Building Principles: Understanding the Importance of Building

by Michael J. Lamoreaux, P.E.

Do all of your structures need to meet current building codes? Before you answer, you may want to contact your insurance company and local code enforcement officer to determine the applicable codes for your facility. In the fall of 1999, a group of students at Texas A&M University were continuing the deep football tradition of a bonfire and pep rally on the eve of the big game against their intrastate rival, the University of Texas Longhorns. However, the results were tragic. While constructing the “layer cake” pile made from large timbers, the pile collapsed killing twelve students. Subsequently, the rules have changed on campus.

We must always take the correct precautionary measures to assure the safety of our children. Building codes are developed, changed, and enforced for one main reason — safety. Camps must maintain the same standards as other places our children spend their time, for example home and school. Most residences and all schools are required to be designed and constructed to local and national building code requirements. Why should camps operate without being in compliance with these same codes?

Seasonal Versus Year-round Occupancy

Some camp directors will argue that they are a seasonal operation and do not need to comply to the full extent with standard building codes. This philosophy needs to be put to rest. In terms of occupation days, most camps maintain occupancy for a larger percentage of the year than our nation’s stadiums. Would anyone try to argue that a new eighty-thousand-seat arena does not need to comply with building codes? Design loads for structures as published in codes throughout the country are based on past experience, common sense, and a statistical study on the probability of these loads not being exceeded. The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes one of the structural load bibles, Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures (ASCE-7). Engineers have some flexibility in determining the actual loads applied by classifying the structure in accordance with an importance factor. These importance factors are based on the significance of hazard to human life in the event of a failure.

If a camp hires an engineer to “evaluate” the camp’s structures, it must be understood that the basis of the evaluation from the engineer’s standpoint will be code compliance. All structures, including cabins, dining halls, laundry facilities, etc., are required to meet similar loading conditions as the local school, hospital, church, or shopping mall. Does this mean it is necessary for all camp directors to hire professional consultants for every little job they want to construct? No, but all applicable building permits must be acquired, with guidance from the local building official as to the need for an engineer.

Hidden Liabilities

Camps find themselves part of today’s “who is liable?” society. The one thing that goes hand in hand with liability is compensation. If you want or expect someone else to assume liability for your facilities, you also need to expect to pay. So the hurdle today’s camps must face is how to provide a safe environment by being in code compliance, and also remain within budget.

When a new structure or facility is needed, the usual process begins with a concept and a budget. The size of the budget and the availability of volunteers occasionally will drive the project in an “unofficial” direction. By not getting the proper permits, the director is potentially exposing the organization and perhaps even himself personally to hidden liabilities.

So, a camp director wants to build a new covered recreation area and discovers that one of the children attending the camp has a parent who is a professional engineer. The director approaches this parent concerning the possibility of his or her involvement in the weekend construction. To the director’s surprise, the parent declines. Why? Liability. If the professional engineer is involved in the “weekend” construction with no permits and no building inspector, he or she is accepting some hidden liability for the project. If an accident were to ever occur involving an injury to a child or camp employee during or after project construction, the director or camp would initially be held liable. But, a good attorney or insurance company would become aware that a licensed engineer was some how involved with the project and would place some of that liability on the licensed professional. It is unlikely that a responsible engineer would be willing to take the personal risk to save the camp the hassle and money needed to acquire the proper permits.

If a new school is constructed, the personnel involved include an architect, an engineer, the local building inspector, and possibly a third party inspector or construction manager. What is the difference between the above group of professionals and the weekend warriors? I’m sure the first answer from most reading this column will be cost, and yes, that is true. There is a significant cost when involving licensed professionals. But, the most important difference between these two groups is the assumption of liability.

Stay Aware of Changing Regulations

Acquiring the proper permits also is a necessity when repairing or renovating existing structures. Many structures require repairs because of water damage, accidents, aging, and normal wear and tear over the years. The regulations governing some of these repairs may be the same as when the structure was originally built, but because the codes continuously change as new events occur and experience is gained, some regulations may be completely different. Camp directors need to be aware of the current code and consult with their local building official for further guidance. For example, roof construction in the past relied on the dead load of the roof itself for resistance to being blown upwards by wind. Some of today’s codes require the use of tie down clips for uplift resistance. A roof replacement on one of your structures may now require the use of such clips.

For proper building construction, compliance with building codes and acceptance of liability to assure the safety of all those involved with seasonal occupied facilities are necessities. There is little difference between the design and code requirements for “seasonal” versus year-round occupied structures. As a camp director, you should be aware of construction requirements and pursue the proper channels to acquire appropriate permits before new construction or the renovation to your facilities begins.

Michael J. Lamoreaux, P.E. is a structural engineer with McGoey, Hauser & Edsall Consulting Engineers, P.C., of which Camp Facilities Consulting is a subsidiary. He can be reached via e-mail at

Originally published in the 2002 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.