How Building Codes Work

Building Codes, Broken Down

The structural requirements for your project may differ depending on what region you're in.
The structural requirements for your project may differ depending on what region you're in.

If you take a walk around your house or office with an eye to all of the elements that must be in place for it to be safe and well functioning -- fire exits and alarms, for instance -- you'll quickly understand why the International Building Code is hundreds of pages long. And as if that massive amount of information isn't intimidating enough on its own, the ICC makes reference to other codes as well, including the National Electric Code, the International Plumbing Code and the National Fire Protection Association standards. That means that any city or town that adopts the ICC's code needs to adhere to the portions of those other codes that are cited [source: ICC].

Just to give you an idea of how comprehensive the International Building Code is, take a look at a handful of chapter titles, all of which are pretty self-explanatory regarding the subject matter and standards they cover:

  • Fire Prevention
  • Plumbing
  • Accessibility
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Mechanical
  • Building Heights and Areas
  • Interior Finishes
  • Materials Used in Construction
  • Foundation, Wall and Roof Construction

According to Tim McGarry, who is with the firm Nicola, Gudbranson & Cooper LLC, most U.S. states go through a process similar to that of Ohio in developing their building codes: They establish an overarching state code, which individual cities can use a starting point for local codes. The Ohio Building Code is based on the International Building Code, although not all cities and towns use the state version as is.

"Municipalities in Ohio are free to adopt stricter standards than the Ohio Building Code if they wish," McGarry says. "At the local level, the codes are generally approved by a city council."

And regional differences continue to matter, too. Kirt Gilliland, a principal at Hughes Marino, San Diego's largest commercial real estate company, says areas prone to earthquakes or tornadoes -- such as California and Florida, respectively -- take those threats into account in developing their standards.

"Areas of California are subject to stricter structural requirements, as they relate to building and systems design, due to the frequency and risk of earthquakes and their potential effect on those components," he says. "For example, ceiling systems must not only have support wires installed, but must also have compression struts (which brace structures against movement) installed." Gilliland adds that codes in places like Florida take into account wind shear, or the force of the wind, and locations that get lots of snow have stricter codes related to loads on roofs.