Consider the following scenario: All the woman could see in the hallway of her apartment building was smoke. The stairwell she normally used was full of black, billowing clouds – and the emergency exit was, too. She ended up jumping out the window from her third story apartment, along with her neighbors, and suffered serious injuries.

The situation outlined above really happened, and my colleagues and I at Krech, O’Brien, Mueller & Associates were called in afterwards to review the event. During our post-fire forensics inspection, we found that the fire had been confined to the basement but since the exit stairwells were not separated from the building interior, there was no way for the occupants to know that their exit route was safe. If the building had been designed with a better understanding of the building code, this story could have had a happy ending.

Here at KOMA, we don’t plan for our buildings to go up in smoke – but we help our clients design and build them to comply with state code regulations because it’s the law, and because we know the benefits to the building occupants. Code regulations like handicapped accessibility requirements and rules about hazardous materials might not seem sexy or romantic, but they make everyday life a lot safer and more convenient for all of us. And that’s why we love them.

Lots of people see codes as a barrier to what they want to do. Actually, the codes represent the minimum standards for life safety, and we can utilize our extensive code experience to construct a building that is both safe and matches the client’s budget and design.

A complaint I hear frequently is that building to code is more expensive. It’s true that certain aspects of the code, like handicapped-accessible bathrooms, take up more space than traditional bathrooms, and sometimes that translates into a higher building cost. But if you have a good knowledge of the regulations and a thoughtful plan, building to code does not have to be more expensive. In fact, not considering the code from the beginning can be very expensive to fix.

My experience with building codes has resulted in a competitive advantage for our clients and saved them money and headaches. One example is a project we worked on at the Mall of America, an 18-hole indoor miniature golf course called Moose Mountain Adventure Golf. The conceptual design for Moose Mountain was created by Canadian artist Dan Sawatzky. We were hired to make the design code compliant. Space was tight, so in our modified design the playing course shared the same space as the emergency exit path. This saved space, and also resulted in one of the only fully accessible entertainment venues of its type, because the exitways also had to comply with the accessibility code.

The Moose Mountain project was certainly a challenge, but it was a great fit for our firm’s experience and project approach. In my 20 years of studying code requirements, I have seen the best and the worst examples of how codes can impact building designs. And unlike firms where architects might only work on a few big projects per year, I have a half-dozen projects that cross my desk every week for code consultations. I’m able to put my detailed knowledge to use on a regular basis, which really benefits our clients.

Our unique expertise in hazardous materials regulations allows us to advise clients in an additional way. At the Agrliance Storage Warehouse in Winona, Minn., we reduced building costs and increased employee safety by encouraging the owner to order the product Phosfume from the manufacturer and have it shipped directly to the customer.  When contacted by moisture in the air or water, Phosfume forms phosphine gas, which is highly toxic. Explosions can occur under these conditions and cause serious personal injury. Not storing Phosfume in their new warehouse saved Agriliance tens of thousands of dollars, made the building easier to insure, and resulted in a safer work environment for their employees. Agriliance stores plenty of other hazardous chemicals and we created a safe environment by providing adequately sized explosion relief vents and sealed recessed floors that will contain any accidental spills.

We also make it a point to get to know the local building code officials and fire marshals, and build good relationships with them just like we do with contractors and clients. Not everyone chooses to involve code officials and other experts from the beginning of a project, but we have found that clients have more success when there are no surprises regarding code regulations once a project arrives at the permitting phase.

I know that code regulations aren’t the most interesting thing for everyone. Consulting on issues like accessibility, forensics and hazardous materials is work that many architects don’t like to do – but we love doing that kind of work. Good code analysis helps to define the details necessary for building beautiful buildings, and we apply the details of the building code with a keen understanding of the nuances of government regulations. We enjoy – and we know the value of – being thorough, detailed, careful and complete.

Having this expertise in-house gives us one more way to build relationships with our clients. And we enjoy building relationships more than we enjoy building anything else.