Given California’s reputation for regulation, the state’s 2013 Building Standards Code could have been a headache and a half for builders.
But the newest version of the code, adopted by the California Building Standards Commission in January and slated to go into effect in 2014, promises to make life easier for builders, especially in the area of accessibility. “Last week represented a huge long-term victory for us,” says Bob Raymer, senior engineer and technical director at the California Building Industry Association in Sacramento.
That’s because the new code streamlines the rules for accessible buildings, building on last fall’s emergency legislation against frivolous Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits.
For years, California builders have been responsible for somehow following the overlapping and often conflicting rules regarding accessibility from both the feds and the state. In recent years, that led to “drive-by lawsuits,” where attorneys and others threatened to sue California businesses whose offices, residential properties, or common areas weren’t in compliance with the confusing rules.
“They would send letters saying, ‘if you give me $4,000, I won’t proceed with litigation,’” says Raymer. “And a whole lot of people were just paying that, especially small- or medium-sized businesses. We estimated it would cost $22,000 to $25,000 to fight this in court, and that was if you won.”
Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill (SB 1186) into law that reduced California businesses’ exposure to such lawsuits. Since then, such complaints have required, among other things, detail on what part of the state or federal code was being violated.
In addition, California addressed the confusion between whether the state or federal codes applied in various situations by adopting the federal guidelines where accessibility was concerned, with an overlay of state codes as necessary.
“For the first time in 20 years, we’re going to have building officials in localities checking to see if buildings are in compliance with state and federal codes,” says Raymer, who believes the more coordinated approach should help builders ensure their projects’ accessibility is up to code. “The last thing we want is to get into court over a civil rights violation,” he says.
Public and multifamily buildings such as apartments and condos will need to be wheelchair-accessible; new single-family homes, despite lobbying by disability rights groups, will not. “There has been a strong desire to mandate access in single-family dwellings,” says Raymer, who has technical and design concerns about adding such features to all new homes.
One feature that will be added to all new homes under the new code is greater energy efficiency.
Thanks to regulations adopted in 2012 by the California Energy Commission and now included in the state code, builders will need to use highly efficient windows with a solar-heat-gain coefficient of .25 and U-value of .32; insulation with values of R-19 to R-21 in much of the state, and HVAC systems with a SEER rating of 14. Ductwork must be tested and allow no more than 6% air leakage. California wants all new homes to be zero-net energy by 2020.
“They’ve taken all this to an extremely stringent level,” says Raymer, who estimates the new requirements will boost construction costs by $2,500 per home.