By Tallie Lancey EBS Columnist
“Well I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down. Little Pig, little Pig, let me come in.”
The moral of that classic fairytale, “The Three Little Pigs,” is to work hard building a formidable home so you don’t get eaten by the big bad wolf. As a quick refresher, the first two pigs built their homes of straw and sticks so they could have more time for porky powder turns. Pardon the metaphorical overreach. You’ll recall they unceremoniously ended up as the wolf’s bacon supper. It’s all about self-preservation and long-term gratification.
How would the pigs’ story have changed if they’d lived by a farmer who offered to test their home for proper construction to keep them safe from predators?
In the story of Big Sky’s history and current growth trajectory, there is no such kind farmer. Allow me to translate. The question on the minds of many new construction owners and renters is: Are there building codes in Big Sky? If so, how are they enforced? Are all these new homes and condos “up to code”?
For the layman, building codes are minimum residential and commercial safety requirements written by the International Code Council to protect public health and safety. They are enforced in municipalities and other similar jurisdictions.
Yes, there are building codes in Montana. No, they are not enforced in the area we know as Big Sky, with the exception of plumbing and electrical codes. Builders are required to adhere to state codes. However, there isn’t a Big Sky—or even Gallatin or Madison County—code compliance officer. We rely upon nothing more than Scout’s Honor and that has actually served us pretty well, for the most part, thus far.
When you build a single- or multi-family home in Big Sky, it’s examined, if all goes accordingly, only twice during the construction process by an official inspector: once by the state plumbing inspector and once by the state electrical inspector. In a city like Bozeman—where there are municipal building codes—foundations, framing, ducting, fire safety, insulation, sheetrock, siding, moisture barriers, clearance and egress are checked by city-employed inspectors. Their salaries are funded by building permits. The most common correction their inspectors cite results from contractors not following the plans that have been approved by an engineer.
Given the fact that you the consumer have to protect yourself, what should you do? I’d recommend hiring a certified and experienced building inspector or engineer for each step of construction and entering into a one-year comprehensive warranty with your builder. You may even hire a third-party code compliance officer. However, it’s important to know that they have no actual jurisdiction. The only recourse you have in the event of poor construction is litigation. A local builder told me that the best way to ensure your new home is up to code is to hire a Montana licensed architect from the project’s outset. They oversee the engineers of record and coordinate with your general contractor.
As a community, we need to ask ourselves if it’s time for us to begin enforcing building codes. Does the consumer in Big Sky need to be protected? Josh Greene, with Greene Construction, said, “Absolutely. It would create a level playing field. People are spending millions of dollars on their homes and, in some cases, no one is looking over the builder’s shoulder.” Most contractors see the inspectors as a partner; they appreciate the second set of eyes. Inspectors help builders learn from their mistakes; but inspectors make mistakes too.
According to the industry experts I queried, Big Sky home safety and quality would improve if a municipality had jurisdiction over building codes. Their responses were unequivocal. To take it a step further, a hypothetical Big Sky city council might even create incentives for homeowners who meet certain environmental high marks similar to the Gallatin River Task Force’s Water Conservation Program. For the sake of comparison, many municipalities in Montana do not have building code enforcement due to their small population, and Missoula County is the only one in the state that has county building codes inspectors.
Let me be clear: The wolf in our story is not a general contractor or developer. The wolf is a freak storm that dumps feet of heavy snow on your roof. The wolf is an errant framer who neglected to add supporting struts under the fireplace. The wolf is a dynamic building environment in which ever-more complicated homes are expected. The wolf is a lazy tenant who doesn’t use the bathroom exhaust fan each time she showers.
How do we protect the investment we make in our homes? The moral of our story is to be the third pig. In the absence of a municipal or county inspector, hire the best inspector or architect you can find and tell the wolf, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”
Are you wondering why something is particularly unique to our community? You want to know and I’m eager to learn. This column commits to answering your burning questions about why Big Sky exists the way it does. Ask me at email@example.com.
Tallie Lancey is a broker with Big Sky Sotheby’s International Realty and serves on the boards of Big Sky Community Organization, Top Shelf Toastmasters, and the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.