History of Building Codes

By Gregory J McFann,
Building Official
City of Alameda Planning & Building Department

Have you ever wondered about the origin of building codes? If you are like most people, this question has never crossed your mind. In fact you would probably be hard pressed to name any building code provisions. Yet the effects of building codes are all around us. They regulate many aspects of every building we live, work, shop and play in. Building codes regulate everything from stair size to the number of plugs you need in your kitchen. I know what you're thinking. Building codes are just more government regulation intruding into my privacy. In fact, the development of today's codes dates back almost 4000 years. In that time, the focus has always been on making buildings safe and sanitary for their occupants. The enactment of and revisions to codes are a direct result of failures from existing building techniques, often the trigger has been a disaster that forces changes.

The earliest building codes can be traced back to The Code Of Hammurabi circa 1760 BC. The Code of Hammurabi consisted of 282 laws written in cuneiform on an eight-foot tall stone slab. The stone was displayed in the public square for all to see. Laws number 229 through 233 dealt with building construction. Unlike today's codes, the Code of Hammurabi dealt more with the consequences of building failure rather than how to safely construct a building. For instance, Law #229 stated "If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls and kills its owner then the builder shall be put to death." One would have to imagine, with such dire consequences, builders had to put a lot of care into their work.

Various historic texts include building code requirements. Many of them outlined punishments for faulty construction. The Bible contained a code requirement that reads much more like a modern building code. In Deuteronomy Chapter 22 verse 8 a safety feature is required based on past experience. A builder is required "If thou shouldest build a new house, then shalt thou make a parapet to thy house; so thou shalt not bring blood-guiltiness upon thy house, if one should in any wise fall from it."

Modern building codes shifted from outlining the punishment for poor construction to mandating requirements that would make building safe and sanitary to occupy. One early example of this is found in the London Building Act of 1844. Chief amongst the requirements, of this set of codes, was the improvement of drainage, securing of sufficient width of streets to ensure adequate ventilation, regulating explosive works and regulation of "deleterious" works. Each of these requirements came out of a need to improve life safety and was a result of seeing what didn't work and making it better. The Act of 1844 also created the first building inspectors when it required "the appointment of officers to superintend the Act".

The growth of American cities fueled by the tremendous influx of immigrants led to the creation of huge apartment buildings called tenements. Tenement living conditions in the mid 1800's were barely tolerable. As a result, in 1867, the City of New York enacted the First Tenement Housing Act, which required fire escapes and a window for every room. The requirements of the Second Tenement Housing Act, enacted in 1879, included the installation of toilets inside the building, and that windows face a source of fresh air and light, not an interior hallway. A third tenement-housing act had to be passed in 1901 to address failures of the first two acts.

The first public building code in California was the 1909 State Tenement Housing Act. Similar to New York, California saw the need to regulate housing construction to assure safe and sanitary occupancy. Among the initial requirements of the California Act were minimum ceiling heights, room sizes and the requirement for heat. In 1927, the Pacific Coast Building Officials published the first Uniform Building Code. This code not only addressed housing habitability issues, it also regulated the construction of all buildings. Included in some of the initial requirements of the 1927 Uniform Building Code were building setbacks, minimum exiting and minimum safe structural requirements.

Today's building codes are built on the experience of the past. Each new earthquake, fire, tornado, hurricane or other natural disaster results in improved codes for building construction. While the complexity of the codes has increased greatly since the Code of Hammurabi in 1760 BC what was true then is true today. The intent of the building codes is to provide better and safer buildings for all of us to occupy.

The History of Building Codes

The first thing to know is the definition of a building code. It is simply a prescription to assure that the occupants of a structure are safe, sound and sanitary. It is a set of minimum requirements. Going beyond the minimums is always advised, just meeting the minimums is not something to brag about, but the minimums do set a standard.

History of the Building Codes

Many people may ask, why do we need laws that tell us what we can or cannot do with our own property? One answer could be, that what any of us might do or not do has an effect on other people and it is for the benefit of others that we are required to follow the law. In any event, we do have building codes and there are penalties imposed upon us if we don't follow them.

The regulation of building construction is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced through recorded history for over 4000 years. The great Babylonian King Hammurabi, in 2000 BC instituted a performance-type code which was based on the simple principle of "an eye for an eye", where the Builder was responsible "in kind" for any damages that occurred due to the failure of the structure. If the Building owner died as a result of a collapse, then the Builder would be killed as restitution. If the Building owner lost an arm as a result of collapse, then the Builder would sacrifice his arm. 

Archeological fragments of Greek and Roman laws give the first evidence of buildings being required to be inspected during construction. For example, the records of a building being constructed by Socrates in 341 BC tell of the specific requirements:

"He shall set the joints against each other, fitting, and before inserting the dowels he shall show the architect all the stones to be fitting, and shall set them true and sound and dowel them with iron dowels, two dowels to each stone…"

In 1189 AD, the Mayor of London, Henry Fitz-Elwyne, issued an ordinance known as the "Assize of Buildings." This ordinance was referred to as a "planning act, " but contained much on the construction of structures.

