Codes 101

Understanding the intricacies of building and life safety codes is simply a matter of learning why they exist, how they are used, and where to get started.

The codes and standards used to regulate the construction, maintenance and general use of nearly every structure in the United States can seem confusing, frustrating and even occasionally contrary to common sense. Like so many other aspects of modern life, specific skills and knowledge are needed when dealing with highly specialized subjects. It isn’t reasonable to expect everyone to amass the in-depth knowledge of biology, anatomy and chemistry needed to be a doctor; nor is it possible for everyone to have the skills and talent needed to compose, conduct or play the violin in a classical symphony. While music may require more talent than architecture and construction (in my opinion), they both require practice and a lot of learning. Understanding the intricacies of building and life safety codes is simply a matter of learning why they exist, how they are used, and where to get started. Although seemingly complex, once you have the basic concepts down, the code is something akin to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series produced by Bantam Books in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Given one set of decisions, the codes send you in a specific direction for requirements and additional choices to make. Maybe there was a reason I enjoyed those stories as a kid, because as a self-described Code Geek, I find it rewarding to track down code requirements and learn new things everyday (sometimes with negative results, but often with positive ones). Codes are critical to protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public through consistency and minimum levels of quality and protection. The codes were not created in a vacuum by politicians trying to increase tax revenue or regulate just for the sake of control. Every code and standard in use today began with individuals and groups getting together when agreed upon standards were needed; often in response to tragedies and failures that could have been avoided. The codes exist because of one reason; people caring for the safety of others.

What is a code, and who can enforce one?

The building and life safety codes today are published documents, rule books if you will, that provide guidance and limitations on a wide variety of topics and disciplines. The codes are generally written by both non-profit and private groups, and then published for use. The codes themselves are only words on paper until they are actually adopted by a jurisdiction that has the legal right to do so (such authority is typically given through federal, state, county or local government laws).

This is the single most important concept to understand: A code must be adopted by a governing body such as a federal, state, county, city or other such jurisdictional entity in order to be considered actual law.

Once adopted, that Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), is now responsible for enforcing the provisions and requirements of the code. AHJ’s may also include taxing entities like water and utility districts, emergency service districts (fire and police services) and health departments. Once adopted, the code is the law of that jurisdiction and they are now responsible for not just enforcing it, but also the interpretation and even amending of it to suit their specific needs.

Most jurisdictions will also rename it to become their code. The City of Dallas, Texas, has adopted the 2015 edition of the International Building Code, and in doing so renamed it as the “Dallas Building Code”. (1) Technically under Texas state law, and many other states as well, a jurisdiction could write their own code from scratch so long as it meets the minimum safety standards as a published code. I’m not aware of any municipality willing to spend the time and money necessary to write their own code in lieu of starting with a nationally published one. In the end, although originally published by various organizations, those groups are not responsible for its enforcement, and do not have any authority to officially interpret the code; only the AHJ has that authority. Most AHJ’s will look to the original publisher for guidance, but it is the AHJ that makes any decisions needed. The key idea to remember is once adopted, it is their code.

An abbreviated history of US Life Safety Codes:

Prior to the 1890’s, no formal codes, standards or even guidelines existed to maintain consistency among the early pioneers and inventors of two burgeoning industries; Fire Sprinkler Systems and Electrical Systems. Following the invention and patenting of the first sprinkler head by Henry S. Parmelee of New Haven, Connecticut in 1874, and significant concerns surrounding electrical installations at the Chicago World’s fair and across the United States in 1893, interested groups began to meet and discuss the need for standards and rules for such systems. As expected, any early attempt at consolidating personal opinions and solutions would be unlikely, and at the end of 1895, there were five distinct electrical codes in the United States and no defined standards for sprinkler systems.

In 1896, and again in 1897, several national organizations met in New York in an attempt to consolidate the various standards, and in 1897, the “Joint Conference of Electrical and Allied Interests” established the “National Electrical Code of 1897” which was adopted and issued by the National Board of Fire Underwriters. This would eventually become NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code (NEC)

Also in 1896, a separate meeting was held in New York City by parties trying to consolidate standards for fire sprinklers; their release of sprinkler installation rules entitled, “Report of Committee on Automatic Sprinkler Protection” eventually became “NFPA 13”.

In November of 1896, a new organization known as the “National Fire Protection Association” (NFPA) was formed from many of the same members previously involved. The long history of NFPA and its members is a tribute to the thousands of individuals who have volunteered their time to establish rules and standards. (2)

The NFPA would then continue to play a large part in the development of new safety standards. As is the case with many codes, tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911 in which 147 people perished led to the development of the “Building Exits Code”, which would later become NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code. Although it existed at the time, the Building Exits Code was widely ignored, and further tragedies occurred such as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston, Massachusetts in which 492 people died, and the 1958 fire at the Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago in which 90 students and 3 nuns died. Established criteria in the Building Exits Code prohibited the unsafe conditions in both buildings which led to the high loss of life. The Code was reorganized and renamed the Life Safety Code in 1966. Even with the codes existence, and attempts by the NFPA and other life safety professionals to affect public policy and concern, subsequent fires continued such as the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club in which 164 people died and the 2003 Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island in which 100 concert attendees perished. Every tragedy has led to changes in the code, but in each case, significant loss of life could have been avoided if the rules of the code had been followed. (2)

What about the Building Codes?

