Podcast: Norman Butler and Dave Hvistendahl on building codes

Norman Butler, Dave Hvistendahl, Tracy Davis Downtown historic building owners and proprietors Norman Butler (Contented Cow, Chapati) and Dave Hvistendahl (Froggy Bottoms) were the guests on our show this week.

The topic: building codes. Tracy Davis was the sole host, abandoned by Ross (work) and me (moving). She was marginally adequate.

Northfield News reporter Suzi Rook wrote an article on this issue last week titled Code Blue.

(Inserted by Tracy: In my marginal adequacy, I did manage rustle up the information we discussed on the show, the 2007 Minnesota State Fire Code , the 2007 Minnesota State Building Code (large file – 4MB), and the Minnesota Conservation Code for Existing Buildings. More information, including memos sent to building officials, are posted on the State website. )

Click play to listen. 30 minutes.

Our radio show/podcast, Locally Grown, usually airs Wednesdays live at 5:30 PM on KYMN 1080 AM. You can also subscribe to the podcast feed, or subscribe with iTunes. We seek your comments and suggestions


  1. John Thomas said:


    My thanks to the three of you. In thirty minutes time, I have learned SO much on this topic.

    Thanks so much for doing this. I have a new found respect for the ongoing struggles of the downtown business owners.

    September 27, 2007
  2. So, I listened to this just now, well most of it, some got preempted by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on TV, but I understand that the two building owners want a board of appeals so they can find creative ways to deal with the building codes as they pertain to their historic buildings.

    My question would be, does the amount of work to be done on these and other projects benefit the city enough to offset the additional cost of such a board?

    Or would a couple of classes in efficient safety solutions for historic buildings
    for the presently serving desicionmakers serve us all more efficiently?

    September 28, 2007
  3. Dan Bergeson said:

    “so they can find creative ways to deal with the building codes as they pertain to their historic buildings.”

    The use of the word “creative” could infer a motivation that might compromise safety in a given project. I think it’s more helpful to talk about “alternative ways” to achieve the same level of safety . . . and there are many.

    “the additional cost of such a board?” An appeals board would be a group of citizen volunteers like all of the other commissions and boards authorized by the city. The only cost would be giving them a place to meet and handling the communication between the board and the supplicant. Minimal cost.

    “presently serving decisionmakers” Herein is the root of the problem. There is only one decisionmaker and he is seemingly accountable to no one. A board of appeals would make the decisionmaker’s finding available for review by other sets of eyes and experiences. Our system of government has all kinds of checks and balances built into it–why not extend that practicality to this arena as well?

    September 28, 2007
  4. Sorry for using the word ‘creative’. The M-W.com dictionary does list the definition you ascribed to it. I didn’t mean it that way though.

    What makes you think that a volunteer board would be any better, given the complexity of the subject?

    September 28, 2007
  5. kiffi summa said:

    Well……… if there was a Board of Appeals, the applicant wouldn’t have to be a “supplicant” (see post #4)

    September 28, 2007
  6. Tracy Davis said:

    I’m assuming that the makeup of any such board would need to consist of people with expertise in areas of building/engineering/architecture.

    September 28, 2007
  7. Ross Currier said:

    Late yesterday, the NDDC sent draft language for the creation of a local Board of Appeals to the City Council. It was based on language that we downloaded from the cities of Edina and Duluth.

    Both cities suggested categories of members, which I’ve been jokingly referring to as “a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick-maker”. There is a definite desire to have some expertise from the building and real estate community, as Tracy suggests, although the participation by just regular citizens was also seen as beneficial by these communities.

    We had heard that there was an expression of concern among our elected officials that the pool of civic-minded volunteers might be running dry and that practicing professionals might be accused of having a conflict of interest. Therefore, we also sent a list of 15 potentials members of the 5 person board along with the proposed language for the creation of the Board of Appeals.

    The Council Members should probably received it in the mail today. We hope all community members who wish to increase business-friendliness in Northfield will support the creation of the Board of Appeals and urge the Council to take action on this matter.

    September 29, 2007
  8. victor summa said:

    Here’s a new view on the Board’s make up

    Nine members in all – four from the professional ranks – three from the issue related Boards and Commissions – EDA, HPC, Planning Commission – and two, one each from the Chamber and the NDDC

    September 29, 2007
  9. John George said:

    Just a question concerning having an appeals board, what good would it do? The building code is a national code, not state or local. The whole idea of this, as was expressed in the NN article, is to provide a uniform standard of safety for occupants of commercial buildings. This really translates into who can sue whom for what if something disastrous happens. If a state or municipality chooses not to adopt this code, it removes itself from the protection of the code in civil settlements. The unfortunate effect of these types of codes is that they render certain historic buildings unsuitable for certain occupancy loads without expensive modifications. One case in point is the code on limited mobility access. Look at the number of multi-storied structures that have required retrofitting elevators, ramps, etc. to meet this requirement. This is a lot of dollars, but it has certainly improved the quality of life for a small portion of our population.

    In my profession, I have worked with certain building/health codes on certain projects. They can certainly be a quagmire to work through, and, sometimes, there can be conflicting requirements between different departments, especially when it comes to anything concerning food preparation or health care. The effect of this sometimes necessitates destroying a beautiful, but pre-code, building and replacing it with a new building. Because of the speed at which new requirements come up, there will most likely be future requirements that can’t be foreseen at present which will, at some point in time, require the demise of the present building. It all seems like such a waste, but the opposite argument is, “What cost is the life of a person?”

    October 1, 2007
  10. victor summa said:

    A casual comment made at Wednesday evening’s EDA planning session by Council person Scott Davis was, he had asked for the Board of Appeals (Bldg Code) question to be added to the agenda for the next Council meeting. We can expect the BO (Brookins) and the CDD O’Connel) to be there and to comment to their desired purposes.

