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Code Green

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

Image Credit: iStock

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 (IRC) 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.


  1. Dina Lima | | #1

    Consistency in Codes
    Hello Lynn! Great information on codes consistency. I believe that the newly ANSI-approved National Green Building Standard that was completed as a joint effort between NAHB and the ICC will also help with the consistency issue in the residential inudstry. The standard can be found at:

    Also, the green Scoring Tool by NAHB should help in this endeavor as well, as consistency is sought after in the construction of new homes.

    Large corporations and organizations are always seeking ways to standardize because it eliminates confusion, saves money, and creates uniformity. We, too, in the building industry should benefit from standardization in codes and building practices.

    Thank you for the information!

  2. Gary Smith | | #2

    Minimums for States
    Our US state structure is sort-a like tiny "mini-countries" all having their own governing bodies. Often buildings and construction varies based on local "ideals" and "habits" more than safety. Unfortunately there a several States with NO MINIMUM BUILDING CODES!

    As an NAHB Accredited Verifier I am helping to promote a better built building in areas of our state where there are no codes.

    I agree with Dina. The NAHB program is helping us build green effectively, but at the same time is promoting minimum code adherence and practices.

    Gary Smith
    NAHB Accredited Verifier

  3. Grant Dorris | | #3

    National Building Code Coming?
    From NAHB news:

    House Energy Bill Would Create National Building Code

    By a 33 to 25 vote, the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week approved legislation that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions and create a national building code that completely supplants the national model code development process.

    Prior to consideration of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy Security Act, NAHB sent a letter to members of the committee expressing the association’s concerns over the federal preemption of states’ rights to determine building codes.

    “NAHB is concerned that H.R. 2454 violates state and local rights to establish building codes and efficiency targets within their jurisdiction,” the letter said. “We regret that the committee did not consider NAHB’s testimony presented on April 24, 2009, and that we must oppose this legislation. H.R. 2454 is unnecessarily prescriptive, falls short of creating an effective energy policy that is constitutional and endangers housing affordability.”

    The House committee approved new measures to establish a national energy code administered by the Department of Energy (DOE) that comes complete with enforcement penalties and civil action against home owners and builders occupying non-compliant homes and buildings.

    NAHB, along with a handful of other real estate groups, supported an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) to strike the egregious language, but it failed on a party-line vote of 31 to 20.

    The new building code provisions in HR. 2454 provide for the following:

    * New national energy efficiency targets taking effect on the date of the bill’s enactment that require states and localities to prove code compliance at 30% above the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) level. By Jan. 1, 2014, the new target would be 50% above the 2006 IECC. Between years 2017 and 2029, the code target increases 5% every three years until it reaches 75% above the 2006 IECC by 2029.

    * The Department of Energy secretary can set interim code targets, as long as they are higher and based on the life-cycle of the home, not on economics or the payback to consumers.

    * Within one year after the date of enactment, a national building code will be established. States are required to adopt the national code within one year from that date, they can adopt a state code that is equally stringent or they can adopt California's Title 24 building code within two years.

    * If after one year the DOE doesn't have a certification from a state that its code meets the targets, then the national energy code automatically becomes the applicable building code for that state or locality.

    * Federal violations will be levied against builders or owners of a building if they permit occupancy of a home or building that is out of compliance with the national energy targets, even if the state refuses to adopt the new code, because the national building code will be in effect regardless.

    * If a state or locality is out of compliance with the codes, it will not receive emission allowances under any cap and trade plan. Also, states will lose federal funding from other parts of the bill on a sliding scale for each year of non-compliance.

    * If a state or locality fails to enforce either a compliant code or the national building code, then the DOE will enforce codes federally through "inspections" and enforcement fees.

    * The DOE will also assess a civil penalty for violators of this section. Each day of unlawful occupancy is considered a separate violation. If the home is constructed out of compliance with the provisions of this bill and it has been conveyed by a knowing builder or a knowing seller to an unknowing purchaser, then the builder or seller is the violator. The U.S. District Court has jurisdiction for all legal issues.

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