the ibc code and building code history

For the most part, we will confine the topics of this discussion of building code history to the last
30 years or so. However, let’s address ancient code history for a few moments because it is so
interesting. You can’t talk about this subject without starting with the Code of Hammurabi, issued
by the sixth king (Hammurabi) of Babylon around 1750 BC. These written laws comprise 282 rules
and cover almost everything. Rule 229 stated, “If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not
construct it properly, and the house which he built falls and kills its owner, then that builder shall be
put to death.” And some contractors think that today’s code-required special inspections are tough!
More recently (ha!), in 610 BC, the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible stipulated that
“parapets must be constructed on all houses to prevent people from falling off.”

In 1788, Old Salem (now Winston-Salem, NC) adopted the first-known formal building code in the
United States. Larger U.S. cities followed suit and began establishing building codes in the 1800s.
New Orleans was the first city to enact a law requiring inspections of public places in 1865.
Okay, back to the current century. Most jurisdictions, municipalities, counties, and local code bodies
do not write code – they adopt model codes prepared by various code bodies. Historically, model
codes were prepared by code bodies such as Building Officials and Code Administrators International,
Inc. (BOCA – also known as National Building Code); the International Conference of Building Officials
(ICBO), also called the Uniform Building Code (UBC); or the Southern Building Code Congress
International (SBCCI), also called the Standard Building Code. These three code bodies are commonly
referred to as the “legacy codes.”

These various model building codes were adopted regionally by local authorities. Western states
mostly adopted the UBC, southern states adopted the SBCCI, and eastern states enforced the BOCA
code. In 1994, BOCA, SBCCI, and UBC merged to form the International Code Council (ICC) to develop
a comprehensive set of building codes with no regional limitations. These International Codes (or
I-Codes) would eventually include:


• International Building Code
• International Energy Conservation Code
• International Existing Building Code
• International Fire Code
• International Fuel Gas Code
• International Green Construction Code
• International Mechanical Code
• ICC Performance Code
• International Plumbing Code
• International Private Sewage Disposal Code
• International Property Maintenance Code
• International Residential Code
• International Swimming Pool and Spa Code
• International Wildland Urban Interface Code
• International Zoning Code

Chapter 35 of the IBC code lists the I-Codes above; therefore, they are enforceable as part of the IBC code. All are model codes adopted by states and municipalities throughout the country.

Disasters tend to become the genesis of significant building code changes. In July 1981, two suspended walkways within the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, MO, collapsed, leaving 113 people dead and 186 others injured. In terms of loss of life and injuries, this was the most devastating structural collapse ever in the U.S. The Hyatt disaster prompted a lot of activity and change in the building code community. When the dust settled, the legacy codes rendered many code changes. The three were nearly universally adopted nationwide except for two or three states under “home rule” or regional statewide codes.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Virginia, West Virginia, and practically all northeastern states adopted BOCA. North Carolina and the southernmost states continued their association with the SBCCI, while most states west of the Mississippi River adopted UBC. Section 1705 of the BOCA 1993 and BOCA 1996 codes specified a series of “special inspections” regarding construction methods and materials to ensure code compliance. For most of us, this was the first time we had even heard of the term “special inspections.” For the first time, the legacy codes were all using the same formats with the same types of information, located and identified with the same chapter numbers.

While the formats were now the same, differences remained in the code due to the varying code philosophies of the three legacy groups. As a result, the legacy code “movers and shakers” adopted a general overall agreement that when the three legacy codes differed, they would attempt to implement the least restrictive of each of the old codes to decide the requirements of the new IBC code. Using this “lowest common denominator” approach did help to decrease the arguments that would ensue, and the new IBC requirements would be minimized – at least so far as cost, constructability, and design options were concerned.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the building code situation was in disarray. Numerous private organizations were developing their own building code. Even though the federal government did not issue a national building code, various branches of the government had their own regulations. The U.S. Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, and others had their building regulations and building requirements.

Two significant events occurred in the early 2000s that would bring order to the code chaos. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed that the federal government rely upon building codes and standards promulgated by the private sector and ONLY develop their own requirements for projects for which no private standard or code existed. This OMB federal directive greatly assisted the newly formed ICC in its attempts to create a universal national building code. In 2000, after years of effort by many individuals and organizations, ICC launched the brand new IBC Building Code. For the most part, this new universal code copied the existing BOCA code, which was already code law in the eastern U.S. The completed IBC 2000 Building Code arrived and hit the streets in 2000.

The first draft of the ICC’s IBC Building Code (IBC 2000) was not perfect, of course, but it was a vast improvement over the existing system of building codes comprised of numerous regional codes across the country. The IBC model code is printed in new editions every three years, and amendments are published during the intervening two years. Any person or organization may submit a proposal for a change in the model code, which is reviewed in annual public hearings and voted on by the group’s membership. The IBC code

development process and three-year renewals are conducive to building code changes mandated by the experiences of the design and construction communities.

As mentioned earlier, disasters always have and will continue to shape the IBC code compliance criteria. For example, we offer this brief story about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which performed studies on the 9-11 World Trade Center collapse and issued dozens of reports on the subject. The NIST studies dramatically impacted the IBC code compliance criteria when the IBC 2009 version was released. The bond strengths of sprayed fire-resistive materials (SFRM) were increased by a multiple of three in low-rise to mid-rise buildings and by seven in high-rise buildings. Frequency rates of SFRM field inspection during construction were quadrupled. Increased fire ratings were mandated for structural components, and extra stairs were required in many cases to allow for better egress.

When the ICC issued the first draft of the IBC Building Code in 2000, some fire and life safety compliance criteria were not readily acceptable to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). The NFPA was and still is one of the more dominant code organizations and is unquestionably one of the world’s leading sources of knowledge on protecting society from the effects of fire. The differences between the ICC (IBC Code) and NFPA were eventually resolved, and today, NFPA and their numerous model codes and standards are adopted by IBC and listed in Chapter 35 of the IBC code book.

In the U.S., independent private nonprofit organizations develop the reference standards and model codes included in the IBC Building Code. The primary reason for this is the fundamental belief that the private sector can produce better standards more quickly than the government. We should also always remember that the primary mission of a national building code is public safety.

Sustainability and green concepts are slowly gaining a toe-hold in the building code process. People are beginning to recognize the links between resource-efficient building, environmental sustainability, local economic development, and public safety and health. Building codes tend to favor a limited number of already-established, tried, and proven materials and construction designs. The public safety issue almost mandates this preference; however, building codes have the potential to require better buildings that less scrupulous people may not otherwise provide. The strong focus on public safety may create barriers to new concepts and ideas, but the current building code process allows anyone and any organization to submit suggestions for building code changes every three years.

But Wait — We Have a Lot More to Say!

For a complete picture of the Code and how it relates to Special Inspections, F&R would love to provide a virtual (for the time being) AIA-accredited Lunch & Learn presentation to the professionals at your firm.