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Cracking the Code

The loss of human lives and the loss of property have driven the need for building codes and standards. Most people are well aware of this fact and would agree that these codes and standards are necessary to protect the public welfare. In simple terms, buildings must be safe to use and occupy; this includes being structurally sound, being constructed of the proper materials, having adequate means of egress in the event of an emergency, providing the proper heating, cooling and/or ventilation – just to name a few considerations. Codes and standards address all of these issues. Unfortunately, deciphering exactly which codes and standards apply to a certain building or project isn’t always an easy task.

To understand how today’s complex codes and standards are applied to the design and construction process, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the terms “code”, “standard”, and “ordinance”. A Building Code is a set of rules or a model to follow when designing and constructing a building. A Standard is a more detailed description of the specifics and rules that are part of complying with a Code. As explained by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), one can think of a Building Code as directions on what needs to be done and a Standard as the document that details how to do it. Neither Codes nor Standards are considered laws on their own. An Ordinance, however, is a law that is passed by cities, towns, and municipalities. Ordinances are intended to protect the public, and as such, local and state governments pass Ordinances that require compliance with specific Building Codes and Standards.

“To avoid getting lost in the confusion, always start by checking with the entities having jurisdiction where the project is located to see which Codes and Standards are currently being enforced.”

What can often cause confusion in the design and construction of a building is knowing which Code or Standard to follow. There are several organizations that publish Codes and Standards, such as the International Code Council (ICC – publisher of the International Building Codes), the NFPA, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES). Most of the Codes and Standards published by these groups are updated on a routine cycle (most commonly, every three years) to stay up-to date with current building practices and safety issues. To avoid getting lost in the confusion, always start by checking with the entities having jurisdiction where the project is located to see which Codes and Standards are currently being enforced. Keep in mind that oftentimes there’s more than just one single entity that may have jurisdiction over a certain project. For example, a local Building Department may require compliance with the International Building Code, while a State Health Department may enforce NFPA 99 (the Health Care Facilities Code), and the local Fire Department may require that the International Fire Code (or NFPA 72 – the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code) be followed. One must also realize that Codes and Standards are filled with numerous cross-references to other Codes and Standards. A jurisdiction may not have officially adopted a particular Standard, but if that Standard is referenced by another Code which has been adopted, then compliance with the referenced document may be required.

It’s also critical to know which editions of the Codes and Standards are currently being enforced. Just because a new version of a Code has been published, doesn’t necessarily mean a jurisdiction is currently enforcing that particular edition. Other issues to investigate besides Codes and Standards are what Ordinances have been passed – whether for zoning regulations, building sizes and heights, setbacks from property lines, noise and light trespass, etc. Keep in mind that there could be local amendments and/or additions to Codes or Standards, and that there are always different ways that these documents can be interpreted. When in doubt, always contact the parties having jurisdiction and confirm how they choose to interpret something.

Early researching of the Building Codes, Standards, and Ordinances that are applicable to a project is an important step in both the design and construction of a building. A thorough investigation of any local amendments or interpretations will reduce the chance of costly changes that can arise during the building inspection process.

– Mark Layfield, PE, LEED AP

Mark is a Principal, Licensed Electrical Engineer, Lighting Designer, and LEED Accredited Professional. Please feel free to contact Mark for further details regarding the above information.