“Understanding Everyone’s Responsibilities and Obligations in the Code Process”

Last month, we broke down the meaning of the Registered Professional Engineer and began the discussion of how the engineer interacts with the building official. Let’s continue that discussion by gaining a better understanding of the code process.

Regardless of the jurisdiction or the code, the process begins within the state legislature. Each state has within their laws a requirement to authorize the creation of rules and regulations to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare, assigning the responsibility to some branch or department. In the case of my state, Ohio, the Department of Commerce has this responsibility through the Department of Industrial Compliance (DIC). The DIC includes the Board of Building Standards (BBS), which has the responsibility for promulgating rules and regulations and adopting codes with the intent of providing a minimum level of protection for the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

What Is Included in Chapter 1 of the Code?

Every code, regardless of the jurisdiction, begins with Chapter 1, which most professionals and a fair number of building officials have never reviewed or attempted to understand. This chapter, based on state law and the associated administrative code, defines everyone’s responsibilities and obligations. This chapter is often incorporated into the building code, but it applies to all of the codes under the umbrella of the building code. In many states, this chapter is either referenced in the beginning of the specialty codes such as plumbing, mechanical, etc., or it is directly incorporated within the framework of those codes.

This chapter provides key words that aid in understanding the responsibilities and obligations each user has as it relates to the code. While the structure and material within Chapter 1 will vary from one jurisdiction to another, it will cover the “Scope and Administration” of the code as established by law and developed in the administrative rules. Generally, this section will cover title, scope, administration, and enforcement, as well as associated reference standards.

The chapter will address the topics of certified building departments, personnel, and appeals boards. Every jurisdiction will have this in some form. It also will describe the types of certifications that the personnel within the department must have as well as the type of certification the department must have to be recognized by the state.


A building department includes a CBO (chief building official) who oversees the master plans examiner, building inspectors, plumbing inspector, electrical safety inspector, backup personnel, and replacement personnel. In the case of the health department, the health commissioner is considered the CBO. The department may also have elective personnel such as mechanical inspector, fire protection inspector, medical gas piping inspector, electrical plans examiner, and a plumbing plans examiner, as well as any necessary support personnel.

Chapter 1 spells out the responsibilities of the CBO to include such things as applications and plan approvals, plan examinations, issuance of orders, inspections, records, and department reports. It continues by covering the responsibilities of those under the CBO: plans examiner and inspectors. The chapter includes further details about inspectors in the areas of building, plumbing, electrical safety, mechanical, fire protection (Note: there is a difference between protection and prevention), and medical gas piping. Each has specific and detailed responsibilities.

The chapter will also establish the rules and procedures that the department is expected to follow in carrying out its duties and responsibilities. Some of the topics covered in Ohio’s Chapter 1 include continuing education of department personnel, complaint processes, disciplinary rules for department personnel, training requirements, and distribution of responsibilities through local boards, as well as other administrative processes.


The chapter covers the topic of approvals. These approvals may be nonconformance approval, conditional approval, previous approvals, phased approval, annual approval, validity of approval, and certificate of plan approval. Each is detailed as to what they cover and how to address any concerns relative to the approval.

Construction Documents

As each of us in the vertical build market knows, we produce construction documents. Chapter 1 details what is expected to be included in those documents: a drawing index, site plan, floor plans, demolition plans if applicable, roof plans, exterior elevations, building sections, exterior building envelop, wall sections, interior elements, schedules, structure, fire suppression systems, fire-resistance ratings, system descriptions, operation of those systems, fire protection system drawings, special inspections, and special provisions. Depending on the project size, more or less detail will be demanded by the CBO. These documents generally require the signature and seal of the responsible professional.

Alternative Engineered Design

This chapter or an annex to the code will also address the requirements of alternative engineered design. Code is a minimum requirement. While it can be used as a guide to design and construct building systems, it cannot cover all of the various approaches to reach the end result. As design professionals we have the responsibility and obligation to design systems that provide the best results for the client while protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare. This means that, as design professionals, we must meet the intent of the code and in some cases work outside of the “letter” of the code when the engineering supports a better approach.

Note that the purpose of alternative engineered design is not to circumvent the code in force. Its purpose is to encourage alternative design concepts that conform to spirit, if not the letter, of the code in force. It only requires that this be accomplished in a responsible manner.

When using alternative engineered design, you will need to provide the CBO with the following: design criteria, submittals, and technical data to support your design. Remember, the CBO is there to evaluate a design as it relates to the intent of code. They are not the design professional—you are—so you need to be prepared to defend and document your alternative design.

Plan Approval

The plan approval process is generally discussed in Chapter 1. It should address the application for plan approval, establish time limitations on the process, and provide guidance on the order of plan review to ensure fairness to all applicants. It also should address how to handle documents that are inadequate and how to resubmit such documents.

Inspection Process

Within the chapter the inspection process is generally covered. You must remember that the inspector does not have free range over the work. They have specific responsibilities and obligations with which they must comply. The “old days” when inspectors perceived themselves as a “god” or someone above the rules is or should be a thing of the past. The rules will cover the required inspections such as lot line markers, footing or foundation, concrete slab or under-floor, lowest floor elevation, framing, lath or gypsum board, fire-resistance penetrations, energy efficiency, and building services. All of these inspections shall be conducted on the basis of what is documented on the approved set of documents, which is what the owner has a legal right to build without modification.

Orders and Violations

The chapter will also cover the department’s processes relating to the issuance of orders, violations, and unsafe buildings. These rules need to be clearly spelled out and understood by all of the parties involved. The Chapter will also provide for the right to appeal such orders, violations, or claims of an unsafe building. Everyone is entitled to due process.

One final thought: the rules establish which codes the documents and construction process must follow. Generally speaking, the codes in effect at the time of permit application apply to the process. Provided the design and construction process is not excessively delayed or drawn out, subsequent editions of the code may not be applied to the process.

Why Is It Important that Design Professionals Understand the Contents of Chapter 1?

As design professionals, it is our responsibility and obligation to ensure that the public’s health, safety, and welfare are protected, as well as honor our commitment to the client and their needs. To meet those responsibilities, we must understand the processes—processes that are rooted in the law, implemented through the administrative code, and administered by the building officials. Everyone has to work within the rules and regulations that are established by this process. No one can operate outside of the rules, and no one is above the rules.

Understanding the rules assists in making a better process. Legally, the design professional is responsible for their design and owns the intellectual property that the documents represent. The owner has the license to use those documents to construct the facility that the approved documents graphically show in conjunction with the associated specification. The contractor is contractually obligated to use their means and methods to construct the facility in accordance with the approved documents. The building officials are charged with reviewing and overseeing the process to ensure that the minimum requirements of the codes have been met or exceeded. Neither building officials nor contractors are responsible for the design of the facility; this belongs solely to the design professional.

Since the design professional holds the liability and is solely responsible for the design, we must honor our obligation by being willing to support and defend our work. While the CBO has the responsibility to review and evaluate our work against the minimal requirements of the codes, they may not alter or direct changes to the design. When a CBO questions the design, we have the obligation to either modify the design or respond with the reasoning and data to support the design. The same is true for the contractor; their obligation is to construct the facility as shown on the approved documents. The contractor does not have the right to alter or modify the design without the specific written authorization of the design professional in coordination with CBO. The contractor has generally provided a fixed price for the construction of the facility, so failure to construct the facility as shown on the approved documents is short-changing or committing a fraud against the owner.

In closing, the design professional holds the liability for the design and owns the intellectual property that the design represents. With that responsibility, we must be willing to honor and define our design decisions in such a manner as to continue to hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other concerns.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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