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Va. Code Changes Postpone Move-In Dates

New Regulations to Strengthen Houses Prompt Design, Construction Revisions

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page B03

After hurricanes and tornados leveled homes across Florida and parts of the mid-Atlantic during the 1990s, building code officials and the construction industry agreed on stricter standards that would make new houses strong enough to withstand high winds -- namely 90-mph gusts for 3 seconds.

The new standards, which became part of the International Residential Building Code in 2000, have been adopted by many states, including Virginia and Maryland, which adopted them in 2003.

Helen Thompson had hoped to move into her new home near Haymarket in December, but building code changes required revisions to the house. Meanwhile, she's living with her son, "his wife, their kids and two golden retrievers." (Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

As a result, the solariums, sunrooms and ever-popular two-story family rooms, which often feature a wall of glass and are standard in many new suburban houses, have become more expensive and complicated to build. And in parts of Virginia, where the code went into effect in October, that has meant conflicts between developers and code enforcement officials, leaving homebuyers sometimes caught in the middle.

Helen Thompson, 54, is one of them. The new home near Haymarket she had hoped to move into in December is still not ready -- many of its windows stripped out and entire walls having to be redesigned to comply with new standards.

"I'm staying with my son, his wife, their kids and two golden retrievers," Thompson said in frustration.

Her home is among dozens that building and code officials say are held up in Prince William County.

According to builders and officials there, the revised code recommends that new houses have four feet of continuous wall between windows. For anything less than that, the builder must provide special bracing, such as plywood, brackets or other reinforcements, to withstand wind.

Developers who have used the same blueprints for years say they have been forced to go back to the drawing board and design homes with windows in different places or use more plywood and other materials to reinforce the walls around delicate glass. Homes under construction, such as Thompson's, have needed revisions.

In some Washington suburbs, where developers are practically building small towns in 1,000-home subdivisions, adjusting to the new code has been difficult, said Calli Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. Builders say they need more guidance from officials, who interpret the residential code differently from county to county.

The International Residential Code and the International Building Code, which guides commercial development, are part of an industry-wide push since 2000 for uniformity in building codes across the country. Before 2000, states had a choice of three codes run by three national groups, according to Dave Conover, the International Code Council's staff liaison to Virginia.

Recurrent issues or tragedies often help shape the evolution of codes. Last year, Virginia officials were spurred by fatal fires to lobby for stricter requirements for firewalls to prevent blazes from spreading from house to house. Prince William adopted a law stronger than the national regulations.

Hurricane Andrew made the industry reevaluate wind speeds and how to fortify a house to avoid destruction in a hurricane or tornado.

The code changes appear to have been more of a problem in Prince William than elsewhere in the region.

Thompson, a widow, sold her South Riding townhouse last year in anticipation of moving into her $415,000 attached home with a whirlpool, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops in the Regents in Dominion Valley, developed by Toll Brothers near Haymarket.

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