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Building Codes in the United States:
An Overview


There is surprisingly little organization to building codes in the United States. There is no national standard building code that all state and local governments are required to adopt, nor is there any one federal department or body responsible for overseeing or regulating building codes in the U.S. Instead, the issue of building codes is entirely left up to state governments, with each state having complete jurisdiction to create or adopt any building code they choose and enforce it as they wish. In some states, this issue is even further complicated by allowing governments at the local level to do the same--create or adopt their own codes and enforce them on their own. Depending on the state and area you live in, it's quite possible that there are no building codes whatsoever affecting you, meaning that contractors can build any kind of structure they want without regard to any codes or regulations, and homeowners may make any modifications to their homes as they see fit. Surprising, but true!

The bottom line...
If you're trying to figure out who has jurisdiction over your local area, the best place to begin is your most local form of government. In other words, if you live in a city, call city hall and start there. If you don't live within city limits, begin with your county government office, and work your way up to the state level from there. Eventually you'll find out what, if any, building codes apply to you and who has jurisdiction to enforce code in your area.


A Little History:

The history of building codes in this country dates back to our founding forefathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that we should establish some minimum standards for how structures are built, simply to protect public safety. It wasn't until the early 20th century, however, that anything actually happened in this regard. In 1915, various officials came together in a series of meetings that eventually formed three independent organizations to develop and enforce building codes:
  • BOCA - Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc.
  • ICBO - International Conference of Building Officials
  • SBCCI - Standard Building Code Congress International
It is important to note that none of the codes developed by these three independent organizations have ever had any legal force to them, nor have any of the organizations ever had jurisdiction to enforce any of their codes upon a specific geographic area. Essentially, the purpose of these groups was to develop codes and then encourage state and local governments to adopt them.

It is also important to note that each organization had its own separate set of model codes. By the 1990's, it was finally decided that all three organizations should come together and merge their disparate code models into one set of uniform codes that anyone in the country, or world for that matter, could adopt. The result was the formation of the International Code Counil, or ICC, in 1994. The ICC is a not-for-profit organization, without any government affiliation, that independently publishes residential and commercial building codes that address three primary goals: fire safety, energy efficiency, and generally safe structures. Like its three founding organizations, the ICC has no jurisdiction to enforce its codes on any geographic area. It simply develops the codes, promotes them, and encourages governments to adopt them.

The result is that today, most state and local governments do simply adopt ICC building codes as their own with little to no amendments or changes. A few states do have their own set of codes, but even these are typically based on ICC's model code, with just a few additional changes to conform with local policies.