After the plague and fire consumed much of the city in 1664, Parliament enacted further building regulations reflecting the growth in knowledge of building technology. To enforce these "codes’ surveyors were appointed and empowered with the authority to invoke jail sentences on violators. Perhaps this was the birthplace of the first building inspector. 

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In early America, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson encouraged the development of building regulations to provide minimum standards that would ensure health and safety. Today, most of the United States is covered by a network of modern building regulations ranging from fire and structural safety to health, handicap accessibility and conservation of energy.

In the early nineteen hundreds or about 1905, here in the United States, one of the first building codes was developed on the East Coast by the Fire Underwriters Association intended to be a national code and it was directed toward protecting the building rather than the people in the building. This building code was titled "National Building Code." National codes directed toward the safety of the occupants (fire exiting, fire alarms, isolation of hazards) were not developed until the 1930’s and 40’s.

Since the early 1900s, the system of building regulations in the United States was based on model building codes developed by three regional model code groups. The codes developed by the Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA) were used on the East Coast and throughout the Midwest of the United States, while the codes from the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) were used in the Southeast and the codes published by the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) covered the West Coast. Although regional code development has been effective and responsive to the regulatory needs of the local jurisdictions, by early 1990s it became obvious that the country needed a single coordinated set of national model building codes. The nation’s three model code groups decided to combine their efforts and in 1994 formed the International Code Council (ICC) to develop codes that would have no regional limitations.

After three years of extensive research and development, the first edition of the International Building Code was published in 1997. The code was patterned on three legacy codes previously developed by the organizations that constitute ICC. By the year 2000, ICC has completed the International Codes series and ceased development of the legacy codes in favor of their national successor. 

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Legacy Codes

BOCA National Building Code (BOCA/NBC) by the Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA)
Uniform Building Code (UBC) by the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO)
Standard Building Code (SBC) by the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI)

Competing Codes

Notably absent from the group of the IBC developers is another large player in model code development, the National Fire Protection Association. Initially, NFPA joined ICC in a collective effort to develop the International Fire Code (IFC). This effort however fell apart at the completion of the first draft of the document. Subsequent efforts by ICC and NFPA to reach agreement on this and other documents have been unsuccessful, resulting in a series of disputes between the two organizations. After several failed attempts to find common ground with the ICC, NFPA has withdrawn from participation in development of the International Codes and joined with International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Western Fire Chiefs Association to create an alternative set of codes. First published in 2002, the code set named the Comprehensive Consensus Codes, or C3, includes the NFPA 5000 building code as its centerpiece and the companion codes such as the National Electrical Code, NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, UPC, UMC, and NFPA 1. Unlike the IBC, the NFPA 5000 conforms to ANSI-established policies and procedures for the development of voluntary consensus standards.

The NFPA's move to introduce a competing building standard has received strong opposition from powerful trade groups such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA), BOMA International and National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). After unsuccessful attempts to encourage peaceful cooperation and resolution between NFPA and ICC on their codes disputes, a number of organizations, including AIA, BOMA and two dozen commercial real estate associations, founded the Get It Together coalition, which repeatedly urged NFPA to abandon code development and adoption efforts related to NFPA 5000 and to work with ICC to integrate the other NFPA codes and standards into the ICC family of codes.

Unfortunately, all efforts to save the development of the unified set of model codes have failed, and both NFPA and ICC began and are continuing to aggressively push for adoption of their respective documents. As a result of the unwillingness of the National Fire Protection Association and the International Code Council to cooperate on a single code, which could have been uniformly applied throughout the United States, the local governments and the nation's construction and real estate industries find themselves in the middle of the battle for code supremacy.

Notably, California adopted the NFPA 5000 codes as a baseline for the future California Building Code, but later rescinded the decision and continued to use the IBC. The main driver for this decision were increased costs involved in training architects and engineers to design for a new code, and the disparity that a different code would cause between California and the majority of other states which have adopted IBC.

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A large portion of the International Building Code deals with fire prevention. It differs from the related International Fire Code in that the IBC handles fire prevention in regards to construction and design and the fire code handles fire prevention in an on-going basis. For example, the building code would deal with location of exits with the fire code keeping exits unblocked. The building code also deals with access for the disabled and structural stability (including earthquakes). The International Building Code applies to all structures in areas where it is adopted, except for one and two family dwellings, which is well covered in the International Residential Code.

Parts of the code reference other codes including the International Plumbing Code, the International Mechanical Code, the National Electric Code, and various National Fire Protection Association standards. Therefore, if a municipality adopts the International Building Code, it also adopts those parts of other codes referenced by the IBC. Often, the plumbing, mechanical, and electric codes are adopted along with the building code.