    Advocates of the Appeals Board and changes in the process of the code’s interpretation and impact on historic DT structures should get their acts together and present a well argued and smartly delivered presentation, making the point of the need to provide alternative means to DT renovation projects without endangering lives.

    Members of the city’s involved Boards and Commissions (specifically DT Involvement) i.e. HPC, EDA, Planning Commission, etc… should also weigh in at the Open Mic, on this issue and how the “concerns” of these Board and Commissions are addressed by this question.

    Suddenly the day for action is upon us. Don’t dally.

    October 4, 2007
  11. Steve Wilmot said:

    Another approach, aside from the Board of Appeals, would be to lobby for acceptance of the International Building Code for Existing Buildings, which can be amended to the IBC – through state adoption, I believe.

    A friend of mine worked on a forerunner of this code for the State of Maryland (which took the lead from New Jersey) and the results were nothing short of amazing. Within 1 -2 years of passage of the code, renovation and remodeling of existing buildings increased by something like 60%.

    Given the benefits of remodeling existing buildings over demolishing and starting new, it may be that it is time for Minnesota to follow in the footsteps of our eastern neighbors who have realized that the cost of retrofitting an old building to be “like new” is indeed prohibitive.

    October 9, 2007
  12. Ross Currier said:

    Steve –

    The Code for Existing Buildings was adopted as part of Minnesota Code 2007, Tracy references in her additional note.

    The on-going challenge seems to be getting flexible interpretations and consideration of alternative methods and materials within the requirements of the Code.

    Are you willing to be considered as a potential member of the Board of Appeals?

    You can answer me off-line if you prefer.

    – Ross

    October 9, 2007
  13. kiffi summa said:

    Just read some quotes from next Monday’s council packet on the Creation of the Board of Appeals. I can honestly say this is a TEST CASE: will the City Council support the Citizens who elected them ? or will they support the city staff?
    The packet item is written by the building official, and it explicitly details how the entire process of the BOA will be run/directed by him; this in complete opposite to the INTENT of the statute which gives the building official a mostly , if not totally, silent role in the BOA. (Sorry, don’t have the language in front of me) His language even goes so far as to exclude the mayor from his usual right to appoint a board, and gives himself the right to weigh in on selection of its members! Unbelievable !
    The item is also last on the agenda, an all too often used obvious ploy to limit the attendance and therefore the comments.
    This is one of the most egregious affronts to a segment of the citizenry that I have yet witnessed.
    What kind of Downtown do you want? One that is economically viable, growing, possible to develop in? or a static museum of old buildings, no longer well kept?
    This IS the TEST CASE … call your council person, AND see if you can beat the numbers who attended the rental ordinance meetings!

    October 10, 2007
  14. Steve Wilmot said:


    I realize I have joined this thread late, and that I have not had a chance to listen to Norman and David talk about these issues on the podcast, so I have been hesitant to jump right in and start repeating the conversation.

    Minnesota has adopted a different code than the one I referenced above and to tell you the truth, I don’t know them well enough at this point to know how much they differ or are the same.

    What I do know is that the codes are moving toward sprinklering of buildings and in general I think this is a good thing. In my experience, the sprinklering work has not been prohibitively expensive and allows you much more freedom in design and layout and actual savings on door hardware and separation constructions.

    What I would like to see for our historic buildings is a tax code that makes economic sense for the building owners, so they can afford to maintain and remodel their properties and have a positive cash flow given reasonable rental rates – this is not the case currently, based on conversations I have had with building owners.

    October 11, 2007
  15. Steve
    I’m a bit flumoxed that you, as a professional architect, have not had time to read the new codes. What about the relatively short and very readable “significant changes between IBC 2000 and IBC 2007”? Ross has a copy. But then again, like most architects…YOU RELY ON THE BUILDING OFFICIAL…to say what needs to be done.

    Case in point: You are a home owner. You want to build a deck. You make a sketch, fill out the Permit Application and hand it in to the Building Department.
    The Building Official looks at it, looks at you, and says “I will not accept this unless and until it is signed by a licensed contactor”. Do you….
    a. search Northfield for a contactor and persuade him somehow to sign it?
    b. find an architect to do the drawings, engage the contractor, put the drawings out for bids, contract with the sub-contactors who will build the deck, call for inspections and present you with the final bill?
    c. ask “do I really need a licenseed contractor to sign off on it”…and wait for the reply with expectations of chapter and verse of the Code?
    d. apologise, turn tail, and forget the deck?
    e. leave and build it?

    Which, Steve, which, citizens, which?

    October 11, 2007
  16. Ross Currier said:


    Yes, Norman made a “donation” to the NDDC of a copy of the “highly readable” volume summarizing the changes between the codes. However, there are between 250 and 300 large, densely worded pages in the volume. I tried to get Keith Covey, NDDC Board Member and trained architect, to read it, but he only gave me a scowling look.

    I did focus on the fire-suppression and ADA requirements. It is clear that they are substantially increased. The impact on existing buildings will be significant and challenging. That is why the NDDC has be advocating for the creation of a local board of appeals, with sufficient procedural freedom, within the requirements of the state law, to assure: 1) the flexible interpretations of the code whenever possible, and 2) the consideration of whatever alternative materials and methods may be available.

    I disagree that the cost of sprinklering a building is not prohibitively expensive. Over the past four years, three downtown building owners have shared their plans for opening a restaurant with me. The cost of sprinkler added between 25 and 33% to the costs of the projects. All three of the projects were halted because of the costs of sprinklering. If it were not for the cost of sprinklering, we’d have three more restaurants in downtown.

