the stairs on regular basis. This is also why inspectors are such hard asses about hand rail shape. Probably half the code as applies to residences is there because of safety and most of it because people were dying enough to notice. You can't realistically plan for someone with mobility issues never visiting.
posted by Mitheral at 10:41 PM on June 8, 2016

Thanks all. I'll have to check whether we did get flipped to a commercial code. Regardless, we are indeed dealing with it officially. Got a hold of the contractor and he's going to do whatever it takes to make it right ... even though, damn, that railing will seem abnormally high ... and I'm 6'2" tall. Can't imagine how the code accounts for an average size person. On the plus side, now I won't be able to unsee railings wherever I go for the rest of my life.
posted by lpsguy at 7:46 AM on June 9, 2016

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