Understanding Building Codes

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Building codes establish standards for the construction of buildings and other structures. Virtually every structure in a modern building is subject to at least one, and usually several different building codes.

In the United States, most building codes are first created by professional groups within a given trade then enacted at the state and local levels. This also means that building codes undergo regular updating. The U.S. once had several building codes but these eventually were subsumed by the International Building Code (IBC), which was developed and published by the International Code Council (ICC). Despite its name, the International Building Code (IBC) is used primarily in the U.S.

Code changes are difficult to keep up with, but not impossible. Typically the changes are driven by either technology, catastrophic events, or new knowledge and experience that suggest a better way to do things. For example, modern codes are moving in an increasingly “green” direction to take advantage of eco-friendly technologies and combat pollution and climate change. Previous trends included improving structural safety standards in different locations after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or earthquakes. Understanding current trends can help one predict the direction code requirements are likely to move.

But, what good is a code without enforcement? Awareness of how codes are enforced in a particular areas will also be crucial to understanding the effect these laws will have on a particular project. For example, some areas will be more concerned about certain violations than others, so adequate exterior joint sealant is likely to be more of a concern in wet environments and roof straps will be more important in windy areas. Similarly, bifurcated houses with multiple entry ways are more likely to create a code violation in urban settings where traffic flow and population densities are more important than in rural areas where such matters are likely to be less well enforced.

Building codes are intended to protect the public and improve the quality of life, not burden design professionals and builders, or to add to the cost of construction. Keeping up with the codes, talking with local building officials, and making sure all parties are communicating will result in a building that protects its occupants from a number of possible hazards.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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