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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin


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Breaking the Code

Words are fascinating, and in the enigma that is so often the English language, homonyms (same word, multiple meanings, as in "he had to train to drive the train") have always held a special fascination for me. The practical left side of my brain gyrates at the irrationality of a single word with multiple meanings, and the creative side of my grey matter swoons at the romance of a nuanced phrase turning on the perspective of a single word.

We can be blue, but we are rarely really blue unless it is really, really cold. In the cold we may feel the cold more if we are lean and will likely not be warmer if we lean against a cold wall and could even catch a cold. We can be stooped from too much leaning, or we can stoop to pick up a coin, perhaps even on the stoop of the house.

There are hundreds of homonyms. In fact, the list is so long that it can be helpful to break the list down into more specific sub-categories like heteronyms (same spelling but with different meaning and pronunciation, like "desert your post and run through the desert") and heterographs (same pronunciation but different spelling and meaning, like "she took two books to the library, too").

Yet, with all my noodling about homonyms, I have yet to find a word that is spelled and pronounced the same but that has the exact opposite meaning. Some may say that raze (to destroy) and raise (to build) are opposite, but these are actually heterographs (different meaning and spelling, but pronounced the same) and not true homonyms.

When some folks asked me to elaborate on my recent references to the "unhandy" house not being "to code" or about my remodeling bringing things "up to code," I realized that the word "code" itself might be the closest I will ever find to a true homonym that can have exact opposite meanings.

By its nature, a code that sets rules of conduct or performance should be simple and easy to understand so it can be easily and widely employed by all. A code, on the other had, can also be designed to keep secret its message and underlying meaning. A residential building code book should convey information easily, but in reality can look like an unbreakable cipher.

Do not despair, however; breaking the code of building codes is easier than breaking the DaVinci code. In fact, even though code books are large and the print is small and intimidating, finding the information you need is sometimes more difficult than interpreting the information.

When Hammurabi developed his general code of conduct for the Babylonian Empire 5,000 years ago, he included what was probably the first residential building code. He decreed that if a builder built a house that fell down and killed the homeowner, the builder should be killed. From that simple straight-forward, albeit a bit Draconian, beginning, building codes have evolved and expanded, and as far as I know, there is no death penalty for non-conformance...but there will be extra cost, time delays, shoddy and potentially dangerous workmanship, and other problems.

Here are a few tips to help the neophyte understand residential building codes and employ them as standard practice in home improvement projects.

Figure 6 - Twin lead antenna wire was never
approved for use as electrical wiring,
but my "unhandy" handyman used it. Scary!

First, it is good to keep in mind that each code is intended to promote safety, longevity, and a degree of uniformity and that most code is based in common sense and experience. It is also good to remember that the local governing body that has jurisdiction over construction in your area is not trying to stop you from building or renovating anything. In fact, they want you to build, add to, and continue to improve your property. Their mission is to make sure you do the work correctly and that property and lives are protected. In fact, with only a couple of extremely rare exceptions, I have found the various licensing and inspection people I have worked with to be helpful and a wealth of valuable information. Most are patient with homeowners and other "non-professionals" and truly want you to be successful at your project. When starting any remodeling project, start with your local permit-issuing body. However, you will get further, faster, if you already have a working knowledge of the applicable code for the project you want to build.


Purchase a residential building code book. The one I use is the International Code Council (ICC) "2009 International Residential Code For One-and-Two Family Dwellings." It is also critical to find out if your state and municipality have their own variations of the code. Many do. If so, obtain their book(s) as well. Local governments often mandate different standards for very good reasons, and the people at your permitting agency can advise you.

For a taste of what to expect and how to decipher the "code," my project of building stairs to the second level of my new workshop is a perfect example. My State Department of Commerce Uniform Dwelling Code (which I am using instead of the international code, and you will see why in a minute) contains almost 50 paragraphs on the building of stairs, which sounds daunting, but let's jump in and see how easy it really is.


The first paragraph, "Scope" actually lets me off the hook if I were to choose not to build to code. It says:

Every interior and exterior stairway, including tub access steps but excluding nonrequired basement stairways which lead directly to the building exterior and stairways leading to attics or crawl spaces, shall conform to the requirements of this section.

I could ignore code and the stairs leading to the "attic space" of my garage could be built any old slap hazard way. But, that's not the way woodworkers and handy people do things. We want safe, comfortable, and long lasting, so we do things right.

