Navigating tent codes is no easy task; being proactive can make it go more smoothly.
By Juli Case
If you work with tent installations, you’ve no doubt noticed that the building code environment has become more complex in recent years. Pulling a permit can be a bureaucratic nightmare, but it is a fact of life in the tent world. Although there are no easy answers when it comes to building codes and permitting issues, there are some strategies you can develop that might make this part of the job just a little easier.
Learn the language
The International Building Code (IBC) is the model building code for the U.S. and has been adopted by most states. It’s most relevant to fabric structures and commercial canopies and awnings. The International Fire Code (IFC) is most pertinent to rental tents. All of these codes are written by the International Code Council (ICC). Copies of these documents can be purchased from the ICC, but if you’re not in a position to buy your own, it’s possible that your local library has them in the reference section.
Get the code and know what parts of it are applicable to your products. You’re more familiar with tents than your code official is. By learning the code’s details, you can be your own best advocate when code issues arise. However, keep in mind that the IBC and its counterparts are only model building codes; each state, county and town is free to make its own modifications and requirements. So being familiar with the IBC is crucial, but knowing local code specifics is equally important. A good example is California’s recent adoption of the IBC, which has caused some confusion for tent installers in that state.
Follow the code
Even if you have a job or installation that doesn’t require a permit, make sure you aren’t cutting any corners and are following the code. In the long run, it will be worth it.
“It’s like a stoplight,” explains Tom Markel, Bravo Events Expos Displays, Buffalo, N.Y. “You have to stop whether a cop is there to see you or not.” In fact, Markel goes a step further. Once a month he provides his local official with a list of jobs that he’ll be doing or that he has bid on in the district. Although this tactic has resulted in officials showing up on tent jobs that don’t require a permit, he says, once they realize that he’s following the code, he’s earned their respect and the permitting process becomes easier on future installations.
Know your officials
Code officials are responsible for public safety, and most take that job seriously. However, every code official or fire marshal has his or her own way of approaching tent jobs. How do you keep track of it all?
“The worst thing is that every jurisdiction handles it differently,” Markel says. His strategy is to keep a spreadsheet of all the installations he does in different jurisdictions. “I keep a history of what happened, who the contact is and what they require.” That way he has a better idea of what to expect for the next installation.
Bob Helmsing, Lawrence Fabric Structures Inc., has similar issues with working with a large number of communities. “We’re located in St. Louis and have well over 100 towns within 50 miles.” His solution is to have a part-time employee whose focus is to pull permits, allowing him to get to know the areas, the officials and their requirements. “We used to have individual salesmen pull permits,” Helmsing added, “but it kept them from selling.”
Both Markel and Helmsing insist on pulling permits themselves rather than having the customer do it. “It saves me time in the long run,” Markel explained. “When you send the customer in, they don’t know the process or how to answer any questions the code official may have.” You also don’t want a situation where a customer has assured you the permit will come through, only to find there’s no permit—leaving you stuck with the inventory, a rescheduled event and an unhappy client. Pulling permits costs time and money, so be sure to factor that in to what you charge your customer.
Building and fire codes have become a part of today’s business environment and are not likely to go away. While it’s not always palatable, learning to work within the system is a must for today’s tent companies. “Five years ago, I answered a couple of questions a month on codes,” says Spencer Etzel, of the SEC Group, Wilsonville, Ore. “Now I spend half the day on it.”
As Helmsing puts it, “There’s no magic button to make it easier; you just have to follow the steps.” The key is to make sure you know what the steps are and the best way to make sure you don’t stumble while following them.