Sunroom stumbling blocks: Code officials sometimes stand in the way of construction
In some municipalities around the country, it can be a challenge for sunroom and patio-enclosure manufacturers to obtain building permits for their products.
“We deal with counties east of the
The way code is enforced depends on a department’s resources, experience and the code itself. “Building codes are not iron-clad documents and sunrooms are not well-defined in most building codes, leaving room for questions and shades of gray,” Luttkus says.
Indeed. Some building code inspectors are satisfied with little more than “a sketch on the back of an envelope while others want you to give over your first-born son,” says Kevin McGrath, vice president of engineering at Four Seasons Solar Products LLC in
“Think of the ways people interpret the Bible. ... Code is much more complex,” says Brian K. Pitman, director marketing and communication of the National Sunroom Association in
The NSA officials labor for the consistent application of code to sunrooms and patio covers. They want the ICC to refine and include definitions for such structures in its codes.
One obstacle has been achieving consensus within the industry. “It has been a contentious issue,” Pitman says. Luttkus agrees. “It’s been an uphill battle because not everyone is comfortable with the definitions.”
“The definition can be tricky because a single word can offset exactly what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Robert A. Walz, director of engineering at TEMO Sunrooms Inc. in
Michael D. Fischer, technical director of the NSA, submitted a proposal to the ICC’s code-development committee last spring that would define and draw distinctions between patio covers and sunrooms. NSA officials suggested that patio covers be considered “a one-story structure, covering or enclosing nonconditioned, nonhabitable recreational space, with open, screened or glazed wall area in excess of 40 percent of the gross area of the structure’s exterior walls.”
A sunroom, on the other hand, would be “a one-story structure attached to a dwelling, enclosing habitable space, with a wall glazing area in excess of 40 percent of the gross area of the structure’s exterior walls.” In addition, the industry proposed wording concerning thermal isolation. “Taken together, all of these modifications provide clear direction for code officials who often struggle to determine just what the requirements for these rooms should be,” Fischer wrote in the proposal.
The ICC code-development committee disagreed. In February, its members discussed the changes and rejected them, concluding the expanded definition of sunrooms was not substantiated, and that it was uncomfortable with the proposed definition of thermal isolation. In addition, ICC officials said “the terminology would be very confusing,” insisting “additional clarification is required to explain the differences between patio covers and sunrooms, and where these units can be attached.”
The NSA officials did not rebut the ICC decision or rewrite their proposal before the end of the public comment period June 16. However, they may submit new code language for consideration in March 2006, Fischer says. Meanwhile, the current ICC code on sunrooms will remain for the foreseeable future.
That may come as a relief to some industry executives. Walz argues that defining a sunroom as a habitable space may raise more problems than it resolves. “The minute you start defining it as a habitable space, you open up the entire code book and you need to comply with every single page,” he says.
Matters of interpretation
However, the county is democratic in its approach. Every product not in the code faces the same standard. The first
In Grace’s experience, most sunroom and patio-cover manufacturers are on top of their game. However, she has seen communication breakdowns between manufacturers and installing contractors. Sunrooms are one-story structures by definition, and she has stopped efforts to make two-story sunrooms. Or she insists on stick construction for a two-story structure, rejecting the use of foam panels. Other problems occur when people try to convert a structure designed not to be air-conditioned into an air-conditioned space. If you install heating and cooling, she says, the humidity may get so bad, “the customer ends up with a tropical rain forest.”
The county has developed a checklist for sunroom and patio-cover manufacturers to guide them through the approval process. “
However, getting an evaluation report is easier said than done, McGrath says. A fast turnaround on such a report is six months. It took Four Seasons three years to gain approval for two complex and innovative technologies. One sought approval for the use of glass as a part of the structural element of the room and the other was for the use of thermally broken extrusions in patio rooms.
The process also can be expensive. Terry Cavanagh, vice president at Terrapin Testing Inc. in
That’s too rich for Robert Howe, president of Abundant Energy Inc. in
Similarly, in the wake of last year’s hurricane season, municipal officials along the Eastern Seaboard became increasingly aware of their vulnerability to storms with wind speeds of 120 miles per hour. These days, community planners along these storm routes adopt wind-load and impact codes that, in some cases, are as strict as those enforced in
Greg Header, president of Solar Innovations Inc. in
Given the growing cost of making and securing approval for sunrooms and patio covers that meet more stringent code requirements, Header expects manufacturers to develop specialties. For instance, a product designed to survive a hurricane may be overbuilt and too expensive to sell in other regions and the expense of carrying the inventory to supply each market could prove daunting.
And while he foresees customers paying more for their sunrooms and patio covers “in the end it will benefit consumers,” Header says. They will get more reliable and functional spaces and that, he insists, “will help give our industry a better name.”
Syndee Grace, Fairfax County Building Plans Review, Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, Herrity Building, 12055 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, Va. 22035, 703/222-0114, email@example.com, www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes
Sunroom installation checklist