A building code is a statute, in the form of detailed regulations, that has been enacted by a municipality or other government entity to ensure that all the buildings constructed within its jurisdiction meet certain minimum standards of health and safety. The building code has its legal justification in the inherent power of any government to protect its citizens from any harm likely to come to them because of unhealthy or unsafe conditions.
Building codes, therefore, are concerned with such things as structural adequacy, the quality and strength of the materials used, sound workmanship, the correct installation of approved electrical wiring and equipment, the correct installation of approved gas-, coal-, or oil-heating equipment and their piping, the correct installation of approved sanitary plumbing fixtures and their piping, the fire resistance of the materials used, and the existence of fire exits.
In most municipalities, the plans for all new construction must be approved by officials of the buildings department before construction begins, and these same officials must have access to the property at all times and be able to inspect all equipment, materials, and workmanship before the building is approved for occupancy. If the equipment, workmanship, or materials don't meet the standards of the building code, these officials have the authority to order that the necessary changes be made before they issue a certificate of occupancy, as it's called.
Once a building has been approved and occupied, if the owner should thereafter want to make a basic alteration in the electrical, heating, or plumbing systems, or a basic change in the structure, the buildings department must approve the alterations beforehand and inspect the workmanship and materials after the alteration has been completed. If the job is signed off by a licensed electrician or plumber, adequacy of workman ship and materials is usually assumed, although the buildings department always reserves the right to make a subsequent inspection and order any changes it thinks necessary.
The impulse that led to the development of building codes was humanitarian. Without the legal restraint imposed by a code, nothing prevented a builder from putting up the cheapest, shoddiest, and most densely packed dwellings he could get away with. Perhaps the best-known examples of such Jerry- built construction in the United States were the cold-water tenements—the “old law” tenements—that once covered most of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and much of the other sections of New York City as well. The crowded, unsanitary conditions that existed in these tenements, and the large number of fires that occurred because of these conditions, led to the development and adoption of building codes.
The codes that have been adopted by most large- and medium-size cities in the United States are a mixture of engineering knowledge, local building customs, and an accommodation to local political realities. Originally, building codes were of the specifications type, which required that all construction be accomplished using specified materials in a specified way. The builder has very little leeway in the materials he can select or the methods of construction he can use. One curious example of how this specification-type building code has influenced building styles was the requirement in New York City that the rooftop water-storage tanks that are connected to standby fire-sprinkler systems be constructed of wood staves. As a result, anyone who has every looked down on midtown Manhattan from a skyscraper has been struck by the sight of innumerable wooden water tanks with conical roofs perched rather incongruously on top of all that steel and concrete.
Specification-type building codes were probably a necessity in a day when speculative builders tried to get by using the cheapest materials they could buy, assembled in the most slipshod manner. But times changed, and new materials were developed. Since World War II there has been a swing toward building codes of the performance type, in which the performance standards of a material or structure are outlined and the builder is free to select whatever materials or building techniques will meet these standards.
E.g., a specification-type code for a house sewer will simply specify that cast-iron pipe of a certain quality and size be used and that the pipe be installed in a specified manner. The plumbing contractor has no choice or say in the matter. In a performance-type building code, however, the code will specify that the piping not be affected by any corrosive or harmful substances in the sewage or in the soil in which the pipe is buried, that the pipe meet certain minimum strength requirements, and that the pipe not be affected by temperature changes within a specified range. The plumbing contractor is free to use plastic pipe, cast-iron pipe, or gold pipe if he wants to, as long as he can show the local buildings officials that the pipe does in fact meet their standards.
The spread of performance-type codes has been helped enormously by the materials specifications published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI; formerly the American Standards Association), by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), by branches of the U.S. government, especially the Department of Commerce, and by an enormous number of specialized industry groups. To ensure the adequacy of any material used or construction, all a local building code need do is specify, in the case of house sewers, for example, that the polyvinyl chloride pipe used (if a plastic pipe is being used) meets Standard Specification D 2665-73 published by the ASTM.
Small municipalities aren't in a position to undertake independent studies of building materials and construction techniques and then publish their own building codes based on their findings. They have come instead to depend on the work being done by four nonprofit organizations whose membership consists of building officials. Those organizations have published model codes that all municipalities are free to adopt in whole or in part. The virtues of adopting a model code are that the municipality is assured of obtaining a well-thought-out and up-to-date performance-type building code based on sound construction practices, a code that's updated periodically in the light of changing conditions and the availability of new materials. All the model-code organizations are prepared to help a municipality establish a buildings department complete with all the necessary forms and procedures.
The four organizations and their published codes are as follows:
American Insurance Association (formerly the National Board of Fire Underwriters)—National Building Code.
Building Officials and Code Administrators International (formerly Building Officials Conference of America)—Basic Building Code
International Conference of Building Officials (formerly the Pacific Coast Building Officials Conference)—Uniform Building Code.
Southern Building Code Congress— Standard Building Code.
These codes aren't intended primarily for one- and two-family dwellings, although they do apply to dwellings also. In 1971 these four organizations joined together to publish a model building code that's devoted exclusively to dwellings, The One and Two Family Dwelling Code, which is essentially a distillation of all four codes as they apply to dwellings.
There are several other model codes that are of importance to builders of one- and two-family dwellings. The National Fire Protection Association publishes an enormous range of books and pamphlets dealing with the construction of fire-resistant buildings, the use of fire-resistant materials, and fire-fighting procedures and equipment. Among their publications is the National Electrical Code, which most municipalities have adopted in toto as a basic part of their own building codes. The National Electrical Code contains approved methods of installing electrical wiring and equipment for all types of buildings. Licensed electricians are required by most municipalities to be thoroughly familiar with this code; the electricians must pass a test based on their knowledge of the code before they can receive their licenses.
In 1972 the National Fire Protection Association published an abridgement of the electrical code called the Electrical Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings. Anyone wiring or rewiring a house should install the wiring according to the requirements of this publication.
Three of the model organizations mentioned above have also promulgated model plumbing codes, which are as follows:
BOCA—Basic Plumbing Code
ICBO—Uniform Plumbing Code
SBCC—Standard Plumbing Code
These codes were published because their predecessor, the National Plumbing Code, which had been published last in 1944 as a cooperative effort of the United States government and many engineering societies and industry associations, had fallen hopelessly out of date. As with the electrical code, most municipalities have now adopted one of the above model plumbing codes in full as a basic part of their own building code.