Exceed the building code

Building codes are for safety, not comfort or aesthetics. Take your reno to a higher level by exceeding the code

By Jay Somerset

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Upshall’s reasoning fits with the way we’re living these days. Canadians would rather renovate their homes than move, so renovations should be geared toward long-term fixes. “If the homeowner is planning on staying in their house for more than 10 years, then I will tell them which code upgrades are worthwhile,” says Frank Cohn, owner of Cohn Construction in Mississauga, Ont., and host of The Home Improvement Show on CFRB Radio. “If I’m doing a bathroom renovation, the code tells me I can install tiles onto drywall or backer board, but this will only last five years before it needs to be replaced. So, it’s better to exceed the code and install tiles on wire mesh and concrete-the old-fashioned way-which might add an extra $2,000 or $3,000 onto the reno cost, but will last 50 years.”

Building codes are like computers: they can calculate numbers but have no sense of their significance. If you’re building an addition and need to rebuild the roof, the code will specify what types of rafters and spans you require, but it doesn’t sense that what you really want is a high, open space inside. “It helps to know the homeowner’s vision before tackling a project,” says Gordon Deane, president of Deane Design & Build in Port Credit, Ont. “If the homeowner wants a spacious, open living room, I would recommend a mechanical beam, which goes well beyond what the building code specifies but allows you to span greater distances for details such as cathedral ceilings.”

Go further

Certain areas of the code should always be exceeded. For example, if you’re building an office or storage area, the building code calls for 2×4 interior walls. But if you upgrade the measurement to 2×6 walls, you are able to produce a quieter room-the extra space allows for more soundproofing-and you can turn the office into an additional

bedroom, which adds resale value.

“A lot of [these decisions] are budget-driven,” says Upshall. “And yet, there is one big mistake home-owners almost always make when they’re trying to save money on a renovation: they don’t dig out the basement.” The code calls for only a heated crawlspace with a slab floor, so the homeowner skimps by not paying for the excavation and dirt removal. “You don’t have to finish it, but you have the space if and when you want a finished basement. Plus, it makes a huge difference if you plan on selling your home because now you have another full floor.”

Speaking of floors, almost everyone agrees that the code is too generous when it comes to the spacing of floor joists. The code calls for 16″ on centre, but if you build this way, your china cabinet will rattle with every footstep. You get a stronger, more resistant floor with joists spaced 12″ on centre. “This is especially important if you’re going to be laying tiles, because any deviation will lead to breakage,” says Upshall. “I do the same thing if there’s going to be a heavy load on the floor, such as a kitchen or a living room.”

Highly efficient

Windows are another spot worth upgrading beyond code, both in size and energy efficiency. “It’s always worth upgrading to triple-pane glass [for increased efficiency],” says Cohn. Size is also important, especially in the basement if you may one day put a bedroom down there. The code now specifies that basement windows must be big enough to act as an escape route, but, typically, basement windows are cheap, small and provide little light. “My basement windows are a joke. They’re about 8″ tall and 2′ wide-barely big enough for a chipmunk to escape through,” says Cohn.

Deane and Upshall recommend upgrading to wooden window frames instead of vinyl. “As far as energy efficiency goes, they perform about the same. But, aesthetically, wood has a much better look, so it’s worth paying a bit more,” says Deane.

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