History of Building Codes

Many people never need to ponder building codes, but if you’re a handy homeowner, you must. As a DIYer, someday you’ll decide to finish a basement, add on to your house, replace the roof, build a deck or upgrade your landscape (or all of the above). At the time, you might find the requirements and restrictions demanding and, well, restrictive.

But when the project is done, you’ll be glad you followed the rules — and so will your neighbors. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to live in a house where the builder and all previous owners respected property boundaries and adhered to codes designed to keep everyone safe?

All those pesky policies are purposeful and derived from a need to ensure safety and sanitation standards and preserve order. They also have a story — a long story that began at least 4,000 years ago and were tied to severe punishment – even death. King Hammurabi of Babylonia (who reigned in about 2000 B.C.) is considered the first known enforcer of a building code, and he followed the “eye-for-an-eye” principle: If a citizen was injured or died because of a faulty construction practice, the builder had to face a matching fate. Unlike modern building codes, this consequence-based punishment didn’t offer guidance on proper construction practices or methods. It was up to the builder to figure out how to dodge calamity.

As builders learned optimal practices the hard way, so did generations of government officials. Many building ordinances were developed as a result of various plagues and other major disasters. In 17th-century England, for example, Parliament responded to the bubonic plague and to the Great Fire of London (1666) with new building requirements designed to thwart disease-carrying rats and fleas and prevent future blazes from being fed by timber construction and closely built structures.

Early America’s growing pains forced construction improvements as well. Owners of crowded tenements in large cities during the 1800s disregarded inhabitants’ health and safety until code requirements forced the inclusion of sanitation systems, fire escapes and more windows for ventilation. Other factors such as earthquakes on the West Coast have driven advancements in structural design and materials -- as have hurricanes in the Southeast and tornadoes in the Midwest. Out of such varying needs and conditions arose three regional codes and agencies. In 1994 these groups combined to form the International Code Council (ICC) and establish a consistent code model for the entire country. Besides promoting health and safety, these standards help to clarify the rules and create a universal approach to construction. The relatively recent focus on conserving natural resources and energy has resulted in building-code changes that benefit homeowners as well as the environment.

Over the centuries, disasters and discoveries have prompted expectations, enforcement policies and consequences to evolve. Some say our code requirements are overbearing, but it’s unlikely that any of today’s builders, architects, engineers and remodelers would prefer King Hammurabi’s approach. And as a homeowner (and DIYer), I appreciate the scrutiny, the guidance and the reassurance of modern methods.

Photo above: The Great Fire of New York City (1835), one of the city’s three historical, devastating blazes, validated earlier ordinances banning wood structures in new construction. Older wood buildings fortified the flames, whereas stone and brick buildings slowed the fire and incurred less damage. Subsequent catastrophes have led to design improvements and more effective regulations.