Friday, January 16, 2015

HB127: Equal Window Egress Protections



Laws are a very contemporary thing.  For the most part, due to our representative form of government where people pick who will write the laws for them, the laws of the land accommodate the majority of citizens and reflect the circumstances of our day.  For instance, we don't tax telegraph lines anymore because that isn't a technology that people use.  Or, laws preventing stores from being open on Sunday are no longer on the books because people want to shop on Sunday.  The legislative process adapts to the will of the people as it has been designed to do.     

Likewise, this process is reflected in the laws that govern construction of new buildings.  There was a time about 145 years ago when homes in Utah were made from adobe.  Mud and straw was the prevalent construction material.  As time progressed, cedar lapboard was used, brick became more common and ultimately we arrived at the contemporary construction techniques and standards that we use today.  

This body of construction rules is what we call the Building Code.  The state has had a habit of adopting new buidling code every 3 to 5 years.  This process means that every every 3 to 5 years homes built prior to the adoption of the new code fall out of compliance with whatever new rule is adopted.  Thus, as time marches on and the rules become more rigorous or demanding, more and more homes find themselves not "up to code".  

With this being the case, cities, which are responsible for enforcing the code, sometimes find themselves wanting to enforce today's rigorous codes on older structures that were not built with these standards in mind.  The application of today's building codes can sometimes threaten the integrity of older structures. 

A good example of this is with window egress.  When building codes changed some time around 2008 it called for basement bedroom window openings to be 5.7 sqft.  Most older homes were built with basement windows smaller than that in size.  So, some city officials began forcing owners to cut into the foundations of their homes and install larger windows according to the new code.  

Many older homes have concrete foundations without rebar reinforcement or are made of stone and mortar.  Obviously,  requiring sensitive foundations to be cut can create some significant risks of damage to the property.  So, in 2011 Senator Curt Bramble ran SB 178 which stated that cities could not require basement windows be expanded if it risked damaging non-conforming rental properties.  Landlords have historically been the easy targets of city buiding officials.  The bill passed and became law.  Unfortunately, the way it was written did not show up in the area of code that was used day to day by city building officials.  So, in 2012, I ran a clean up bill, HB383, to correct that problem.  

This year we are working to provide for equal application of this principle for all properties regardless of their use or zoning.  The previous bills applied only to rental properties that were non-conforming for the zone in which they resided.  For instance, if the property was a fourplex in a duplex zone, or a duplex in a single family home zone.  This provision seems to leave a lot of other properties unprotected. 

So, this year HB 127 seeks to provide the same protections to rental or owner occupied homes regardless whether they are conforming or non-conforming for the zone in which they reside.  The law will apply to cities as well as counties.  This should protect most vintage and historic homes from reckless tampering and provide some relief to homeowners who unhappily find themselves in the scope of over zealous building officials.  

Obviously, there are other ways to improve safety while maintaining original basement egress windows and this law would not affect those provisions.  Nevertheless, this bill should be a final and equitable adjustment that applies common sense to an area that has often vexed innocent owners of older homes.    

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