    I have been involved with about $150 million of real estate development in my career. Many of these projects involved adaptive reuse of historic buildings. I don’t claim to be an expert on estimating construction costs but I am fairly confident that plumbing costs more than sheetrock.

    Finally, retrofitting pipes in a historic building can also be aesthetically and structurally damaging. Most of the developers, architects and contractors that I have worked with have searched for alternative fire-suppression systems that do not involve the physical violation of brick walls or wood beams.

    Steve, I ask you again, are you willing to serve on the board of appeals?

    Thanks much.

    – Ross

    October 11, 2007
  17. Lisa Guidry said:


    You are wrong! Not just 2 business owners want a board of appeal, but many concerned citizens want it. Many of us no longer trust the city staff, or the city council to make decisions for the community.

    October 11, 2007
  18. Lisa Guidry said:

    I believe Al Roder should leave this town immediately. Why would a man take this position after he did not receive 1 single vote? The only reason he got this job was, because the man the city wanted turned the job down. Low BLOW, and the city suffers for not going back to searching for more applicants.

    October 11, 2007
  19. Lisa, please don’t take your anger out on me.


    October 11, 2007
  20. John George said:

    In reference to my post #10, no one has answered as to what authority this appeals board could have, and who would give it this authority. If it has no authority, then it is a waste of a lot of people’s time and money. We can throw out the whole city government personel and get new people in, but we still have to deal with this code, unfortunatley restrictive as it may be.

    October 12, 2007
  21. kiffi summa said:

    This citizen based Board will have the authority that the MN. statute creating it , gives to it .. unless the city council allows the staff to “gut” it. That’s why it is a “test case” for the council. Votes for citizens or votes for staff?

    As written in the statute the local building official has virtually no control over the appeals process (after all, it is his interpretation that is being appealed); but in the staff version which is going to the council on Monday, the building official has virtually all the control. As written by the “seemingly feeling very threatened” staff it has become nothing but a turf war.

    If it were not just a “turf war”, staff would be glad to have a BOA which would either support the staff position or take some of the legal burden of the final decision off of them.

    This BOA is not a whim; the creation of it is mandated by the same statute that accepts the building code. The city will be out of compliance if it is not created.

    October 12, 2007
  22. Ross Currier said:

    Kiffi –

    I believe that Northfield is not technically out of compliance. My understanding is that if you don’t have a local board of appeals you can use the county board of appeals (if it is in place) or the state board of appeals. I also think that I’ve heard that if you are relying on the county or the state board that instead of having local staff, you use county or state staff. Perhaps we can get a free legal opinion on this matter.

    One of the reasons that local building owners, architects and contractors have been advocating for local board of appeals is that there is a belief that local people would be closer to local conditions and therefore have a better understanding of and motivation for the challenges of achieving economic vitality withing the constraints of the building code.

    I won’t speculate on a “turf war”. However, I would agree with you that a local board of appeals would either support the staff position or remove the burden of an alternative interpretation of the use of alternative materials or methods. The building owners, architects and contractors with whom of have discussed this matter have all wondered why the building official wouldn’t be supportive of a local board.

    – Ross

    October 12, 2007
  23. Steve Wilmot said:

    I think that Keith Covey had the right reaction to the idea of reading through the code… rolling ones eyes might be my own reaction. Given the intricacies of the code, I defer to our office expert who has over 20 years of experience with it – building code amateurs should be listened to warily. My comment was that I was not familiar with the differences between two different codes for existing buildings, only one of which is currently adopted by the state of Minnesota.

    As for cost, I can give some hard numbers on a recent restaurant project I was the architect for in Faribault (construction took place January – May of 2007). The cost of the sprinkler system was $44,000 for a building with 20,800 gross square feet which yields just over $2/ square foot. This is exactly on target for expected costs for sprinklering and should be confirmable by any contractor with experience in this area.

    This came to less than 2% of the overall construction budget and I can assure you that the project would not have been able to be as open and true to the historic nature of the warehouse without the sprinklers. The savings was primarily in the door hardware and to a lesser degree in the gypboard (which has gotten increasingly expensive in the last 5-10 years).

    I think that if you go to this resataurant, yes you will see some pipes, but they are not aesthetically displeasing. I will point out that there is one example of an obvious pipe visible at the main door, however, by exposing this pipe here, we were able to get much more glass into the lobby doors, making the restaurant much more visible to guests using this entrance.

    If I take the $2/sf and apply it to a smaller Division St building, say half the square footage of the example above, then I would expect costs of around $20,000 for sprinklering a building. If this number increases your project cost by 25% to 33% then I have to wonder if your example has a realistic budget in the first place – restaurant buildouts are not cheap and not easy because they play into so many factors of public safety.

    While I would like to see restaurant projects succeed in Northfield, I don’t want them to do so at the expense of public safety – I have been in a building on fire, through no choice of my own, and I can tell you that building safety and building codes are direct results of tragedies that happen. They are not the whim of government bureaucrats.

    I do think that the economics of the situation dictate looking at the tax burden on the owners of these properties – I suspect our legislators have much more ability to affect change in this regard than with the building code.

    As for your question Ross, I will not be volunteering for a Board of Appeals at this time.

    October 12, 2007
  24. norman butler said:

    Steve – $20,000 maybe for the sprinkling in the building, another $20,000 to bring in the needed 6″ water pipe from the street to the building. But this debate is not about sprinkling, nor is it about the building codes per se, nor is it about public safety, about which we are ALL concerned. This is about authority, accountability, consistency of decision making, feasibility, the democratic process and ultimately about downtown economic development. The Board of Appeals is our last best hope and we must do all we can to prevent the Department of Community Non-Development and the Building Official from gutting it!

    October 12, 2007
  25. victor summa said:

    Board of Appeals –

    The only question is how big a bite can it (BOA) take out of the bias in the Building Official’s overwrought authority?

