Building a Crack(ed) House to Code

By Christopher E. Carter, P.E.

About ten years ago, I participated in an arbitration involving a home in Mississippi which was having some structural issues. This home had moderate drywall cracking with some racked doors, and was built upon a slab-on-grade foundation. The most apparent defect, however, was a one inch wide crack running down the center of the slab from front to back. To make a long arbitration short, the homeowner won the case for emotional trauma suffered for being labeled, “the neighborhood drug dealer.” You see, she was very reclusive, and rumor had spread about the lady in the cracked house, which of course, evolved into gossip about the lady in the crack house! True story.

During the arbitration, inspection records were produced and witnesses testified to the fact that this home was built according to local building code. The main misconception the arbitrator had, and one most builders may have, is that constructing a house to code ensures a “good” house which shouldn’t experience structurally-related problems. It does not.

The purpose of a residential building code is to provide minimum construction standards which incorporate life safety, economy and uniformity into the as-built environment. Let’s look at a code currently in effect in most jurisdictions of the Denver-metro area: the 2003 International Residential Code (“IRC”).

Section R101.3 states the following: “The purpose of this code is to provide minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare, through affordability, structural strength, means of egress facilities, stability, sanitation, light and ventilation, energy conservation and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment.”

This basically means that if you build a home in accordance with this code, it will be economical and strong enough for the occupants to survive and/or escape a fire, earthquake, flood, hurricane, etc. It doesn’t mean it won’t develop cosmetic distress – remember the phrase, “minimum requirements.”

Strictly from a design perspective, the difference between a home made from sticks and one made from bricks is in the engineering. The more its engineered, the stiffer it should be. Think of structural stiffness as a line segment. At one endpoint you have compliance with the building code (conventional construction). At the other end, you have fully engineered. Design and construction costs go hand-in-hand.

Practically speaking, most residential buildings are a mix of conventional and engineered construction. The incorporation percentage of each, and of course the quality of construction, will ultimately determine your perception in the neighborhood.