As in any free society, many people with the same positive intentions cannot always agree, or for various geographical or societal reasons cannot centralize their ideas. Such is the history of building codes in the United States. Three major organizations published building codes beginning in 1927 (earlier editions did exist for one of the three in 1905).

The three major codes were:

The Basic / National Building Code (BBC), first published in 1950 by the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA); used primarily in the Midwest and Northeast United States

The Uniform Building Code (UBC), first published in 1927 by the International Conference of Building Officials; used primarily in the Western states, and

The Standard Building Code (SBC), first published in 1945 by the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI).

In 1994, the three model code organizations created the International Code Council (ICC) to create a single set of model codes that would provide uniformity across not only the United States, but to help facilitate international use and promote innovation worldwide regarding new testing, research and products.

The ICC published its first set of model codes in 2000, consisting of the International Building Code (IBC), Fire Code (IFC), Mechanical Code (IMC), Plumbing Code (IPC), and others. These model codes have since replaced the BBC, UBC and SBC nationally, and are even used outside of the US. (3)

So what is the difference between the Life Safety Codes and Building Codes?

Building codes strictly control the allowable size, number of stories, height and structural systems used in any new building. They deal with gravity, wind, earthquake, snow and rain loads. The building codes deal with materials and systems with regards to structural integrity, water intrusion, durability, energy efficiency, accessibility and myriad of other topics. They also include many of the same requirements as the Life Safety Code with regards to fire protection, egress systems, fire sprinkler and alarm systems, etc.

Life Safety Codes such as NFPA 101 do not dictate building size, structural requirements, overall building area, or initial permitting. The Life Safety Code is concerned with one thing; the safety of life. I know it sounds repetitive, but the Life Safety Code is concerned with protecting the occupants during a fire while they stay put, or protecting them long enough to evacuate from a building or structure. While the building codes also prioritize the safety of the occupants, the Life Safety Code focuses solely on that idea.

So why can’t we just use the building codes?

This is a subject of great contention amongst those who design and construct any building that may have more than one AHJ. I believe it comes down to jurisdictions not stepping on each other’s toes. I will use healthcare in the United States as the example, because it’s easier to explain and is the focus of my own career. Every nursing home in the United States that wishes to receive federal funds under the Social Securities Act (whose programs include Medicaid and Medicare), must meet the federal requirements administered by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). They must also be licensed by the state in which they are built. CMS is a federal agency, and therefore its rules must cover every situation that may arise in every state, county and city. While some people would not want a federal agency telling them how to build or maintain their facility, you can guarantee that if a fire occurred in a nursing home which received federal funding, someone is going to look at the government for answers as to why it wasn’t safer.

So, why not let the local AHJ handle that safety issue on their own? The simple answer is that it’s not always possible. There are millions of Americans who live in areas of the country that have no adopted building code or even a local government capable of adopting or enforcing one. Texas is a prime example, in that areas outside of a city’s jurisdiction are not required to have a building permit and county governments are only allowed (not required) to adopt fire codes and not building codes. Trust me, I was as shocked to learn that one as many of my readers will be.

Remember, that a code is just words on paper unless a governmental agency adopts and enforces it. If no local enforcement agency exists, then CMS in this case MUST have a set of standards to meet. You can imagine the disaster if CMS only enforced safety standards for some areas of the country and not others. CMS is also kept from enforcing a building code as, there again; imagine the issues with a federal agency issuing and granting permits, and inspecting all construction in the United States on every single project it funds (even indirectly). I don’t care what your political affiliation may be; that’s just not a good idea.

Keeping the building codes and Life Safety Code separate allows for various AHJ’s to protect their citizens, without overstepping their bounds (too much).

So where do you get started?

Sounds like a good idea for my next post; a basic primer on the IBC and Life Safety Code. If there are other general topics regarding codes you have questions on, please leave a comment.

References / Footnotes:

(1) City of Dallas, Texas, Building Inspection, Construction Codes

(2) History of NFPA,

(3) Building Codes, IMUA, 1998


All NFPA Standards, Cover Images and references are copyrighted by the National Fire Protection Association®, One Battery Park, Quincy, Massachusetts 02169-7471. All references and images reproduced above are for educational and reference purposes only.

The International Building Code® and all other similar codes referenced above are copyrighted works by the International Code Council, Inc., 4051 West Flossmoor Road, Country Club Hills, IL 60478. All references and images reproduced above are for educational and reference purposes only