What Is the Building Code?
First in a series explaining the various building codes that govern how we build houses to be safe and sanitary
Building Codes were established a long time ago as a way to ensure a minimum level of safety and sanitation. Plumbing codes keep our houses sanitary. Electrical codes reduce the risk of accidental electrocution and our homes from burning down. General building codes help stop the spread of fire if they do burn, but they also dictate structural stability based on natural calamities such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wind, flooding or temperature conditions as well as man-made events such as fires. It also mitigates slow degradation that can lead to structural catastrophes, like rotting beams or deck ledgers — it seems like every year we hear about a second or third-story deck collapse.
Perhaps the most important part of the safety and sanitation mission is dictating a minimum standard without unintentionally creating un-affordability. If no one can afford to buy a home, it doesn’t matter how safe or sanitary it is built.
The International Code Council (ICC) publishes the International Building Code, International Plumbing Code, International Mechanical Code and the International Fuel Gas Code. These codes are the typical reference documents for a new commercial building. The ICC also publishes the International Residential Code (IRCInternational Residential Code. The one- and two-family dwelling model building code copyrighted by the International Code Council. The IRC is meant to be a stand-alone code compatible with the three national building codes—the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National code, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) code and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) code.) that is normally the reference document for new homes. The IRC includes architectural, structural, energy efficiency, plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas and electrical provisions all in one book, but for new construction. The International Property Maintenance Code sets out the minimum code requirements for existing buildings. This code establishes those conditions that are regarded as unsafe and allows an inspector to order repairs necessary to mitigate the unsafe condition. The International Energy Conservation Code goes farther than the IRC in energy efficiency measures and is more commonly used for commercial buildings.
Uniformity and consistency across the nation
Building Codes have been historically regulated at the local or state level in all 50 states. The need for more consistency has lead to model codes across large regions of the country. The result in the early twentieth century was three separate major codes developed by different associations — the Uniform Building Code (ICBO), the Southern Building Code (SBCCI), the BOCA Basic Building Code (BOCA) and the One and Two Family Dwelling Code (CABO). While this was an improvement, it still was cumbersome for the builders, architects or engineers working in more than one jurisdiction.
Worse, the different standards meant that various parts of the United States had higher or lower standards for safety, sanitation and health. However, with the advent of the IRC in 2000, this improved dramatically. The IRC, now in its 4th edition, is adopted in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Now the country is more consistent in building code enforcement that ever before. While the model codes help establish uniformity across the continent, each jurisdiction amends the code to reflect local tradition, custom, or circumstances. Because of this, building codes still sometimes conflict across city, county or state boundaries. Over time, these boundary disputes will become fewer, but thanks to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, they will always be present. Because of state autonomy guaranteed by the 10th amendment, there will never be a federally enforced building code across all 50 states. Hopefully, there will be more consistency as more states decrease local amendments.
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