THE WHAT & WHY OF BUILDING CODES

Hamid Naderi, P.E., CBO | International Code Council, Senior Vice President – Product Development
Margi M. Leddin | International Code Council, Vice President – Publishing and Multimedia

Building codes are sets of rules defining how buildings can be designed and constructed to a minimum level of safety. They are not a phenomenon of the modern world; rather, they have been around for centuries, one of the earliest being the Code of Hammurabi, which was a set of laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (reign 1792-1750 B.C.). Hammurabi’s rules helped in governing the people of his fast-growing empire, which included much of ancient Mesopotamia. These rules covered a variety of topics, including inheritance, divorce, contracts, paternity, homicide, debt, agricultural practices and assault. The Code also contained the first known set of building codes.

    The portion of the Code of Hammurabi related to buildings reads:

  • [228] If a builder builds a house for someone and completes it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each SAR of surface.
  • [229] If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
  • [230] If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death.
  • [231] If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.
  • [232] If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
  • [233] If a builder builds a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it, if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.

The consequences of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s building codes seem harsh by today’s standards, but they were effective at the time. Over the years, building codes have evolved from instruments that helped govern the people to rules for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare as related to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. Modern building codes address the needs of advancing communities, and they recognize the use of new materials, technologies and innovative methods of construction. For example, plumbing codes were developed to address health and safety for indoor plumbing; mechanical codes to address safe design and installation of heating, cooling and refrigeration systems; and fire codes to address safe storage, use and operation of hazardous materials.

In some countries, building codes are developed by government agencies and then enforced at the national level. This is an expensive program, and one in which new materials and construction methods are not easily incorporated. In other countries, including the United States, where the power of enforcement is given to the code official or authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), a system of model building codes is used. Model codes are developed by codes and standards developing organizations such as the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Model building codes have no legal status unless adopted or adapted by the AHJ. They are adopted by reference by the jurisdictions to administer minimum building construction safety.

Rarely does a local jurisdiction choose to develop a building code from scratch. Because of the complexity of developing building safety regulations where various technical expertise is necessary to cover a variety of construction topics and high cost of development which is an impact to tax payers, most states and municipalities in the country have chosen to use the model codes/standards system. One of the main benefits of the model code philosophy is that it allows for national consistency in the base model codes among jurisdictions. This creates efficiencies and uniformity that have advantages for consumers and the construction industry, as well as for educational activities. The International Codes have long been taught at the college or university level and are often used in construction technology programs. Licensing examinations for architects and engineers typically include building-code-related questions. Codes are also used in research and industry laboratories, such as in the testing of trusses or other structural members.

The International family of codes (the I-Codes®), published by the International Code Council, are developed, maintained and published through a governmental consensus process. In September 2012, ICC announced NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, published by the National Fire Protection Association, as the electrical code for use with the International family of codes, thus completing the set of model codes for the built environment. These codes include:

  • International Building Code®
  • International Residential Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings®
  • International Mechanical Code®
  • International Plumbing Code®
  • International Fire Code®
  • International Fuel Gas Code®
  • International Energy Conservation Code®
  • International Existing Building Code®
  • International Wildland Urban Interface Code®
  • ICC® Performance Code for Buildings and Facilities
  • International Property Maintenance Code®
  • International Zoning Code®
  • International Private Sewage Disposal Code®
  • International Swimming Pool and Spa Code®
  • International Green Construction Code™

The I-Codes are living and evolving documents that are updated every three years to incorporate the latest advances in science, technology and experience gained from events like natural or man-made disasters. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tornados, hurricanes and floods have caused enormous devastation, loss of life, injury, displacement and economic losses all over the world. These disasters, in concert with inadequate or ignored building codes, have resulted in painful losses over the centuries, including the burning of Rome (64 A.D.), the Great Fire of London (1660), the Great Chicago Fire (1871), the San Francisco earthquake and fire (1909), the MGM Grand Hotel fire (1980), the Station Night Club fire (Rhode Island 2003), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (2011) and the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland (2016) – each of which had catastrophically sad endings.

The public need for protection from disaster due to fire, structural collapse, and general deterioration underscores the need for modern codes and their administration. Resilient construction has the potential to reduce substantially property damage and loss of life. For codes to be effective, an understanding and cooperative relationship must exist between jurisdictions, homeowners, developers, urban planners, designers, code officials and others in the construction industry. Codes must allow for due process for all affected parties, and keep pace with rapidly changing technology. Building codes provide safeguards to protect the public. Although no building code can eliminate all risks, reducing risks to an acceptable level, along with effective implementation, can help minimize the risk to human life and property.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Hamid Naderi, P.E., CBO International Code Council, Senior Vice President – Product Development
Hamid Naderi, P.E, CBO is the Senior Vice President of Product Development for the International Code Council (ICC,) where he is responsible for the research and development of technical resources, managing the development of multiple technical projects by expert authors, and coordinating the partnerships with outside technical organizations and publishers.

Margi M. Leddin, International Code Council, Vice President – Publishing and Multimedia
Margi M. Leddin is the Vice President of Publishing and Multimedia for the International Code Council (ICC), where she is responsible for the general management of all aspects of the Code Council’s publishing program, including editorial, production and print specifications, as well as overseeing copyright and permission activities.


For more information on the complete set of International Codes, visit: http://shop.iccsafe.org/codes/2015-international-codes-and-references/2015-complete-15-collection-includes-igcc.html

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