Thank you to all who suggested I contact a local inspector. I did just that. Here is our e-mail exchange:
My original e-mail:
I would like to do this in my kitchen: http://dcrowhouse.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-heart-on-shelf.html The "open shelf" is mounted at the standard height with a cabinet about that. Essentially, the open shelf serves at the "first shelf" in the kitchen and the rest are enclosed. Recently a contractor informed me this would not be "code", and the cabinets have to be mounted at 54" from the ground. My argument is the open shelf will be at the 54" line and thus is still within "regulation". It would be as if I choose to put all open shelving in my kitchen - just the top shelves have doors. Can you help?
The glorious reply I got was this:
When you say “contractor,” you mean the ikea kitchen designer, I’m not sure where they got that information. There is a requirement above ranges because of the potential for fire due to the heat generated, but not in any other cabinet space. Some municipalities may have a requirement because of issues specific to their jurisdiction, but DC is not one of them. I asked around last night and there isn’t a requirement by the IRC or ICC because I had never heard of this before. I suspect that maybe their design software doesn’t have the option for a shelf.
The level of joy I got from reading this was probably not normal.