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If you have spent time in the world of development, then you have probably had to read through the often mind-numbing code of a municipality, state, or other regulatory agency. These codes usually begin with a section describing the intent of the code followed by pages of dos and don’ts. Although both the intention and the requirements of these laws may appear in the same section, there exist a gulf in between the two in terms of application. A design that follows the code but misses its intent still isn’t a great design.

Think about it in terms of speed limit signs. The signs function to set limits on how fast we can drive; however, obedience to the posted signs doesn’t actually make one a good driver. The signs make evident that many drive illegally (speeding), yet they aren’t responsible for producing safe drivers. And herein lies the problem with many of our codes. We can obey them while still missing the mark. We can seemingly follow their ordinances and regulations while missing the intention of their author. We can be legal drivers while still not being good drivers.

There may be no industry where this is more evident than that of land development. Ordinances dictate everything from rainfall capture to building heights. With hundreds of pages of code to sort through, design can easily become code compliance rather than a functional solution.

Take for example the development of an apartment complex. The city or county’s code will require a certain amount of parking spaces in order to facilitate a usable, safe, and accessible site. A site can be designed and permitted by simply having enough parking stalls; however, a design that only considers the number of parking spaces is based on the code rather than the intent of the code. In the end, the apartment buildings’ locations and parking lot configuration may force residents who get home later than others to park a quarter of a mile from where they live. In the final analysis, the code was obeyed while the intent of the code was neglected. On the other hand, a design based on the intent of the code seeks to provide a site configuration where sufficient parking spaces are provided both throughout the site and within a reasonable distance of each building so that the late-arriving residents can easily access the building they live in.

Ultimately, designing for code compliance alone isn’t enough. Though these regulations set parameters for right design solutions and show us when we have stepped outside the bounds, it isn’t until we design around the intent of the code that we actually find ourselves in fulfillment of it. This does not mean that the code is useless, but rather that fulfilling these regulations should be considered the bare minimum to right design.

There is a difference between engineering and code compliance. While code compliance sees the problem as fulfilling ordinances, engineering seeks to provide for the intent of the code. While code compliance looks to solving the problem of providing an accessible path to the right-of-way, true engineering addresses the question of how to provide an equal opportunity to those with disabilities.[1] Cities and counties require driveways to be designed under maximum slope requirements; however, if we are to call ourselves engineers, we have to go beyond the requirements to the question: would I feel safe pulling out of this driveway every day? The problems that our engineering solutions seek to address cannot simply be found in code requirements, but in the solving the actual engineering problems at hand.

Thus, here is the question that every engineer should ask themselves: Am I a code compliance officer or an engineer?


About Madison Rieke

Madison Rieke is a Project Analyst for Foresite Group’s Land Development Division in Peachtree Corners, GA. Madison graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering.

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