How Building Codes Work

Building Codes in Practice

While there is an understandable urge for homeowners and businesses to want to forge ahead with a building upgrade or addition, it's a smart move to obtain all the required permits first. Whether you plan to do a job yourself or farm it out to a contractor or architect will dictate who needs to get the building permit process rolling. Regardless, following the minimum standards laid out by the local code is a must.

"All plans must be submitted to the local municipality, and they will review the entire project to make sure the plans conform to the specific code requirements," says Kirt Gilliland, of real estate company Hughes Marino. Gilliland adds that it's typical, at least during a commercial project, for a building inspector to show up on-site to ensure the actual construction is following code. In both commercial and residential projects, a building inspector will review a completed project to make sure it complies once the last nail is pounded in [source: Gilliland].

Obviously, following the letter of the law when it comes to adhering to building codes is inherently limiting. It also can increase costs. "Building codes dictate many aspects of design, such as exit locations, the size of a building, the location of a building on the property, the fire resistance of a structure, energy consumption and disabled accessibility," says Hugh Murphy of VMI Architecture. While it would be cheaper to construct a building that doesn't have a ramp to allow for handicap access, for instance, that could be a violation of local building codes.

Here's the good news: The codes that exist when project plans are submitted are the ones that are enforced once a project is completed. That means that if the standards change during the course of construction, you won't be required to alter the project to meet the new codes. That said, if you submit new plans for some reason -- or if you decide to make additions or alterations after the job is done -- you'll have to follow the new code. (That's what bringing a building "up to code" is all about.)

Tim McGarry says that following the permit process is both vital and the main thing do-it-yourselfers fail to do. "They forget, they don't know they're supposed to, they don't want to pay the fee, they want to avoid the hassle," he says. "For whatever reason, they skip this step, and that can cause big problems."

Getting caught with no permit can mean redoing work already completed or, in some cases, tearing down what has been finished and starting over. Which is why McGarry urges anyone considering a home improvement project to head to City Hall and get the proper permits before beginning any project.

"It's the right thing to do," he says. "An added advantage is that the process of obtaining a building permit will tell you specifically what needs to be done to follow the building code."

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  • Environmental Protection Agency official web site. "Building Codes – A Primer." (March 25, 2012).
  • Gilliland, Kirt. Principal at Hughes Marino. Personal correspondence. March 21, 2012.
  • Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) press release. "Strong Building Standards Play a Major Role in Limiting Injuries, Damage from Mexico Quake, says IBHS." March 22, 2012. (March 28, 2012).
  • International Code Council official web site. (March 25, 26, 27, 2012).
  • McGarry, Timothy. Head of construction law practice at Nicola, Gudbranson & Cooper, LLC. Personal correspondence. March 29, 2012.
  • Murphy, Hugh. Principal at VMI Architecture, Inc. Personal correspondence. March 20, 2012.