Navigating the Building Code – Introduction

In the next few posts, we will take a look at how to understand the building codes for most projects.  In this post we will do a quick introduction to how to approach the building codes, the history of building codes, and the general application of them to most projects.  Also, keep in mind that there are other regulations and rules set forth by the authorities having jurisdiction over your project.  You and the architect must identify what is in place for the project to ensure that the project is designed correctly (we will focus on the International Code Council family of codes as it is the most widely adopted).


For years the building code has been viewed as something that tells architects and clients what they cannot do with their project.  Architects typically see it as a battle to design according to the code and the client’s wants simultaneously.  Also, most architect’s see it as a hindrance to “good design”.   However, in most cases the code is not in place to limit design, it is in place to allow design to happen within the framework of maintaining the health, safety, and welfare of the public.  Basically, the most productive way to approach the building codes are that, as long as certain conditions are met, then the project can be designed to function in the best way possible.  So, it is the set of regulations that describes what is allowed, not what isn’t allowed.

Building Code History in the United States (the short version)

In the early 1900s building regulations were set forth by regional code agencies and were basically enforced due to pressure from insurance companies to increase the quality of construction standards.  The model codes continued to be enforced by individual jurisdictions throughout most of the century, but were viewed as fragmented and varied from region to region.

Even though each regional or state code was effective for that particular jurisdiction as the twentieth century was ending it became clear that a nationally adopted code was needed.  So the three main regional codes (developed by the Building Officials Code Administrators International, the Southern Building Code Congress International, and the International Conference of Building Officials) were combined to eliminate the regional limitations of the model codes.  The International Code Council (ICC) was formed and developed the International Building Code, as well as the other ICC codes.  Since it’s formation in 1994 the ICC has developed the base codes for most jurisdictions in the United States.

Which Code Governs The Project

There are various building codes that will apply to your project.  In order to determine which code dictates the design of the project contact the authority having jurisdiction.  In most jurisdictions, the International Codes are adopted and govern the project.  These codes include, but are not limited to:

  • International Building Code (IBC)
  • International Residential Code (IRC)
  • International Fire Code (IFC)
  • International Plumbing Code (IPC)
  • International Mechanical Code (IMC)
  • International Fuel Gas Code (IFGC)
  • International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)
  • ICC Performance Code (ICCPC)
  • International Wildland Urban Interface Code (IWUIC)
  • International Existing Building Code (IEBC)
  • International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC)
  • International Private Sewage Disposal Code (IPSDC)
  • International Green Construction Code (IgCC)
  • International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (ISPSC)


The International Codes all have different editions, which were first published in 1997 and are updated every three years, i.e. 1997 IBC, 2000 IBC, 2003 IBC…, 2018 IBC (which is the latest edition as of this writing).

In addition to the International Codes, some jurisdictions have local amendments that override or expand on the base regulations.  Also, some jurisdictions have adopted their own state or local codes (typically based on the International Code) which can govern the project.  Again, it is imperative for the client and architect to research which codes have been adopted for the specific location of the project.  In order to do so, the authority having jurisdiction must be contacted and the codes verified.  Once the adopted codes are established then it can determined how those codes will affect the design, especially in terms of budget and schedule.

As technology improves, and more construction methods and materials are developed, the building codes will be updated.  In order to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the general public, the architect and client needs a thorough understanding of the building codes and be able to adapt the design practices to meet the needs of the code.  You are more than welcome to contact us regarding any questions you may have regarding building codes and the effect of regulations on your project –


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