    Empirical proofs in “dealing” with the local Building official, illustrate: code allowed alternative means and measures are thwarted by his style.

    Sprinkling of buildings is likely not the only “upgrade” he’ll demand.

    ANOTHER? Squeezing Rest Rooms into existing buildings, eating up floor space necessary to turn a profit…

    ANOTHER? Interior ramping for handicapped access, eating up floor space necessary to turn a profit… And this one often… in buildings sited no less, on public walkways configured in an “historic” manner making it almost impossible for a handicapped persons to even make it to the front door of the building under improvement!

    Annnnnnd… a plethora of other architectural changes that are difficult to realize either spatially or esthetically in small DT existing spaces… regardless of dollars dumped-in.

    Finally… an expense beyond the ROI that can be expected in a “tenuous economy” –

    In Steve’s example of the Faribault restaurant… where 2% of the total budget was “only” $44,000 for sprinkling – that puts the 100% figure at $2,200,000. Gigantor by any DT Northfield benchmark figure for renovation in businesses today… just struggling to stay afloat. And ther’s no dobt many more 100K chunks of money for tables, chairs, plates, knives and forks, napkins, and other small wares.

    Additionally, and extremely important forthis dialogue… the Faribault example was a total “gut and rebuild” situation.

    In such a case… were the Archer House able to dump two and a quarter million in to that Northfield icon, $44K for ADA and or safety, would not seem unreasonable. But, unlike the Faribault example, in the AH situation the building would be shut down— putting all other tenant’s businesses out of of business… all equipment and product would be moved out, stored or otherwise disposed of… and employees set to the street next to the other debris of the retrofit!

    For six months or more… the rip and renovate would violate the existing spaces poking duct work here, piping there and wires everywhere… in new chases created when the major gut was effected. Lipo Suction! A dream or a nightmare?

    The Faribault example was I believe in an empty building… wide open and relatively easy to tackle. Money was the only object

    And, the bottom line in Faribault for this grand and impressive effort will likely not have a positive ROI, important, because (remember) money is the only object.

    Editorial Comment (another one)) Perhaps they should have spent another 100K in providing a better noise environment.

    Hopefully the Code Gods aren’t reading this and salivating at the possibilities of ADA sound requirements.

    Resuscitating our DT is all about scale – scale of need – scale of potential… driving the scale of the investment.

    I agree with John Brookins and possibly with Steve Wilmot; to this extent: When we build the new building on the available space to the rear of the Bagel shop and Book store… and have realized the EDA’s TIP plan’s goal for “turning Division street to the river front… that NEW building will meet all Code requirements. But, the “old girl” to the front – 306 Division Street… can not support the gut and rip costs that would bring it, to code compliance.


    October 12, 2007
  26. Ross Currier said:

    Steve –

    Was the restaurant new construction or a retrofit? If it was a retrofit, it was a really good price.

    The three cost estimates that I heard on downtown projects ranged from $50,000 to $75,000, on 1800 square foot spaces. Let’s split the difference and call it a 2,000 square foot space…that’s more like $30 a square foot.

    Furthermore, the total project cost estimates for these restaurants were between $150,000 and $200,000. This is typical of the financial structures that I see in downtown.

    No one I know wants to open a restaurant at the risk of public safety. However, the Rhode Island Night Club fire that the building official has cited for both his support of 1306 and his resistance to a local board of appeals is worth investigating.

    The Club is question was located near residential uses. Apparently there had been a number of complaints about the noise. I guess people were propping open exit doors and this was adding to the noise issue.

    To address the noise issue, the owners installed a homemade sound buffering system, made out of a material that investigators later noted was between 10 and 13 times more flammable than gasoline. They also chained the exit doors shut to keep them from being propped open.

    In anticipation of the band’s special performance, the fire exit lights were disabled. Then the band put on a pyrotechnic display.

    The fire immediately ignited the sound insulation material. With only one exit unchained, everyone tried to squeeze out one door.

    Most of the people that died were crushed to death. Some investigators have speculated that the fumes released by the burning sound insulation were toxic. Given these conditions, it has been posited that sprinklers might not have saved any lives.

    The building inspector cites this night club fire as proof that you should install sprinkler in buildings. I think that it proves that you shouldn’t insulate with materials that are more flammable than gasoline, that you shouldn’t chain exit doors shut, that you shouldn’t disconnect exit lights, and that you shouldn’t allow indoor pyrotechnic shows. I will also suggest that this is all common sense that would be possessed by members of a local board of appeals.

    Steve, I think you are really missing the point on this topic. No one in Northfield is saying that we should ignore fire codes. We are only suggesting that sprinklers are one way to achieve fire safety and that there are other ways to achieve the necessary level of fire safety. A truly independent local board of appeals will help to assure that the development team, building owner, architect and contractor, can consider all possible methods and materials to achieve this level of fire safety.

    Finally, your argument about real estate tax issue is, I’m certain, an unintended red herring. First, the 30% average increase per year for the past 7 years is killing prosperity, with or without construction projects. Second, the building owners have been working on this issue with legislators for the past 4 years and no one is expecting a miracle cure in the near future.

    Downtown building owners will continue working on both for the creation of the local board of appeals and the slowing of the growth of real estate taxes. It would be great if you’d support their efforts.

    – Ross

    October 12, 2007
  27. Jay Jasnoch said:


    The IBC does say that “a board of appeals shall be appointed by the governing body,” in section 112.1 on page 9. Right under that in section 112.2.1, it also notes “The board shall have no authority to waive requirements of this code.” You can go to the State website at http://www.doli.state.mn.us/bc_appeals.html to see the last recorded appeals in which the State Board ruled over a local building official. There are only 4 posted for the last 3 years, all are very minor compared to those in Norm and Dave’s projects. The issues are a matter of construction methods or product installation in order to meet the intent of the code. The obligation to meet the code still prevails. Also as a side note, the IBC really is a minimum standard for protecting the HSW of the building occupants. It may seem restrictive, would you really want it any other way?

