As a design professional, whenever I plan out a space for a client, my mind is running two sets of numbers at the same time. One set has to do with state and local building codes, making sure that I leave a minimum of 30-inches for a toilet to sit in and 20-inches per sink. The other set has to do with building guidelines or suggestions, which calls for 36-inches minimum for a toilet, rather than 30. This can be confusing for homeowners when they hear a Pro discuss things like minimum and ideal for certain areas of their homes. How do you know which one to use? Understanding the difference between a code and a suggestion can help you avoid a lot of stress during the design process of your project.

What Is a Building Code?

A building code is a set of directions with very precise figures attached, which is assigned by your town or state. In the example above, building codes call for toilets to have a minimum of 30-inches of space to sit in all by themselves. Nothing else can encroach on that 30-inches, or your bathroom will not pass inspection at the end of the project. You must follow building codes at all times, except in rare instances when your property may be “grandfathered in,” meaning that it was built before building codes, and you cannot meet them without making significant structural changes to the property.

What Is a Building Suggestion or Guideline?

In many cases, in addition to building codes, you may hear things like “optimal,” “ideal,” or “suggested” figures. These are guidelines in place for designers that can help make your space more comfortable and easier to use. In the case of the toilet, it’s recommended by the National Kitchen and Bath Association that you leave 36-inches minimum for a toilet to sit in. Why? Because 36-inches is a lot more comfortable than 30, and you won’t feel hemmed in or crowded if you leave this much space. Do you have to have 36-inches? No. Will your home fail inspection if you don’t leave 36-inches? No. All this suggestion does is help ensure that you’ll be happier with the outcome of the project. As long as you meet state and local building codes, you can say no to a building suggestion or guideline.

When to Use Suggested Guidelines

At times when you’re working with a Pro, he or she may make a suggestion like the one above to help make you more comfortable with the finished project. Remember that you have ultimate control over your project so you can say yes or depending on what you think the finished project should look like.

So when should you say yes? Anytime that the design can accommodate a suggested guideline without impacting the rest of the design. You will likely be happier, and the project will likely turn out better. Your Pro is making this suggestion because they think it’s the right thing to do. Likewise if they make a suggestion that will involve minor to moderate changes, but will help open or free up space that might otherwise have been cramped or unused.

Feel free to say no to anything that will have a major structural impact on your property that will increase your budget substantially, or that makes changes to an area where you are already comfortable.

If you’re unsure, ask your Pro if what they're talking about is a code or a guideline. Remember, you must follow codes; guidelines are there to help, but are not absolutes.

Trust Your Pro

You hire a Pro for a project because they are the best person to do the job. If they make a suggestion that could help make you happier with the end result, it’s worth at least considering what they have to say.