Production Housing and the New Code: When to Require Plan Updates

Article Will Crew, C.B.O., Interwest Consulting Group, Inc., CALBO Innovative Practices Committee MemberShane Diller, M.P.A., City of Elk Grove, CALBO First Vice President

Implementation of the 2019 edition of the California Building Codes (CBC) are upon us.  Building departments across California seem to have differing opinions of when production model plans need to be updated for the new code edition.  

It is important to begin with what the law says about the effective date of the new codes. The California Health and Safety Code Section 18938.5 states the following:

“18938.5. (a) Only those building standards approved by the commission, and that are effective at the local level at the time an application for a building permitis submitted, shall apply to the plans and specifications for, and to the construction performed under, that building permit.”

So, what constitutes an “application for a building permit”? Some building departments believe that an application for production home plans for plan review is an application for a building permit.  Therefore, the building code edition for all homes in the subdivision is locked in or vested at the time of this application. For example, if a production home plan was approved on 2018 or 2019, then all homes for this plan can be construction under the 2016 California Codes indefinitely until the subdivision is built out.  

Remember, applications differ from permits in both the CBC and the Health and Safety Code. In addition to the timing distinctions made in CRC section 105, CA H&S states:

“18938.5 (b) A permit that is subsequently deemed expired because the building or work authorized by the permit is not commenced within 12 months from the date of the permit or the permittee has abandoned the work authorized by the permit.”

To truly follow the intent of the Health and Safety Code we must look at the definition of a building permit application as well. The 2019 California Residential Code (CRC) Section R105.3 states:

“R105.3 Application for Permit: To obtain a permit, the applicant shall first file an application therefor in writing on a form furnished by the department of building safety for that purpose. Such application shall:

  1. Identify and describe the work to be covered the permit for which the application is made.
  2. Describe the land on which the proposed work is to be done by legal description, street address or similar description that will readily identify the and definitely locate the propose building or work…………”

So, any building permit application for a production home that is submitted on or after January 1, 2020, should have an accompanying plan approval under the 2019 California Codes.  Of course, the 2019 California Residential Code Section R104.10 allows the Building Official to make modifications “where there are practical difficulties involved in carry out the provisions of this code.”  There will always be extenuating circumstances that may require the Building Official to use common sense and good judgment which should always be prudently exercised. 

Although there may be some push back from builders, we have an obligation as Building Officials to ensure the latest code standards are included in the production homes within the communities, we serve so the latest technologies and safety features are being constructed.  Many developers use this as a marketing tool and have already begun to revise plans to meet the current 2019 California Codes.  Some building departments also accept plans and issue permits based upon the new code prior to the effective date of January 1, 2020.  However, the developer cannot pick and choose which enhancements are best for the developer’s bottom line and must choose one code edition or the other.    

Our intent here is to provide “best practices” based on the California Health and Safety Code and the California Building Code, please seek assistance from your jurisdictions legal counsel prior to choosing a path.