    October 12, 2007
  28. Steve–

    While your numbers may be accurate for an empty building or new construction, the calculations do not apply to a fully-occupied building. Threading pipes through occupied space requires daily clean up and usually reduced rental rates for tenants during the disruption. It is a godawful mess.

    I had the Peterson Art Furniture complex in Faribault sprinkler system retrofitted. It was an expensive, dirty project. In old buildings with false ceilings, crawl spaces, nooks and crannies, most of it has to sprinkled, which can substantially increase the cost over the net floor sf.

    October 12, 2007
  29. Christine Stanton said:

    I am no expert on any of this, but I have had experience with interior design codes. One thing I found out is that some codes are dependant on where the financing is coming from. In other words, some financing requires adherance to stricter codes.

    No one has commented on insurance. I wonder if that is a consideration.

    October 12, 2007
  30. Julie Bixby said:

    I think it is really important for everyone to understand that in many cases the code is NOT black and white. If it were there would be no need for discussion of a BOA or in arguing or disagreeing with the Building Official. The fact is that the codes leave a lot up to interpretation and, in the case of historic buildings, feasibility. As Norman said in #25 it is not about sprinkling. We all care about safety. It is about ONE individual being able to decide, whether it appears in the code or not. It is about ONE individual demanding project A follow his interpretation of a certain code, but not project B. This is happening more than people realize. For example, Homeowner A wants to build a deck. The carpenters are hired and the homeowner goes to apply for a permit. The building official denies them the permit and insists that they have a licensed contractor apply for the permit. Homeowner B built a deck, had the same carpenters on the project and was granted a permit just a few weeks prior. No licensed contractor involved. I have asked several architects whether or not a homeowner can be their own general contractor as I have always believed this to be true. They all have said yes, but were unsure where it states that in writing. If anyone has the residential code and can look that up I would greatly appreciate it. I have looked online to no avail.
    A BOA balances the authority and power. Wouldn’t it also take some pressure of the Building Official?

    October 12, 2007
  31. Julie Bixby said:

    Oops, typo. I meant to say “Wouldn’t it also take some pressure off the Building Official.

    October 12, 2007
  32. Steve Wilmot said:

    I should have clarified that the project for which I provide details was a gut rehab of an existing building, that is all that was left were the exterior walls and structure, so yes, this is different than working with occupied space.

    Ross, I offer the tax issue not as a red herring, but as one that seems more likely to offer a successful conclusion. As for the tax question, Senator Tom Neuville submitted proposed language to the HPC for reducing valuations for improvements to structures in a Historic District. Perhaps you have been in contact with him regarding this subject.

    As for the night club, you have certainly done your homework in describing the incident, but I think it only goes to prove the point that Building Officials are concerned about, which is that buildings are only as safe as they are operated. That nightclub should NOT have had that insulation, should NOT have had locked exits, should NOT have turned off exit lights. All of these things would not have mattered if a sprinkler system had been in place because the fire would have been put out immediately.

    Your point that there are sometimes alternate means of constructing separations is valid, but there are still exceptions, especially for assembly occupancies which include restaurants. We even find that in our church work that worship spaces need to be sprinklered. This is often difficult to do in an aesthetically pleasing way, but there is no way around it, and truthfully, if it is done carefully, is inobtrusive and only seen when you look for it.

    As one seminar speaker once said, echoing Jay’s comment above, the building code is only a minimum, anything less would be illegal.

    October 12, 2007
  33. victor summa said:

    Thanx to both Jay and Steve for commenting here. The professional’s opinion is important.

    I would hope that your familiarization with the code would allow you to agree, that in the code manuel exclusive to Historic structures, there are many gray areas as to final methods, materials and mere enforcement… that is, there is allowed a measure of feasibility… this in cases particular to ADA requirements.

    I think you’ll also find even in issues of Fire Safety, there are alternative measures allowed… but seldom considered by our local BO.

    Finally, I’ll ask two questions:

    One) are your remarks based principally on NEW construction? If so can you comment on retrofitting of historic buildings?

    Two) Is your your zeal to express acceptance of the BO’s rulings, jaded by the fact that you work with him and need to maintain a open relationship?

    Your comments are welcomed here – as I believe your insights allow those of us who might argue this issue, the advantage of your informed perspectives.


    October 12, 2007
  34. Peter Waskiw said:

    I would also like to ask the question regarding the IBC, and subsequent amendments from the Code on MN Building Code, to those that invested in buildings that are currently occupied. This is not just related to the buildings down town, but other existing buildings in Northfield.

    Did you know about the IBC and that changes were in the air regarding safety of occupants? And if investments were made in buildings that are occupied, did you consider the cost in the purchase of the bulding? If not, why not.

    I think this speaks to the issue of investment, reinvestment, cash flow and profit expectations. It seems that all the comments are about the bottom line invesment?

    October 12, 2007
  35. Christine Stanton said:

    If anyone wants some “fun” reading material, here is the Guidelines for Modification of Existing Buildings (GREB.) There are exceptions for historic buildings listed. It might not be the completed document that David H. referred to in the podcast, but it gives you an idea of some of the Minnesota modifications to the International Building Code (IBC.)

    Also, Norm B. expressed concern that his plans submitted in February might have to comply with the new 2007 code. According to the below link, it sounds like the 2003 code is still applicable because his plans were submitted before July 10.

