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A building code, or building control, is a set of rules that specify the minimum acceptable level of safety for constructed objects such as buildings and nonbuilding structures. The main purpose of building codes are to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. The building code becomes law of a particular jurisdiction when formally enacted by the appropriate governmental or private authority.
Building codes are generally intended to be applied by architects, engineers, constructors and regulators but are also used for various purposes by safety inspectors, environmental scientists, real estate developers, subcontractors, manufacturers of building products and materials, insurance companies, facility managers, tenants, and others. Codes regulating the design and construction of structures where adopted into law. Codes in developed western nations can be quite complex and exhaustive. They began in ancient times and have been developing ever since. In the USA the main codes are the International Commercial or Residential Code [ICC/IRC], electrical codes and plumbing, mechanical codes. Fifty states and the District of Columbia have adopted the I-Codes at the state or jurisdictional level.  Other codes may include fire, health, transportation, manufacturing, and other regulations/regulators/testers such as UL; Underwriters Labs. In essence they are minimum standards of design and implementation. Designers use ICC/IRC standards out of substantial reference books during design. Building departments review plans submitted to them before construction, issue permits [or not] and inspectors verify compliance to these standards at the site during construction.
There are often additional codes or sections of the same building code that have more specific requirements that apply to dwellings or places of business and special construction objects such as canopies, signs, pedestrian walkways, parking lots, and radio and television antennas.
Building codes have a long history. An early building code in the ancient Code of Hammurabi demands the death penalty for the builder of a badly constructed house that collapses and kills the occupants. The Bible book of Deuteronomy stipulated that parapets must be constructed on all houses to prevent people from falling off.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, which had been able to spread so rapidly through the densely built timber housing of the city, the Rebuilding of London Act was passed in the same year as the first significant building regulation. Drawn up by Sir Matthew Hale, the Act regulated the rebuilding of the city, required housing to have some fire resistance capacity and authorised the City of London Corporation to reopen and widen roads. The Laws of the Indies were passed in the 1680s by the Spanish Crown to regulate the urban planning for colonies throughout Spain's worldwide imperial possessions.
The first systematic national building standard was established with the London Building Act of 1844. Among the provisions, builders were required to give the district surveyor two days' notice before building, regulations regarding the thickness of walls, height of rooms, the materials used in repairs, the dividing of existing buildings and the placing and design of chimneys, fireplaces and drains were to be enforced and streets had to be built to minimum requirements.
The Metropolitan Buildings Office was formed to regulate the construction and use of buildings throughout London. Surveyors were empowered to enforce building regulations which sought to improve the standard of houses and business premises, and to regulate activities that might threaten public health. In 1855 the assets, powers and responsibilities of the office passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works.
The City of Baltimore passed its first building code in 1859. The Great Baltimore Fire occurred in February, 1904. Subsequent changes were made that matched other cities. In 1904, a Handbook of the Baltimore City Building Laws was published. It served as the building code for four years. Very soon, a formal building code was drafted and eventually adopted in 1908.
In Paris, under the reconstruction of much of the city under the Second Empire (1852–70), great blocks of apartments were erected and the height of buildings was limited by law to five or six stories at most.
Types of building codes
The practice of developing, approving, and enforcing building codes varies considerably among nations. In some countries building codes are developed by the government agencies or quasi-governmental standards organizations and then enforced across the country by the central government. Such codes are known as the national building codes (in a sense they enjoy a mandatory nation-wide application).
In other countries, where the power of regulating construction and fire safety is vested in local authorities, a system of model building codes is used. Model building codes have no legal status unless adopted or adapted by an authority having jurisdiction. The developers of model codes urge public authorities to reference model codes in their laws, ordinances, regulations, and administrative orders. When referenced in any of these legal instruments, a particular model code becomes law. This practice is known as adoption by reference. When an adopting authority decides to delete, add, or revise any portions of the model code adopted, it is usually required by the model code developer to follow a formal adoption procedure in which those modifications can be documented for legal purposes.
