Friday, August 28, 2015

Building Codes: What's So Unified About It?

In the span of an hour or two, my work can take me through several states in multiple time zones.  You would think that the efforts involved in the late 1990’s to create unified codes would have helped firms like ours that works in many states.  This, unfortunately, is not the case always.  Those responsible for building code compliance must be ever vigilant in their efforts to satisfy all requirements.  I routinely am asked questions about our various projects and I invariably have to interrupt the question to ask, “Where are we?”  Building codes, like real estate, are tied to location, location, location.

The International Code Council was formed in the 1990’s in an effort to combine the three model codes used throughout the United States at that time.  For what it is worth, this was accomplished as BOCA (Northern States), SBC (Southern States) and UBC (Western States) combined into the International Building Code family in 2000.  The problem lies with State and or Local adoption and to which version, as the ICC codes are updated every three years.  Just because the code is updated does not mean it is enforced.

The first step of code compliance satisfaction is to determine the prevailing code of the land.  This process should be easy, right?  Well, no.  We do have some tools to help us by the folks that write the codes. The following link to the ICC website identifies the adoptions by state:

The link does help narrow down the search for the 50 states and 5 territories.  However, if you look closely, some adoptions aren’t state wide.  In some state, like Delaware, they are adopted by County.  In some states, it is even by City.  The link above does give us a really good start on this and in most cases I’ve run across, lists each local municipality by name and what they each have adopted, as well as key contact people at the State.  But it is always best to check with each municipality to see what amendments there are to the adopted Code.  Sometimes there are none.  But not likely…

Currently, there are states using 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015 editions.  Some states even use different editions within the family of codes, including Fire, Plumbing, Energy, Mechanical and others.  And many States have either the own code published by ICC or have amendments to the code that can be inserted into the standard code.

A few of the State code books I need to reference at my desk currently.
In our home state of Pennsylvania, a significant issue arose when considering adoption of the 2012 IBC and IRC (International Residential Code).  The main issue was dollars.  Builders and Owners had major concerns about the cost of new requirements in the codes.  The new codes effectively required a form of automatic sprinklers in every new dwelling built – even single family houses.  Without discussing all the litigation, the main effect was that PA has been stuck on 2009 IBC/IRC since.  To make matters more confusing, the State has since adopted select sections of the 2012 Code that affect accessibility.  So essentially, whenever building in Pennsylvania, one must use the 2009 IBC, but utilize Chapter 11 of the 2012 IBC, plus Appendix E, plus sort through all the other chapters of the 2009 Code that may have reference to accessibility.  Believe me; no one likes this process – not architects, not building code officials, no one.

Well used and well loved - some of the 2009 ICC family of Codes.

If that weren’t enough, there are other codes out there.  NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has been around for over 100 years.  They produce codes and standards on many things; from the very specific, like commercial cooking hoods,  to the very broad, like their own building codes.  In the 1990’s there was an effort to fold NFPA codes into the ICC family, but it didn’t pan out.  Some jurisdictions enforce compliance to these codes in addition to the ICC codes.  This of course produces conflicts for those trying to comply with all applicable codes.  Example: one code says the dead end corridor is limited to 20 feet, the other 30 feet.  In this case, one must limit the dead end corridor to the most stringent or 20 feet.  It can get significantly more complicated, when multiple conditions must be met in both codes in order to provide some feature otherwise limited by one or both codes.

Some of the hundreds of NFPA standards and regulations.
In some cases, the next edition of one code may address the inconsistency between the two codes and the two finally align, but that only helps us when the jurisdiction we are working in adopts that code, which could be 10 years away, depending on the State.

The building codes, for the most part, address life and building safety.  There are other regulations that address operation.  For our firm, we routinely encounter these kinds of guidelines with health departments.  Whether it is a swimming pool, a commercial kitchen or a skilled nursing facility, there are more regulations.  These can have to do with lighting levels, air changes or distances from a care bases to a patient room.  These regulations can be at a city, county or state level as well, so more research must be done in order to ascertain who has jurisdiction over a particular project.

Another recent, national guideline like this the Facilities Guideline Institute.  It pertains to health care facilities and the like.  It is more of a minimum set of operations, equipment and facilities in health care related occupancies.  Some States have adopted this guideline while other States have their own set based on licensure requirements.

State licensure regulations affect building design and compliance.

There are also federal laws, like the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), and the Architectural Barriers Act.  The ADA is a law, not a building code, so while our plans are not reviewed or approved by any entity, failing to comply can and will be enforced by litigation.

Buildings themselves are a complex set of coordinated efforts to provide a healthy and safe living environment.  The vast web of building codes, operational requirements, safety guidelines and federal laws are an integral part of this process.  There is not a single source for any compliance issue.  A single project may have multiple authorities that review or approve construction plans.  As such a single project may be required to be compliant with multiple codes or regulations, and those regulations may not always agree.  The authorities granting occupancy don’t always agree.  As architects, we play the role of Chief Compromise Officer.


  1. The situation is better today with basically one model code than it was before 2000 when there were three model codes and some state codes that didn't adopt any of the model codes. Our founding fathers were hesitant to relegate too much power to the central government so building regulations and many other powers were left up to the states to enforce; this made a great deal of sense 200 years ago when the country was largely agrarian and there were great differences between the states. It makes a lot less sense today in an era of interstate commerce and instant communication but I don't see the Federal Government wanting to usurp this power from the states nor do I see the states wanting to surrender this power. I'm afraid that we, as architects, will have to learn to live with this situation. Note, the codes 40 years ago were much easier to follow as they were primarily prescriptive; today there are many more performance related alternatives but pursuing this path can be frustrating because of the time and expense involved.

  2. True, Lawrence. To a point depending on your practice. Any health care job in PA must conform with both IBC and NFPA codes due to the State Dept. of Health adopting one and the State Dept. of Labor and Industry adopting the other. They don't always jive. The State cannot agree with itself here.
    And when doing any housing that receives HUD or similar subsidies, the ADA seeps into the housing units, where the AHJ enforces ANSI. They used to be much further apart, but they have recently come closer, assuming the AHJ adopted 2009 ANSI, not 2003.
    I love going back to as-builts from the 70's and seeing NO code info at all on them. Today the first 5 pages have nothing but code info. But hey, that's my paycheck!