    For those concerned about safety, I believe plans would still have to pass the Fire Marshall even if a Building Inspection BOA approved them. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

    Norm B. mentioned in the podcast that codes are rules, not laws. Actually, I believe the American Disabilities Act (ADA) standards are law, though the GREB does seem to make some modifications.

    I know that there is always more than one way of solving a problem. It seems to me that the grievances I hear about our existing system for compliance with the buliding codes are not necessarily against the codes themselves, but a lack of acceptance for other ways the codes can be met and a desire by the inspector to help find them. For that reason, I feel a BOA could be very beneficial. It could be looked at as a problem solving team instead of a threat to authority.

    As far as Ross’s suggestion for the make up of the BOA, I feel that there should be equal representation between building professionals and city advocates. With Ross’s proposal, professionals would be the minority. (Granted, some advocates could also be considered professionals.)

    October 12, 2007
  36. Christine Stanton said:

    The following is a link to the document “Overview of the Rules of the State Appeals Board.”

    After reading this, I would totally support a Northfield BOA that acted under the same rules.

    What follows is a direct paste from the document:

    “An application for appeal shall be based on a claim that the true intent of this code or the rules legally adopted
    thereunder have been incorrectly interpreted, the provisions of this code do not fully apply, or an equally good or
    better form of construction is proposed.” (Subpart 3) Appeals will not be heard that argue the literal understanding
    of a provision.
    A. “To hear and decide appeals of orders, decisions, or determinations made by the building official relative to the
    application and interpretation of this code.” (Subpart 1)
    B. “The board shall have no authority to waive requirements of this code.” (Subpart 3)
    C. “A request for final interpretation must come from a … state level building code board of appeals.” (Subpart 4)

    The other significant part of the document is who is on the BOA. I would again state that building professionals should be the majority.

    Here is another direct paste:

    A. “The [state] building official shall be an ex officio member of said board but shall have no vote on any matter
    before the board.” (Subpart 1) The division director shall designate the division’s ex officio member. This
    person will serve as the board’s secretary.
    B. Members designated to serve on the board shall be from the following five categories: Minnesota municipal
    certified building officials; Minnesota municipal fire officials; Minnesota licensed architects; Minnesota licensed
    engineers; Minnesota licensed homebuilders.

    October 12, 2007
  37. John George said:

    Jay- Thanks for the reference in your post, “The IBC does say that “a board of appeals shall be appointed by the governing body,” in section 112.1 on page 9. Right under that in section 112.2.1, it also notes “The board shall have no authority to waive requirements of this code.” That is what I was looking for. I think there have been a couple insinuations that the appeals board would be a way around the IBC. This is quite evidently not true, as evidenced here.

    As far as these being “minimum” requirements, I fully agree. One would hope to exceed these requirements in actuality, but there must be some base line established to work from. It reminds me of the story about a reporter that asked one of the first astronauts what he really thought about going into space. It is reported that he replied, “How would you like to be shot into space in a piece of equipment built by the lowest bidder?” (Or something to that effect.)

    One idea expressed through many of the posts is that of a BOA easing the effect of ALL building code decisions going through one person. I have worked with various BO’s on projects, and there is a difference in how they apply the code requirements. Sometimes, this is a matter of one person having enough time to research all the applicable requirements and make a definitive decision. In the case of Northfield, there is an inference that personality is playing too much of a role. A BOA could definitely help in a personality driven situation.

    As far as the make-up of such a board, are there any requirements spelled out in the state code? It would seem that there would need to be a fairly universal set of requirements for this type of thing.

    October 12, 2007
  38. Ross Currier said:

    Steve –

    Yes, in fact the NDDC and building owners have been working for at least four years on the real estate tax issues and have met with Tom Neuville a number of times. His proposed legislation is based on the existing “This Old House” legislation and would allow the phase-in of the building value added by construction work over a period of years. Thus, if you do a project, it addresses the costs of that project, not the existing value of the building.

    Although much appreciated, downtown building owners believe that this proposal will address five percent or less of the real estate tax issue (based on the typical project value of 20% of the building value and an average of 8% of the buildings in the downtown undertaking a project in a year over a five-year period). If your real estate taxes have gone up an average of 30% a year for the past seven years, typical in downtown Northfield (many situations are even worse), the fact that you won’t be taxed on a construction project does nothing to address your existing real estate tax issue.

    To suggest that we don’t need a board of appeals because our state legislator is proposing a bill that would address a portion of the real estate tax issue is, at least in my opinion, a red herring that is distracting us from the true issue, the interpretation of the building code.

    I strongly encourage you to research the Rhode Island Night Club Fire. At least two of the professional investigators have speculated that when the fire hit the insulation that was either 10 or 13 times more flammable than gas, the place exploded like a bomb, perhaps emitting poisonous gas. As I said in my previous post, some of the experts believe that sprinklers would not have saved any lives. Not locking the exit doors and not coating the night club with flammable material definitely would have saved lives.

    I am not against sprinklers, I just think that all aspects of fire safety and fire suppression should be considered in a situation, particularly in a situation for which sprinklers represent a significant financial and structural challenge. In my experience, for building inspectors and architects, understandably, cost is not the most important issue. It has seemed to me that they generally advocate for the most obvious solution and let the building owner figure out how to pay for it. Building owners are just asking that a local board of appeals be created to allow another look from another perspective.

    I think that it is wonderful that you and Jay Jasnoch have established a good relationship with John Brookins in your work on the ordinance revisions. I sincerely hope that you will both consider applying for the board of appeals. It would contribute much toward a successful implementation.

    – Ross

    October 13, 2007
  39. John George said:

    Christine- Thank you for the paste on the composition of the appeals board. Looks like you were putting that together about the same time I was working on my post, so I didn’t see it. You do a great job of researching these things. Thanks so much!

