Building Codes

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Building Codes

A series of ordinances enacted by a state or local governmental entity, establishing minimum requirements that must be met in the construction and maintenance of buildings.

Building codes have been used by governmental units for centuries to ensure that buildings remain safe and sanitary. Early settlements in the United States drafted codes for such purposes as restrictions on the use of wooden chimneys to prevent fire. The early codes were usually only a few sentences in length, specifying narrow restrictions in construction.

Today, home and business construction has become process governed by a complex series of rules. A building code is usually not one document, but rather it is usually a series of documents setting forth requirements for several aspects of construction, such as gas, mechanics, electricity, fire-alarm systems, and plumbing. Building codes generally regulate all aspects of a construction project, including the structural design of a building, sanitation facilities, environmental control, fire prevention, ventilation, light, materials used for the building, and conservation measures. State and local governmental entities are empowered to enact building codes as part of their police powers under the Tenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. That amendment has been interpreted to allow the states to enact legislation designed to protect public health, welfare, and safety.

The development of modern building codes began in the early twentieth century. Residents who lived in tenement houses during that time began a movement that demanded basic sanitation in their housing. Insurance companies also advocated the use of safety standards, due to the potential limitations on the liability of these companies. In 1905, the National Board of Fire Examiners, the predecessor to the American Insurance Association, approved the first National Building Code. It was designed to be used as a model by state and local governmental units when drafting their own building codes. This model code proved very popular among legislators because it provided a respected and comprehensive source for technical construction requirements without the burden and expense of researching and drafting a building code from scratch.

During the New Deal era of the 1930s, the federal government sought to modernize the system of housing in the United States, and the use of building codes to ensure safety and sanitation became widespread. Studies during the late 1960s and early 1970s indicated that the vast majority of cities had adopted a building code of some form. As the use of building codes became more prevalent, the actual codes themselves became much more comprehensive and complex. Through the 1970s, the majority of building codes were enacted at the local level.

A number of model building codes were developed during the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, four major building codes were produced, including the National Building Code, by the American Insurance Association (AIA); the Basic/National Building Code (sometimes called the BOCA Code), by the Building Officials Conference of America (BOCA); the Southern Standards Building Code, by the Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. (SBCCI); and the Uniform Building Code, by the International Congress of Building Officials (ICBO). Most of these various organizations were formed during the first half of the twentieth century by code enforcement officials who wanted to provide a forum whereby they could exchange ideas about the implementation of building codes.

During the past 20 years, roughly half of the states have enacted legislation providing construction standards on a statewide basis. The states that enacted these laws generally have done so in order to provide uniformity in building regulations across the state, and also to ensure that building laws protected all of the citizens in the state equally. Local governments have retained much of the responsibility for the actual implementation of building regulations in these states. It is not uncommon for a state to draft statutes that govern buildings on a general level, while the local units of the state enact more specific regulations to apply to that locality. Local building codes often remain uniform because these local governments typically rely upon one of the available model building codes.

The various associations representing code enforcement officials have formed broader associations for the purposes of collaboration. In 1972, BOCA, SBCII, and ICBO formed the Council of American Building Officials (CABO), which has successfully drafted such model codes as the CABO One and Two Family Dwelling Code and the CABO Model Energy Code. In 1994, the three major model code organizations formed the International Code Council (ICC), which has produced several international model codes. As of 2003, the ICC had developed more than a dozen international model codes, including the International Building Code. The ICC estimates that 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and some federal agencies, enforce or have adopted at least one of the international codes.Building codes are directly affected by ongoing research regarding the performance of products, materials, or construction methods. Industry experts develop standards, which are documents that contain industry consensus regarding the methods by which the products, materials, or methods should be designed or employed. When an organization drafts a model building code, it typically refers to these standards in the text of the code. Since the standards are national in scope, the reference of these standards ensures that a local building code requires constructors to meet minimum national standards concerning details like safety and performance.

Few question that houses and other buildings are now designed to be much safer and more sanitary than were buildings constructed a century or longer ago, primarily as a result of the implementation of the various building codes throughout the United States. However, some commentators have noted that the requirements of these codes have caused construction prices to rise steadily, which in turn causes the costs of housing and other building usage to rise as well. Moreover, some critics maintain that the process of developing building codes is often as much of a process of negotiation between trade groups who are protecting their own interests as it is a completely scientific process.

Those who are involved in the drafting and implementation of building codes counter that building codes are designed with the health and safety of the public in mind. Results of testing performed during the development of standards are often readily available for inspection, so if questions of reliability arise, they often can be answered through a review of these testing procedures. Moreover, supporters note that state and local governmental entities are not bound to adopt the model building codes, and if a governmental unit disagrees with a provision in a model code, it is free to replace that provision with a requirement of its own creation. Accordingly, if a member of the public disagrees with a particular requirement, he or she generally may raise this issue with the appropriate governing body that decides whether a code or code provision should be adopted.

Further readings

Council of American Building Officials. 1997. An Introduction to Model Codes. Falls Church, Va.: Council of American Building Officials.

Kelly, Eric Damian. 1996. "Fair Housing, Good Housing or Expensive Housing? Are Building Codes Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?" John Marshall Law Review 349.

Turner, Michael D. 2001. "Paradigms, Pigeonholes, and Precedent: Reflections on Regulatory Control of Residential Construction." Whittier Law Review 3.

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