A Short History of Building Codes

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Illustration by Fotolia/Marina
King Hammurabi of Babylonia enacted the first known building codes.

The first known written building code was enacted by King Hammurabi in Babylon in 1758 B.C. Literally written in stone, the harsh penalties of the code established that people who are designing and building for others are accountable for the quality of their work. Though the code provided no guidance on how to build, it stated, “If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.” Such penalties surely inhibited innovation, but they also kept most builders honest without licensing, detailed codes or permits. Also noteworthy is that this code did not apply to people building for themselves or their own families.

After the great fires in London in 1666 and Chicago in 1871, building codes started addressing the risks one building posed to adjacent buildings and the public. Denser development in cities, and hazards associated with close proximity and taller buildings, led to regulations for the construction of common walls between buildings and outlawing dangerous practices like wooden chimneys. Problems in existing buildings led to codes for light and ventilation, fire escapes, water supply, toilets and sanitary drains, and stairs and railings.

In 1905, a U.S. insurance group, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, created the National Building Code to minimize risks to property and building occupants. The existence of this code led to the formation of organizations of building officials. By 1940, the United States had three regional code organizations, each with its own code. These three organizations and their codes were consolidated into the International Code Council (ICC) and the first set of “I-codes” was published in 2000. These codes include the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC), the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), as well as mechanical, plumbing, fire and other codes.

Though the international codes are becoming the most widely adopted building codes in the United States, the consolidation didn’t mean that everyone is now using the same codes. Unlike countries with codes developed by the national government and adopted nationwide, the United States has local or state codes. Some jurisdictions still enforce older codes, some have their own unique codes, and some have no code enforcement at all. If you’re building a house or some other structure, all these variables make clear the importance of finding out which codes, if any, will apply at your site.

There is no substitute for getting a copy of the applicable codes and spending some time reading through them. Look for copies at your public library.