There are instances when some local jurisdictions choose to develop their own building codes. At some point in time all major cities in the United States had their own building codes. However due to ever increasing complexity and cost of developing building regulations, virtually all municipalities in the country have chosen to adopt model codes instead. For example, in 2008 New York City abandoned its proprietary 1968 New York City Building Code in favor of a customized version of the International Building Code. The City of Chicago remains the only municipality in America that continues to use a building code the city developed on its own as part of the Municipal Code of Chicago.
In Europe, the Eurocode is a pan-European building code that has superseded the older national building codes. Each country now has "country annexes" to localize the contents of the Eurocode.
Similarly, in India, each municipality and urban development authority has its own building code, which is mandatory for all construction within their jurisdiction. All these local building codes are variants of a National Building Code, which serves as model code proving guidelines for regulating building construction activity.
Building codes generally include:
- Standards for structure, placement, size, usage, wall assemblies, fenestration size/locations, egress rules, size/location of rooms, foundations, floor assemblies, roof structures/assemblies, energy efficiency, stairs and halls, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, site drainage & storage, appliance, lighting, fixtures standards, occupancy rules, even swimming pool regulations. Sounds like a lot but there are nearly infinite ways to build it in a hazardous fashion; falls, electrocution, contamination, explosion, fire.
- Rules regarding parking and traffic impact
- Fire code rules to minimize the risk of a fire and to ensure safe evacuation in the event of such an emergency
- Requirements for earthquake, hurricane, flood, and tsunami resistance, especially in disaster prone areas or for very large buildings where a failure would be catastrophic
- Requirements for specific building uses (for example, storage of flammable substances, or housing a large number of people)
- Energy provisions and consumption
- Grandfathering provisions: Unless the building is being renovated, the building code usually does not apply to existing buildings.
- Specifications on components
- Allowable installation methodologies
- Minimum and maximum room and exit sizes and location
- Qualification of individuals or corporations doing the work
- For high structures, anti-collision markers for the benefit of aircraft
Building codes are generally separate from zoning ordinances, but exterior restrictions (such as setbacks) may fall into either category.
Prescriptive vs. performance
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These requirements are usually a combination of prescriptive requirements that spell out exactly how something is to be done, and performance requirements which just outline what the required level of performance is and leave it up to the designer how this is achieved. Historically they are very reactive in that when a problem occurs the building codes change to ensure that the problem never happens again. In recent years there has been a move amongst many building codes to move to more performance requirements and less prescriptive requirements.
Traditionally building codes were generally short non complex interrelated sets of rules. They generally included reference to hundreds of other codes, standards and guidelines that specify the details of the component or system design, specify testing requirements for components, or outline good engineering practice. These detailed codes required a great deal of specialization to interpret, and also greatly constrained change and innovation in building design. In recent years several countries, beginning with Australia, have moved to much shorter objective based buildings codes. Rather than prescribing specific details, objective codes lists a series of objectives all buildings must meet while leaving open how these objectives will be met. When applying for a building permit the designers must demonstrate how they meet each objective.
- "About ICC". Retrieved 2013-12-08.
- "Hammurabi's Code of Laws". Retrieved 2008-05-24.
- 'Charles II, 1666: An Act for rebuilding the City of London.', Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 603-12. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=47390. Date accessed: 08 March 2007.
- 'Book 1, Ch. 15: From the Fire to the death of Charles II', A New History of London: Including Westminster and Southwark (1773), pp. 230-55. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=46732. Date accessed: 07 March 2007.
- "A Brief History of Building Regulations".
- Baltimore: The Building of an American City, Sherry H. Olson, Published 1997, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (Md.), ISBN 0-8018-5640-X, p. 248.
- New International Encyclopedia
- Sutyagin House, Arkhangelsk, Russia: Standing tall. WorldArchitectureNews.com, Wednesday 07 Mar 2007. (Includes photo)
- "Гангстер-хаус: Самый высокий деревянный дом в России объявлен вне закона" (Gangster house: Russia's tallest wooden house is now outlawed), Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 2008-06-26. (Russian)
- NYC Construction Codes
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- Building construction
- Building officials
- Building regulations in the United Kingdom
- Earthquake engineering structures
- Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants
- International Building Code
- List of construction topics
- Model building code
- Variance (land use) - permission to vary zoning and sometimes building to code