    October 13, 2007
  40. Griff Wigley said:

    Here are comments related to the Building Code Board of Appeals issue that I’ve copied from the Wondering about Xmas trees blog post.

    Julie Bixby December 7, 2007 3:59 pm ·

    Jon, Do you think that the “interpretation” (in some areas) of the Building Code should be left up to ONE person? Or do you think it is important to have a Building Code Board of Appeals? (How about a X-mas tree BOA?) Sorry, I couldn’t help that one! I am serious about my question.

    Jon Denison December 7, 2007 9:41 pm ·

    I believe that the council hires qualified, experienced staff and we should respect them and their ability to do the job the city has hired them for. If issues become a recurring event, then the council has an obligation to the citizens to make inquiries and ask for evidence so the issues may be corrected in whatever form that may take.

    Now, as for the “local” building code board of appeals…I believe I stated my position at the dais when it was last discussed by the council. I don’t want us doubling up on something that I hear is offered by the state for free. A presentation was made to us by a gentleman from the state inspector’s office and someone from Owatonna. Both told us their appeals boards are rarely used. I’ve not made up my mind about it either way. I feel I need some more information and I expect to have some questions answered the next time this topic comes back to us.

    kiffi summa December 8, 2007 9:20 am ·

    Julie : I think it’s quite obvious that there has been a bit of a “stall” on this issue of the Building Code Board of Appeals. The City Council has not been elected by either Owatonna, or the “state”, and so I think they are primarily obligated to listen to the local residents who elected them, and expect more than the convenient”Party Line” … Don’t accept boilerplate cliches in place of substantive answers.

    Julie Bixby December 8, 2007 2:30 pm ·

    Jon writes:

    “I believe that the council hires qualified, experienced staff and we should respect them and their ability to do the job the city has hired them for.”

    Jon, I agree, except, what happens when some?, many?, most? think the jobs are NOT being done satisfactorily? Do those (tax paying citizens) who pay their salaries, just sit back and let them continue? Do you expect people to turn a blind eye?

    Do you work for the people of your ward, those who elected you, or for the city staff? People vote for candidates who claim to represent them, their ideas, wishes, concerns…

    Correct me if I am wrong and I mean this with all due respect to you as a council person, but it appears to me that as far a you are concerned the staff is always right, do an excellent job and none of us should worry about what is happening at city hall. I, along with many others, some from your ward, do not see it this way.

    In a situation like this what do citizens do ? To whom is the council’s first priority?

    As far as the BOA goes, the process would go much more quickly if we had a LOCAL BOA. Each city is a smaller version of our state government, which is a smaller version of our national government. Wouldn’t it seem prudent to establish our own BOA in imitation of our state and in thus doing we would take on our own struggles and leave more time for the state government to govern the state?

    Anne Bretts December 8, 2007 4:16 pm ·

    Enforcing building codes in old towns is a very tough job. It would seem that if there is sufficient public concern (a petition or a number of complaints) the council could get a panel (perhaps some former state officials or local officials from another community) to review the building department’s rulings over the past three years to see whether the enforcement has been too rigid or whether the frustration raised here should be focused on the code itself rather than the enforcing agent.

    It concerns me that given the politicization of every decision in government here, appointing a local appeals board would just create a new body to be attacked and second-guessed.

    Another solution would be to actively use the state process for a year and see whether there are enough cases to warrant a local board.

    kiffi summa December 8, 2007 5:27 pm ·

    Many people who have been actively involved in, and affected by, the decisions made by the building official in interpreting the code, have worked on this problem, discussed it at length, cited examples, testified to discrepancies between rulings, and the time has come for a LOCAL BOA.

    The problems are not so much with new construction; the problems come with interpretation and its relationship to old, possibly historic, buildings.

    Businesses have not been able to move ahead because of constant roadblocks; in Norman’s case even after an evaluation by the state ADA representative, in his wheelchair, in Norm’s building. It has been proven an evaluation by a state official doesn’t even carry enough weight , in this case!

    Building owners in the downtown and the NDDC have lobbied long and hard for this needed reform. How many impediments to economic success can the DT sustain? The buildings are the DT’s “hardware”; we have to have the hardware before we can fine tune the “software.

    The time is long past for a LOCAL Board of Appeals to happen.

    Jon Denison December 8, 2007 7:05 pm ·

    How do you quantify “some”, “many” or “most”? Is “some” you? Is “many” you and your neighbor? Is “most” you and your socio-economic peers? I’ve received phone calls and letters from both sides of the issue. Some from residents of my ward, some from residents of Northfield in whole. And last time I checked, Northfield was a part of the State of Minnesota. We will be addressing a local BOA at our council work session on Mon. and I for one certainly have some questions, because frankly I don’t think I have enough information to make a decision either way.

    kiffi summa December 9, 2007 8:12 am ·

    Jon: Surely you are aware of the letters and presentations from the NDDC in support of the issue. That organization is supporting the needs of the affected population.

    Single building owners, architects, contractors do not like to SINGLY cite their problems, because they are afraid of reprisal.

    If this is coming to the council on Monday, it would be difficult to know; because as of 2:40 PM, Friday there was no packet available at City Hall . I have not heard this “hotly debated” at the council level , or indeed anywhere, except by the affected parties and professionals, and then there IS no “debate”.

    As for advice from the “State”, the State ADA expert ’s advice was not honored by the local official.

    I can recall only you (at the council level) and Mr. Roder clearly expressing doubts, at your “dais”.

    If you have “received letters and phone calls from both sides of the issue” it would be helpful for you to bring those letters or records of calls to the Monday discussion. I can’t imagine why any citizen would complain to you about the establishment of a Local BOA; it is those who have been negatively affected that have carried the discussion.

