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Do Canadians Build In Enough Peace of Mind?

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 06 March 2001 00:00

When it comes to buildings, Canadians take a lot for granted. We assume buildings are sound and that fire and safety precautions are automatically built-in, especially in apartment buildings. Canadians expect high minimum standards of quality in materials and workmanship, and we take for granted that government inspectors are there to watch out for our interests.

Building codes ensure that part of our confidence is well place, but compliance does not guarantee as much as we think. "Building to code" means building to minimum standards of health, safety, accessibility and energy efficiency when constructing new buildings, making additions or renovating. For instance, have you noticed that many washrooms designated "wheel-chair accessible" have double-door entrances that make it difficult for even able-bodied people to get in?

The code is not retroactive and cannot be used to force the upgrading of an existing building unless that building is unsafe. In a renovation, such as an industrial conversion to loft units, the code applies only to that part of the building being retrofitted. It is market demand that determines whether other aspects of the building are brought up to date, not the code.

During past housing booms, so many new buildings have been under construction at the same time that building inspectors, who check to see the quality of work is at least to code, have not always been able to keep up. Problems caused by poor workmanship or product failures have occurred in other situations, too.

Many Canadians have been lulled into a false sense of security.

Government has intruded into and regulated so much of our lives that we assume every aspect of life is under the watchful eye of at least one level of government. Our "government-will-protect-us" philosophy leaves us vulnerable. This entrenched trust leads buyers to sign housing contracts without reading or understanding them, to buy homes without a thought as to how sound and "healthy" the buildings are and to put their money and their faith in "experts" and "professionals" without questioning credentials or motives.

Historically, the Canadian approach to consumer protection has been reactive, not proactive. Once a problem arises or things have gone wrong, consumers raise their voices in pain and outrage. Then governments slowly react with regulation and legislation -- including changes to building codes.

"A code is a living document, which develops and evolves to meet and accommodate changing times, population demographics, technological advances and the needs of contemporary society," said Mel Brown, Director of Building & By-law Services for Niagara Falls , Ontario. This border community of 80,000, which plays host to over a million visitors each summer, has built the equivalent of four to five hundred storeys of hotel rooms over the past few years under Mr. Brown's keen eye.

"Based on the þ home is the castle' maxim, there are some significant hurdles to overcome to get code writers to make amendments to requirements for the interior of apartments or for other residential buildings such as one and two family dwellings, but this does not mean this cannot happen."

Building codes are not meant to lead the construction industry. Code changes respond to construction industry demands and, when it is provided, public input. Building codes exist to ensure standardization of construction methods and materials. These "standard good practices" reduce construction costs, simplify marketing for suppliers of building materials and keep construction methods in tune with evolving construction technology.

Canada's National Building Code (NBC), which emerged after the World War II in response to the tremendous post-war building demand, has been developed by the National Research Council of Canada with revisions every five years. The NBC is a model code with no force in law until it is adopted unchanged or with modifications by a provincial government.

Municipalities adopt the Code as building regulations for construction, building inspections and issuing building permits.

Work is underway to change the NBC to an "object-based system" by 2003.

This means a shift from the specific "how to" approach to a system open to various interpretations so long as the objectives are reached. For example, standards outlining specifically how a building should be constructed to allow wheelchair access will be replaced by the general objective of having wheelchairs able to enter the building and move through certain areas. Many are concerned that the end result may be a lesser degree of accessibility.

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PJ Wade

Futurist and Achievement Strategist PJ WADE is “The Catalyst”—intent on Challenging The Best to Become Even Better. A dynamic speaker and author of 8 books and more than 1800 published articles, PJ concentrates on the knowledge, insight, communication prowess, and special decision-making skills essential for professionals and their clients who are determined to thrive in the 21st-Century vortex of change.

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