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Brace for the state’s deck code

Jerry Deschane is the president and owner of Deschane Communications LLC, a lobbying, consulting and communications firm specializing in the construction industry.

The Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code Council this year will test the truth of the old tongue-in-cheek saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

The council is pulling together for the first time a chapter regulating deck construction for single-family homes. Members are doing a good job, thanks in part to early groundwork done by a group of building inspectors.

But no matter what the final document looks like, someone will be unhappy.

The Uniform Dwelling Code mentions decks, but only briefly, and for the most part says, “Follow the rules elsewhere in this code.” So builders and inspectors, more or less, have been applying the other parts of the code — foundations, framing and railing, among other things — to deck construction. And, in most cases, it’s worked, more or less.

But that approach is vague, subject to interpretation and in some cases impractical. Builders, inspectors and suppliers agree there needs to be a single, clear minimum standard because poorly built decks can do a lot of damage to the homes to which they’re attached.

Building inspectors have to deal with this problem on more than just new construction. Nearly all communities regulate remodeling to a degree, and nearly anyone who owns a hammer wants to build a weekend party platform, so decks are arguably the most common home remodeling projects.

Anyone can do it. It just takes two or three friends, beer and a weekend. Oh, and some wood and bolts and stuff. Plans are optional.

About 80 percent of a deck rule is common sense. A 2-by-6 joist has a certain span rating, and the loading requirements are pretty straightforward. But should the bottoms of stairs be on footings and foundations? Do all composite deck materials have similar load ratings? Are bracing and blocking necessary? How do you put all that in one code book? And don’t get me started on flashing, the detail nearly every homeowner gets wrong.

The council wanted to sign off on a proposal after a couple of quick reviews, but members are on their third meeting, and there is a lot of work left. There is a consensus that it needs to be done, and the technical problems are moving toward practical solutions.

But no matter the result, it will change how Handyman Hal has been building decks, and he is going to let Legislator Louis know about it. Legislator Louis then will put out a press release condemning the state for sticking its nose into private backyards.

There will be much harrumphing, followed by Decks 2.0.

Handyman Hal still won’t be satisfied, and even if he is, someone else will be upset, and so on. Eventually the harrumphing will settle down, and Wisconsin will have a workable, if compromise-driven, deck standard. Change is hard.

So, before the harrumphing begins, get informed. Preliminary copies of the proposal and minutes of the council’s debates are available online at dsps.wi.gov in the Uniform Dwelling Code Council section.

Find out what’s going on. You’ll be a step ahead of your competitors when the new deck rule finally comes out, and you’ll be one less voice yelling, “Harrumph!” because you didn’t know it was coming.

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