How Building Codes Work

The Evolution of Building Codes

Obviously, Mexico is by no means the only nation to have improved standards for construction as a result of tragedy. In the U.S., building codes were similarly developed after a spate of disasters at the turn of the last century, according to Hugh Murphy, a principal at San Francisco-based VMI Architecture, Inc.

"Building codes were developed from early fire codes and insurance company [regulations], which came out of the late industrial period after many disastrous fires that resulted in significant loss of life," Murphy says. "Before codes, builders were left to their own devices in constructing buildings. In some cases, this meant that buildings might have been structurally unsafe, emergency exits might have been inadequate or buildings may have been unsanitary."

That inadequate, scattershot approach began to change in the early 1900s, with the emergence of regional groups that developed model codes, which local governments could adapt to their needs [source: EPA]. On the East Coast and in the Midwestern U.S., an entity called the Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA) developed minimum standards to ensure safety; the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) handled the development of codes for the West Coast; and the Southern Building Code Conference International (SBCCI) set codes for the South. In 1994, the three groups merged to form the International Code Council (ICC) and develop one standard, national code [source: EPA].

The first edition of the International Building Code came out in 1997, and the ICC now issues new editions -- which include versions for both new and existing buildings, as well as dwellings no taller than three stories -- every three years. An array of stakeholders, including architects, builders and policymakers, have a hand in the International Building Code's development.

Although the emergence of a single International Code Council now means there is one uniform code, that doesn't mean that every city follows the exact same rules. Typically, the ICC's version is used as a template for various locales -- not just in the U.S., but around the world as well -- to develop their own standards.