    December 9, 2007
  41. kiffi summa said:

    Jon: Just to follow up on my dismay at the claim of contacts from non-affected citizens concerned with the creation of the BOA…….

    Why, would anyone be opposed to this move, other than staff who might feel their authority being challenged? Why would John Doe make an issue of the creation of a STATUTORILY MANDATED B.O.A., when its inception would have zero impact on the average citizen?

    We all know most comment on Council/Staff action comes from citizens who feel sovereignty threatened by – sidewalks, parking, stop signs, speed limits, or spending taxpayer’s dollars.

    Maybe, Jon, you can elaborate with direct quotes from your contacts. That would be helpful.

    P.S. on an earlier thread, Jon, I asked you to bring specific Pay Plan salary adjustment numbers to your ward meeting…You did not do so …although you did bring three other council members to that meeting!
    I hope to get a response to the above B.O.A. related request.

    PPS. Some people say the ward meeting was properly announced to avoid the quorum question; Others have said it was a violation,because although announced, it was not held in the format required by a council meeting,roll call, agenda, minutes, recognized chair etc.
    There is a formal structure to a “council meeting”; Is that another statute that is not always recognized, like the mandated B.O.A.?

    December 9, 2007
  42. Julie Bixby said:

    Thanks Griff-
    Sorry if I made a ‘faux paux’ and commented under the wrong topic.

    December 9, 2007
  43. Time passes, as it does and nothing seems to get resolved.

    I speak from experience both personal and vicarious. I note and respect other’s desire not to speak either from a natural reticence or a fear of reprisal or a combination of both.
    I have to believe that I am not delusional and that I can separate myself from my particular interests or the clash between my personality and my modus operandi and those of the Establishment; and be able to speak in an objective and informed way about the problems that confront the community. I tried – and am trying – to do so.

    I know I am up against an educated citizenry who do not, in the main, speak
    from an experiential view-point on this matter- councilors included – but instead speak from an intellectual framework whereby all is well in the world but for a few tiresome troublemakers who seek to beat or side-step the system; manned as it is by a qualified, busy, and well intentioned staff.

    My concerns are parochial and particular and may not engage you, even may bore or bother you, personal as they seem. But they are not – for I am invested in this community, both financially and emotionally, and I speak for many though they be a small section of the community (and there perhaps is the rub).

    I have been through the mill and listen to others who have – and are – treading the same worn path. They fight as best they can and then, all things considered, accept.

    So, why is the Building Board of Appeals so significant?
    Firstly, it is required as per the Building Codes, both International and Minnesota.
    Secondly, it is being strongly resisted (see Firstly) and ponder why.
    Thirdly…well thirdly means we get down and dirty which I am prepared to do but would rather not.
    Lastly, it’s about Existing Buildings in general, our downtown buildings in particular and the economic health of our community most certainly.

    The Downtown is the heart of our community and I do not just mean economically – and if you disagree then we cannot talk to each other. That said….economically, there is little or no wiggle room to remodel these buildings and make them viable for all concerned (building owners, tenants, customers, community) while they are held to the same standard as ‘new build’.

    The Existing Buildings Code addresses this…in Spirit…and allows the Building Official…who BTW is protected from liability in these matters of Code interpretation and application…a great deal of latitude. In the absence of a BO and a CDD who feel passionately about enabling the Downtown building owners and tenants to get on with their lives and business – which I sense is the case – why not create a Local Building Board Of Appeals?

    December 9, 2007
  44. kiffi summa said:

    Norm said “the downtown is the heart of the community, and I do not mean just economically…”

    There are people in town who will constantly disagree with that statement, as they feel it demeans their living area or other preferred shopping and dining area … one that has been ” short handed” as “Southfield”.
    What else would you call a second economic development area that is larger in square feet of commercial space, larger by far, than the original central business district?

    Like it or not, “Southfield” exists. And because it serves the preference of a lot of consumers, it, for the most part, thrives.

    All the “downtowners” are asking for is a level playing field from which to compete. We want our downtown buildings to be as economically strong as possible; we don’t want a downtown ghost town full of historic buildings, like Pipestone, MN.

    I took over $9000. (yes, nine thousand) out of my meagre savings account to pay HALF of my commercial taxes, on ONE building. I did not have it from the building’s income stream.

    The EDA paid 90K for a consultant’s evaluation which reported that the DT was one of the three economic strengths of Northfield; the EDA should be fighting for the Local B.O.A., as well as the City Council supporting it. This should not have to be a contest between downtown entrepreneurs (rapidly becoming philanthropists) and the recalcitrant Staff.

    It’s a “no-brainer” and that’s how its being decided (with no brains) , at least so far. I can’t change the commercial development along Highway 3 south; between the absurdly rising tax rates, and the restrictive interpretations of the building code, I’m not even being allowed to compete, and that’s where the level of frustration comes.

    December 10, 2007
  45. Curt Benson said:

    Kiffi, any idea on what the difference is in property taxes for, say, 2000 sf of retail space downtown vs. 2000 sf of retail space on south highway 3?

    December 10, 2007
  46. kiffi summa said:

    No, Curt, I don’t know for certain. If you captured an address on S.Hwy 3 that is a comp sized space, (Victor’s and my building is a 4000sq.ft footprint) and then checked the county website for both addresses’ tax bills, a comparison could be made. It’s hard to isolate a 4Ksq.ft building in the southern Biz district.

    December 10, 2007
  47. BruceWMorlan said:

    The site Kiffi refers to is


    where you select (Minnesota | Rice County | map)

    then zoom in until you find the parcel you want. You can zoom by click(hold)-drag-release to define a smaller region on the map.

    Then click on the “Search tab” and enter the parcel number.

    You can there see the owner’s name, the lot size, miscellaneous info, tax bills, etc. Very handy.

    December 10, 2007

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