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New state codes for accessibility led to confusion

When a state switches to new building code, it can sometimes come with headaches.

There can be confusion and differences of opinion as the industry and state officials try to interpret the new rules.

And the 2012 building code, adopted by the state last year, did not fail to leave the industry and state scratching their heads.

The fuss, which appears to have been cleared up, came from differences in interpretation of 
elevator requirements.

It all began when the state said its new code, which is based off the 2012 International Building Code, developed by the International 
Building Code Council, required elevators in apartment buildings with three or more stories.

Laurel Wright, chief accessibility code 
consultant for the North Carolina state fire marshal’s office, a division of the North Carolina Department of Insurance, discussed the 
three-elevator requirement in an email.

But Lon McSwain, Mecklenburg County building code administrator, read the email 
and had a problem with it.

That’s because McSwain’s interpretation of the code was that it required elevators only when an apartment building was five stories or taller.

That led to McSwain talking to Wright.

“The code is very confusing,” McSwain said. “My interpretation, and what we’re doing in Mecklenburg County, is once you reach five stories, you’re required to have an elevator for egress services for people who are disabled.”

The state has since changed its stance, 
saying that just because an apartment 
complex has three stories it does not mean 
it has to have elevators.

Kerry Hall, spokeswoman for the state’s 
Department of Insurance, said the initial 
confusion stemmed from an inconsistency in 
the state’s code and the International Building 
Code Council and U.S. Department of Justice’s commentary on the 2012 IBC.

“North Carolina is sticking with the language in the state code, not the commentary, and state code does not automatically require apartment complexes with three stories to have an elevator for the purposes of accessibility,” she said.

McSwain said the commentary implies that no elevator is needed if all the units that are 
accessible to people with handicaps are on the first floor. But according to Section 10-07 of the IBC, an elevator is required once a building reaches five stories, he said.

“It says two things in two different sections,” he said. “You can chase your tail with this code.”

The county is trying to spread the word to 
developers about the new accessibility 
requirements. To that end, information about the interpretation of the new building codes will be included in the county’s code enforcement 
department’s upcoming quarterly report.

In North Carolina, the 2012 building code has been in effect since Sept. 1 on a voluntary basis. June 1 is when municipalities must 
transition to the new codes, though. Mecklenburg County, which is transitioning to the new rules, adopted the 2012 code last year.

In the meantime, the building industry is still trying to wrap its head around what the new codes mean.

“The accessibility code is a lot different 
than the old code was,” McSwain said. “I think our new code is more confusing than the old code was.”

RAMSEY can be reached at tara.ramsey@mecktimes.com.

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