An Introduction to Building Codes

Fuss all you like about sprinklers and guardrails, we need building codes. Here's how to get your architect to play along.

An illustration by Andy Rementer showing what's happened to buildings in London and New York that lead to the Life Safety Code.
Fun Fact: The adoption of sustainable building codes, like the California Green Building Standards Code, is likely to increase in the future. These codes describe more aggressive standards than typical building codes as regards energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, and other green topics.

Stuff happens to buildings. Fires burn them down, storms knock them over, quakes shake them up. As occupants, we add to the chaos with our own bumbling actions: We tumble down the stairs while texting; we zap ourselves while fishing a jammed Pop-Tart out of the toaster; we topple over the balcony while trying to escape a way­ward bee. Danger surrounds us like the maniacal vuvuzela cloud that surrounds a World Cup match, and there’s no way around it. Building codes don’t guarantee our protection from tragedy, but when crafted with care and foresight they can at least give us a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, progress in the development of building codes is typically made in response to some major catastrophe. After the London fire of 1212, a law was enacted that made it illegal to construct thatched roofs or wood chimneys within the city limits. After the Great Fire of London of 1666 (in which nearly 15,000 buildings were lost), further provisions on materials and minimum distances between buildings were codified. In the United States, public outcry in response to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York resulted in the development of modern fire codes and eventually led to the development of the NFPA 101—the Life Safety Code that, in its amend­ed form, is still in use today.

An illustration by Andy Rementer showing a living room and barrier-free pool.
Fun Fact: At nearly 4,000 years old, the Code of Hammurabi contains the oldest building regulations on record. It is similar to modern building codes, except that modern building inspectors no longer get to mete out deathblows with an ox whip to violators.
As homebuilders and home­owners are fully aware, proactive protection comes at a high price. Although modern building codes attempt to balance safety and cost as much as possible, the metaphorical seat belts and air bags have driven the cost of the ol’ minivan up quite a bit. Updated every three years, the International Residential Code (IRC) illustrates this. It documents the spirited conversation among safety advocates, developers, architects, and insurance companies, among other voices. And at the pivot point of the safety-money teetertotter is the ever-shifting specter of Risk. Son of Danger, Father of Fault—he never goes away.

Which brings us to a relatively new Risk-centric skirmish documented in the 2006 IRC requiring all new single-family houses to be outfitted with fire sprinklers. When introduced, this provision had an effect on the industry similar to Bob Dylan’s first power chord at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The Yes Sprinkler side, which includes insurance firms and safety advocates, celebrated and drank champagne (though not too much), chanting, “It’s about time.” The No Sprinkler side, comprised of residential contractors and developers, booed and scooped dog poo into flingable brown paper bags. We architects are stuck in the middle. On one hand, because we are familiar with the catastrophic effects of fire, we applaud the sprinkler measure as visionary. On the other, the thought of a juicy commission falling through because additional sprinkler costs busted the budget tends to mute our enthusiasm.

An illustration by Andy Rementer showing common situations that may alert a building inspector.
Fun Fact: Per the International Residential Code, the minimum size of a "habitable room" (aside from a kitchen) is seven feet in any horizontal direction and not smaller than 70 square feet.
Results of other Risk-centric skirmishes are reflected in the IRC, many of which seem to pick on the modernists disproportionately. As a group (designers and dwellers alike) we seem to be attracted to the siren call of spatial danger more than the average non-modern Joe. We seek pure forms and clean lines and dynamic spaces that speak volumes without necessarily shouting “Safety first!” Guardrail-free stairs with cantilevered open risers? Yes, please. Barrier-free, infinity-edge swimming pool? Bring it on. Hand­rail extensions and limits on exterior glazing adjacent to property lines? Uh…can we change the subject?

But we can’t change the subject, and for good reason. The IRC is just another animal in the great pet shop of design. A big, joyless, slobbering puppy, say. Similar to the other “animals” in the store—–con­struction cost, climate, crafts­manship, and the like—the puppy should be respect­ed and appreciated, not feared. You should enthusiastically embrace the code puppy and give him a snack. You should get to know him and let him get to know you in return. With patience and with guidance from your code-savvy and benevolently mischievous architect, you’ll be able to stand tall and befriend this well-meaning beast. He’s as scared of you as you are of him.

building codes 101 andy rementer modern problems

Modern Problems

Love superclean design but fear the building inspector? Here's our guide to skirting those modernist missteps.
building codes 101 andy rementer permission denied

Permission Denied

Muculus Grigsby runs afoul of the permits department, costing him a chunk of change and loads of time.
building codes 101 andy rementer up to code

Up to Code

How one homeowner chose a savvy architect, made nice with the building code, and moved in without a hitch.

Originally published

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...