There are codes and there are standards. A great home requires both.
There was a TV commercial for kosher hot dogs that first aired in the 1970s. With a surprised and disappointed Uncle Sam as background, the narrator described how government authorities allowed the company to use ingredients like artificial colorings and non-meat fillers. The tagline was a classic: “We don’t. We’re kosher and have to answer to an even higher authority.”
It was a brilliant piece of advertising.
But it wasn’t brilliant just because of the tagline. It was also true. Government standards define what a company can get away with; they don’t ensure the best possible result. This truth also applies to building codes.
Don’t get us wrong: codes are essential. Structural codes ensure that your stairs don’t create a tripping hazard and that your home will stand up to whatever gravity and nature throw at it. Fire codes keep it from becoming a tinderbox. Electrical codes protect against fire and shock. Plumbing and sanitation codes are why you have clean water.
These and many other requirements keep you safe and healthy. We’re grateful for them and you should be, too.
However, the truth is that while codes guarantee a safe home, they don’t guarantee top-quality work. There’s a common saying in the building industry that “a house merely built to code is the worst that legally can be built.” That’s probably an overstatement but it makes a valid point—good builders hold themselves to more exacting standards.
There are a hundred possible ways to illustrate this, but let’s consider the example of floor framing. Codes specify the maximum distance that floor joists can span without support from an underlying beam. A floor built to those specs will bear the combined weight of furniture and a lot of people, but it may still bounce enough to rattle your china when the kids stomp through the dining room. Professional builders who want happy clients go beyond code by using deeper joists or shorter spans to keep the floor stiff.
The difference here is between building codes and standards of excellence. You need both to build a great house. The reason competitive bidding so often yields unsatisfying results is that the lowest bidders have little incentive to commit to any standards beyond the code.
To ensure excellence, quality-conscious professional builders follow industry best practice standards and hold workers to them. There are quantifiable standards for every part of the job, from how level the floor framing must be, to the maximum allowable moisture content of interior wood trim and flooring (for less shrinkage), to the smoothness of the drywall finish.
An established professional builder will have a team of in-house workers and subcontractors who understand—and consistently meet—the requirements that apply to their part of the job. The best teams over-build: they’re obsessed with things like straight walls, square corners, blemish-free finishes, doors that close properly, and windows that won’t leak over time.
When it comes to actual code requirements, if the team is working in an area where the code inspectors aren’t particularly fussy, these professionals will still exceed those requirements.
Great builders want their homeowner clients to be safe and happy. They want to eliminate unwelcome surprises. They want to build the best house possible. Their higher authority is a commitment to standards that ensure those results.