December 13, 2023

AHJ Roles and Responsibilities: If You Can’t Cite It, Don’t Write It

At SEAC's November 2023 general meeting, Doug Harvey shared insights from a long career working as an AHJ, a contractor, and an electrician.
SEAC member Doug Harvey presenting at the November 2023 general meeting

Safety codes and their interpretation can cause friction between building officials and the contractors whose work must be inspected and approved.

At the Sustainable Energy Action Committee’s November 2023 general meeting, Douglas Harvey, a UL Solutions lead regulatory engineer and SEAC member, shared insights on code enforcement from a career’s worth of experience as a building official, an electrician, and a contractor.

Harvey weighed in on why it’s important for authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to be knowledgeable, flexible, consistent, and perhaps most importantly, transparent.

He also tackled some frequently asked questions about AHJ roles and responsibilities. Do inspectors need to be licensed or certified? Do safety codes have the force of law?

This article shares a selection of his comments, starting with the disclaimer that AHJ roles and responsibilities can vary from municipality to municipality and state to state. You might consider this presentation both as an homage to the important work of the building official and a modest suggestion about how to wear the building official’s badge with pride.

Transparency Is a Two-Way Street

Inspectors have a responsibility to cite code sections and help people understand when they are citing code or interpreting code. By the same token, contractors have a responsibility to question the inspector, Harvey said.

While working as a contractor, this is how he approached disagreements about code enforcement.

“My philosophy was, I would make a statement to them. ‘I’m really sorry if I made that mistake. I’m going to have to justify the extra time and material to my boss, or my customer, or my client, whatever the case may be, explain how this happened, and why I’m being delayed, or what I have to change.

If you could just help me out and show me where that is [in the code] so I can show it to them, I would be greatly appreciative.’

In most cases that would stop them dead in their tracks. And I literally had an inspector say to me one day, ‘Well, it’s not really in the code. But I never did it that way when I was in the field. And I really just don’t like it.’

Well, you can guess where that conversation went,” Harvey said.

If you don’t ask questions, he added, you are effectively empowering the inspector at the next job to make additional demands that might not be rooted in code.

“As a former AHJ, we always had a simple philosophy, ‘If you can’t cite it, don’t write it,’ he said. “AHJs have a responsibility to cite the relevant standard or code for any enforced or required changes.”

Continuing Education Is Essential

On any given day, a building inspector could be called upon to inspect a hospital building, a solar photovoltaic (PV) system, a fire pump, or underground infrastructure at a residential property.

Even if you’re an electrical inspector, you have to be well versed in a variety of codes. The National Electrical Code can tell you how to wire exit signs, for example, but you have to refer to the building code to locate exit signs. You also have to refer to the fire code for special conditions involving PV and energy storage systems.

In addition, building officials must be familiar with local regulations. Local regulations can often be more stringent than national or international standards.

New hires don’t arrive in the building department fully formed with all the knowledge, flexibility, and consistency that they require. Training helps to get them there.

“I have never in my career met an inspector who on the first day had any understanding of what an inspector did or the variety of knowledge they had to have,” Harvey said.

Are Building Officials Licensed or Certified?

Many states and localities require a license or certification. This might be through an individual licensing program or certification by associations such as the International Code Council. See the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) page on becoming a building inspector for more details.

Requirements vary and jurisdiction may be bound by the administrative section of the adopted code, state law, or municipal law.

How Are Building Codes Adopted?

Building codes are written as models and can be modified by the AHJ.

States can adopt codes through legislative action, regulatory agency actions, or local government actions. Learn more at the ICC page on how building codes are adopted.

Code adoption varies from locale to locale. Some jurisdictions may adopt the model codes with little to no changes, while others may make substantial modifications. The modifications allow codes to be tailored to the specific needs and conditions of each jurisdiction. Code editions may also vary.

The codes are published and made public to make it easier to find the applicable code in your jurisdiction.

Are Codes Law?

The status of building codes as law can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the process of adoption. In some cases, once a code is adopted by a jurisdiction, it becomes enforceable law within that jurisdiction. 

The state may adopt it as a rule, which carries the same weight as a law but can be overridden by statutory requirements. 

In some regions, building codes may be adopted as local ordinances. Noncompliance could lead to civil penalties, refusal of future permit applications, or in extreme cases, criminal proceedings.

Therefore, the legal status and implications of building codes can differ significantly based on the specific circumstances and location.

Awaiting the Next Generation of AHJs

Citing 2022 BLS employment data, Harvey said there are about 2,200 openings for building inspectors nationwide.

“I don’t believe you can go to a municipality or a jurisdiction right now and not see a posting for building inspectors and plan reviewers,” he said.

The job can be difficult but extremely rewarding and valuable.Contact your local building department to find out more about AHJ roles and responsibilities in your community and the career path that can lead to code enforcement. You can also find out how municipalities can make solar energy more accessible by visiting the SolSmart website.