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Codes and standards provide a common language and requirements for the design, construction, and operations of buildings. Such codes and standards have long served as the main tool of governments in setting agreed-upon norms in a jurisdiction. The concept of building codes goes as far back as Hammurabi (circa 1772 BCE) who established a performance-based code with strict penalties for noncompliance.1 Codes were developed and adopted in Europe as it was settled and evolved over many decades. Those codes were imported to the new world and formed the basis for city codes as the U.S. was formed and grew. Significant fires in Chicago and Baltimore and a San Francisco earthquake in the late 19th and early 20th centuries spurred further development of codes for the design and construction of buildings, efforts fostered by the insurance industry. The primary focus at that time was to avoid loss of property and loss of life.
Codes have increased in stringency since the early focus on loss of life and property. They have had to address a myriad of new technologies and design concepts and have expanded beyond health and safety requirements to include other societal values such as accessibility, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and sustainability.
Codes and standards typically serve as minimum requirements for many of the high-performance building attributes. Stretch codes or green codes provide criteria above minimum requirements but allow for consistency and guidance for designers and code officials.
Codes are developed with the intent of being adopted by a jurisdiction as criteria for design, construction, or operation of buildings. Standards may or may not be developed with the intent to serve as regulatory requirements. However, they may be adopted as such by a jurisdiction—at which point they become the code for that jurisdiction. For example, the International Code Council's (ICC) International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is a code while ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1 Energy Efficient Design of New Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings is a standard written in code intended language.
While initially developed by individual cities and states to address their particular needs, several organizations now develop "model codes" that are intended to provide consistency across the country, facilitate the incorporation of the latest knowledge, and reduce the costs of development. These documents provide the necessary criteria to make sure buildings are designed and constructed to be considered safe, secure, healthy, energy efficient, accessible, etc. They are then available for adoption by Federal, state, and local government as laws or regulations, or by anyone through contracting or other mechanisms that can secure their application and use. While the development process is slightly different within each organization, the process is intended to comply with several key criteria:
- The development process includes a balance of all relevant stakeholders including government, citizens/public interests, and building industry representatives-without undue influence from any one particular stakeholder;
- A rigorous process is followed to make sure that recommendations for revision to existing or criteria for new model codes and standards receive proper consideration and resolution; and
- The process is transparent, to facilitate trust and diverse engagement.
Due to the protections and fundamental criteria identified above and the impact of revisions on communities, the development process often takes three to five years.
Common Code and Standard Development Processes
|Process Name||Defining Characteristics|
|State or Local Amendments to Model Codes or Standards||
|State or Locally Developed Code||
The commonality provided by adoption of model codes or standards results in many benefits for the public, the building industry and government.
- The public is assured that buildings provide a minimum level of protection from hazards, accessibility to users, and maintenance of public health.
- Manufacturers have the consistency necessary to invest in the production and development of products that meet these common needs.
- Designers and contractors have consistent criteria to follow.
- Owners have buildings that possess a consistent baseline of attributes.
- All industry members work under mutual requirements to achieve a common result and education and training activities can be developed for each industry segment while mindful of the overall code and standard.
- Governments have criteria developed with building expert input to assure technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness, access to an education and training infrastructure, and cost savings due to consistent methods for review and enforcement.
Codes typically contain two types of requirements—prescriptive and performance. Prescriptive requirements provide minimum standards for building materials, products, systems, etc. In a way, they stipulate specifically what to provide and often represent a checklist of items and the minimum acceptable specifications for those items. In contrast, performance-based requirements set a desired end state and do not provide minimum characteristics per se—they set the desired result without specifying how to achieve that result. In most instances, a measure of achieving the desired result is based on the anticipated results associated with following the prescriptive requirements. Both of these types of requirements are generally applied when designing and constructing buildings with the premise that, if followed, the building will perform at an acceptable level. A third type of requirement is gaining traction: outcome-based requirements, where the performance outcome is established, it is not aligned with any particular prescriptive provisions and compliance is verified after rather than before occupancy.
Compliance with those norms is generally secured through their enforcement by governments or their designated agents in the design and construction of buildings.
Despite the often cited characterization of the codes and standards development process as slow, many new efforts and issues have come to the fore. The expanded focus on "green" or sustainable buildings has prompted the development of new codes and standards. These stretch codes or green codes provide enforceable criteria for the achievement of beyond-minimum requirements. As is often the case, these stretch codes must balance the desire to apply stringent criteria with the capacity for implementation by designers and enforcement by governments.
While education and training is vital, the enforcement of most code criteria usually ends with the issuance of a certificate of occupancy. As the building industry moves from the achievement of design criteria to the measurement and verification of actual performance, codes and standards are being challenged to facilitate such a shift. Commissioning and operations and maintenance activities occur after the certificate of occupancy and thus outside typical compliance methods. Many thought leaders are exploring how to achieve performance results outside the traditional compliance mechanisms.
Outcome-based codes have been identified as a potential new methodology for achieving specific levels of performance for those requirements that are easily measurable. Outcome-based codes establish a target level and provide for regular measurement and reporting to assure that the completed building performs at the established level. In demonstrating that the required outcome for ongoing performance is met, the appropriate building official or other state, local or private sector entity must establish methods for measurement and reporting to address post-occupancy compliance whether mandatory or through a voluntary program offering incentives for compliance.
Relevant Codes and Standards
Codes and standards cover most aspects of building design and construction. The National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards (NCGBCS) of the National Institute of Building Sciences has developed a taxonomy intended to help identify codes and standards, their areas of applicability and relevant federal, state, and local agencies. See the Code Taxonomy page for more information.
- ASHRAE—A developer of several standards focused on building energy use, indoor environmental quality, HVAC systems, and commissioning that are either adopted as code or incorporated by reference into codes.
- ASTM International—While not a developer of codes, ASTM develops numerous standards that are either incorporated into regulations or are cited within building codes.
- Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP)—A joint initiative of the Alliance to Save Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, BCAP's goal is to reduce building energy use by promoting the adoption, implementation and advancement of energy-efficient building codes and standards on the state and local levels and internationally.
- Coalition for Current Safety Codes (CCSC)—The CCSC was founded by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and is aimed at advancing safety by advocating for the adoption of current building, sustainability, electrical, and life safety codes.
- Department of Energy (DOE), Building Energy Codes Program (BECP)—DOE, through BECP, supports energy efficiency in buildings through the development and implementation of model codes and standards. DOE also provides technical assistance to states and localities as they adopt and enforce energy codes.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Building Science Branch—The FEMA Building Science Branch provides technical services for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA). The branch develops and produces multi-hazard mitigation guidance that focuses on creating disaster-resilient communities to reduce loss of life and property.
- International Association of Building Officials (IABO)—IABO was established to provide a forum for building officials to promote the profession and set up systems to provide critical public safety training to its members.
- International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)—The IAPMO Group provides code development assistance, education, plumbing and mechanical product testing and certification, building product evaluation, and a quality assurance program.
- International Code Council (ICC)—ICC is dedicated to helping the building safety community and construction industry provide safe, sustainable, and affordable construction through the development of codes and standards used in the design, build, and compliance process.
- National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards (NCGBCS), National Institute of Building Sciences—NCGBCS helps state and local jurisdictions enhance the public's social and economic well-being by coordinating efforts across geographic boundaries to make technical findings, improve performance criteria and promote standards to ensure safe, durable, accessible, and efficient buildings.
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)—The mission of NFPA is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.
Points of Contact
1. [According to Hammurabi's code, if a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay, slave for slave, to the owner of the house. If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means. If a builder builds a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.]