The code book itself totals over 700 pages and chapters include:

Building occupancy classifications
Building heights and areas
Interior finishes
Foundation, wall, and roof construction
Fire protection systems (sprinkler system requirements and design)
Materials used in construction
Elevators and escalators
Already existing structures
Means of egress (see below)

Means of Egress

The phrase "means of egress" refers to the ability to exit the structure, primarily in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or on the west coast a seismic event. Specifically, a means of egress is broken into three parts: the path of travel to an exit, the exit itself, and the exit discharge (the path to a safe area outside). The code also address the number of exits required for a structure based on its intended occupancy use and the number of people who could be in the place at one time as well as their relative locations. It also deals with special needs, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons where evacuating people may have special requirements. In some instances, requirements are made based on possible hazards (such as in industries) where flammable or toxic chemicals will be in use. However, in our field we deal mostly with residential occupancies. 

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Existing Structures

Building code requirements generally apply to the construction of new buildings and alterations or additions to existing buildings, changes in the use of buildings, and the demolition of buildings or portions of buildings at the ends of their useful or economic lives. As such, building codes obtain their effect from the voluntary decisions of property owners to erect, alter, add to, or demolish a building in a jurisdiction where a building code applies.

Alterations and additions to an existing building must usually comply with all new requirements applicable to their scope as related to the intended use of the building. On the other hand, changes in the use of a building often expose the entire building to the requirement to comply fully with provisions of the code applicable to the new use. Some jurisdictions limit such application to matters of fire safety, disabled access or structural integrity, others apply an economic feasibility or practicality test, and still others exempt buildings of special use or architectural or historic significance.

Existing buildings are not, however, exempt from new requirements, especially those considered essential to achieve health, safety or general welfare objectives of the adopting jurisdiction, even when they are not otherwise subject to alteration, addition, change in use, or demolition. Such requirements typically remedy existing conditions, considered in hindsight, inimical to safety, such as the lack of automatic fire sprinklers in certain places of assembly, as became a major concern after the Station nightclub fire in 2003 killed 100 people.

Although such remedial enactments address existing conditions, they do not violate the United States Constition's ban on the adoption of ex post facto law, as they do not criminalize or seek to punish past conduct. Such requirements merely prohibit the maintenance or continuance of conditions that would prove injurious to a member of the public or the broader public interest.

Assertions by property rights advocates in the United States that such requirements violate the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, have generally failed on grounds that compliance with such requirements increases rather than decreases the capital value of the property concerned.

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Some states, especially those that delegate their adoption and enforcement authority to subordinate local jurisdictions, may exempt their own buildings from compliance with local building codes or local amendments to a statewide building code. Similarly, property owned by the United States Government is considered exempt from state and local enactments, although such properties are generally not exempt from inspection by state or local authorities, except on grounds of protecting national defense or national security. In lieu of submitting themselves to compliance with the requirements of other government jurisdictions, most state and federal agencies adopt construction and maintenance requirements that either reference model building codes or model their provisions on their requirements.

Some jurisdictions have enacted requirements to bring certain types or uses of existing buildings into compliance with new requirements, such as the installation of smoke alarms in households or dwelling units, at the time of sale. Some safety advocates have suggested a similar approach to encourage remedial application of other requirements, but few jurisdictions have found it economical or equitable to disincentivise property transactions in this way.

Many jurisdictions have found the application of new requirements to old, particularly historic buildings, challenging. California has also enacted a specific historic building code (see 2001 California Historic Building Code). Other states have also required compliance with building and fire codes, subject to reservations, limitations, or jurisdictional discretion to protect historic building stock as a condition of nominating or listing a building for preservation or landmark status, especially where such status attracts tax credits, investment of public money, or other incentives. 

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Updating Cycle

Updated editions of the IBC are published on a three year cycle (2000, 2003, 2006…). This fixed schedule has led other organizations, which produce referenced standards, to align their publishing schedule with that of the IBC. The 2007 California Building Code (adopted 01-01-2008) is largely based on the 2006 IBC.

Referenced Standards

Model building codes rely heavily on referenced standards as published and promulgated by other standards organizations such as ASTM (ASTM International), ANSI (American National Standards Institute), and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). The structural provisions rely heavily on referenced standards, especially the Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Structures published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE-7).

Until 2001, Texas (as a state) had not adopted a building code but municipalities were and did adopt one of the various building codes to guide their construction and inspectors. In 2001 the State of Texas adopted the IBC codes, most specifically the IRC (International Residential Code) and the NEC (National Electric Code) for all areas of Texas. Until this time, the unincorporated areas of the State effectively had no code requirements. This rule covers all of Texas. Below is an article on the history of building codes.

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