The first section covers width. No need to reprint the entire paragraph here. I find it helpful to scan the verbiage and look for numbers. Once the numbers are found, I can read the sentence. It says, simply, that stairs must be a minimum of 36 inches wide and that handrails and trim can project no more than 4.5 inches into the required width. Easy.

The next section covers the height of each riser. There is a whole lot of language about where to measure, how to measure if the top or bottom of the stairs start or land from a carpeted area, and exceptions allowed for spiral stairs. Again, scan for numbers and you will quickly find that risers cannot exceed 8 inches from the top of one tread to the top of the next.

Skimming through the next section we can find the nugget in the river by again just looking for numbers. The first number I see is "9" and that sentence says that stair treads have to be at least 9 inches deep. The section following that indicates that there must be 76 inches of headroom above every stair tread. So far, so good.

The next section, titled "uniformity," tripped me up once during a final inspection on a new home. International code says that no riser height or tread depth can vary by more than 3/8 inch. I built a small set of stairs from the garage to the house, and was within national code limits on both counts. However, in my state the code is 3/16 inch. Lesson reiterated --- always check local codes.

There is another page and a half in the "code book" on stairs, the vast majority covering handrails, but the information we have ferreted out so far will get us pretty much "to code" and the practicality and common sense of the code should be apparent.

Narrow stairs are impractical. Whether it is moving in furniture or carrying out the trash, wider stairs are simply easier to navigate. But there is much more to the 36-inch minimum. Could an emergency worker get in with his/her gear? Could an ambulance attendant get up or down stairs with a stretcher? What if you someday need to add a motorized lift to the stairs? Would they be wide enough? Building codes help people be prepared for situations they might not foresee.

Studies have probably been done that reinforce the most comfortable height for steps. No doubt, records are kept somewhere of the number of falls and the data might include the factors that led to the fall. You can be assured that the 8-inch maximum riser height is based on data and the vast majority of stairs I have seen in the past ten years have had a 7.5-inch riser height...give or take a fraction.

Standardization plays a part in riser height, just as it does in tread depth. Treads less than 9 inches deep would be uncomfortable and dangerous, and an 11 to 11 ½ inch tread depth is more the norm. Two 6-inch (nominal) boards side-by-side happen to measure about 11 inches. Standardization can help keep costs down, and can also be more comfortable and safer.

No one likes to bump their head or duck when walking, and a 76-inch clear area above each stair allows anyone up to almost 6 foot 4 inches tall to walk upright while climbing stairs. Safe and comfortable, but even more height is obviously preferable in order to avoid a claustrophobic look or feeling.

The "uniformity" clause might need some explanation. We humans adapt pretty quickly and process a lot of information subconsciously. When we start up or down a set of stairs, by the third step our magnificent brains have already told our legs and feet where the next logical step should be. If it is a little higher, or a little lower, our brains, feet, ankles, and legs adjust, but if the difference is too great, we become momentarily disoriented and could stumble and fall. Ask any hiker and you will find that a mile in the woods or on uneven terrain is much more strenuous than a mile on a sidewalk, due principally to the additional concentration and muscle strain to balance every step. The allowable deviation between riser height and depth is logical, but explaining why my state's uniformity requirement is twice as strict is a mystery. Perhaps we are just a clumsier group up here in the North country.

For the stairs themselves, the last thing the code book covers is open risers (no back to each step). If you build stairs with open risers, the opening cannot allow a 6-inch sphere to pass through. With a 7½-inch rise between steps, that means that each tread would need to be 1 ½ inch thick. Isn't that just about right for a 2 X 4 or 2 X 6? Funny how that works, isn't it?

The 6-inch sphere guideline is used again in the code to outline the maximum amount of space between guardrails, balusters, etc. Ostensibly this is small enough to prevent a child from falling through, but large enough that he will not get his head stuck in the balusters...at least that is what my friendly building inspector told me.

If you never plan to do a home improvement project and only want to build furniture and turn bowls, the International Residential Code book is still very interesting reading. You will learn a lot and will pick up a significant amount of additional new nomenclature to add to your vocabulary. You may do a better job of hiring contractors and even buying your next house.

Well, enough about codes, for now. I have to run. I have to think of a way to pack my plane so I can get through security and get on the plane to fly across the plains and speak plainly to a bunch of plain folk like me about how to plane a bunch of uneven boards and get them all into the same geometric plane. Homonyms are so cool!


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Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson13@mac.com.

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