Once you have your design for your alternative home ready, there are some other things to know about working with the local building code department.
Reviewing the steps from the article on Getting your cob or straw bale home permitted and Getting building code acceptance for cob homes:
- research the types of natural building and decide what you want to build
- locate a similar home already built, preferably in the same area that your building department controls or as nearby as possible
- participate in natural building workshops, learn the pros and cons and decide if that is really what you want to build
- search out designs on the Internet, at the library and bookstores to see if one exists that you like
- draw out your dream design
- if you did not inherit land or are not building in an ecovillage, look for your dream homesite that fits the type of home you want to build and make an offer on it contingent on your home plan being approved
- read site planning articles like Site plan sun, air, water, and earth for a green home
- review your design with people from the workshops, others you have networked with who have built the same type of home, and consultants to get their input on what will and will not work
- list the materials you will need and estimate a cost, keeping in mind that traditional loans are usually not available for many alternative homes and you may need to get loans and labor help from family or friends
- if you can afford it, try to get an architectural engineer to sign off on your design
With the address and deed book and page of the property where you want to build in hand, search online or in your phone book for your city or county building department. Talk with them to be sure you are using the codes that apply to your homesite. Ask about existing codes for the type of home you want to build.
In South Carolina, some areas have exemptions for certain types of buildings. There are no Greenville County or Spartanburg County building permit exceptions. Oconee County exempts one-story accessory structures if their floor area does not exceed 400 square feet with no electrical, plumbing or HVAC systems, and Pickens County is the same as long as floor area is 200 square feet or less.
In some states, there are no building restrictions outside the cities. Some like California have a class K relaxed construction standard for by owner-builders for “Limited Density Rural Dwellings” where their only concern is if the structure is safe. The structure is only inspected when it is complete. Some alternative buildings in North Carolina are classified as educational building for testing building materials and techniques.
In Greenville County, there are no codes referring to cob or straw bale construction. One concern will be fire-rating testing and how insurance companies will deal with the home. If you are planning on using a contractor, they will probably be pulling the actual permits and dealing with the building inspectors. Most people building with natural materials like cob or rammed earth are their own contractors and do as much as they can themselves to keep out of debt.
Get all your documentation together as in the required number of your house plans, any example houses, information on the materials and techniques you plan to use, code approvals in other jurisdictions preferably in the state or neighboring state, engineering and fire insurance data. Go to the permit department and ask with whom you need to talk and what you need to do. Ask what permits and inspections are required, how you request inspections, lead time required, the fees, is there a guide of the types of most frequent problems in inspections or a checklist or any other material that will help you in the process, what kinds of work they do NOT allow you to do yourself such as running a water line to public water.
One reason you have taken the workshops and done hands-on learning is to appear competent, reasonable and honest with the building department. You do not want them to become your adversary. Keep them happy to help you as much as they can by telling them the truth and not getting confrontational or negatively argumentative. They are the authority, often overworked, and their job is to protect the public.
One final hint–if they will not approve of cob or straw bale per se, many times they will permit post and beam construction with an infill of straw bale and/or cob for the structural safety. Some states will be comfortable with calling a building adobe instead of cob.