A residential building code is a set of standards adopted by cities and counties for the construction, maintenance, and occupancy of homes and apartments. Most local jurisdictions have their own building codes that incorporate the nationally recognized International Building Code (IBC) and International Residential Code (IRC) along with limited local amendments, which are more restrictive than the IBC and IRC.
Gregory McFann, an Alameda, California, building official, writes that the first building code regulations can be found in the Code of Hammurabi in roughly 1760 BC. The purpose of these first rules was to impress upon builders the importance of safe construction. Traces of other regulations can be found in documents throughout modern history and even in the Bible. By the 19th century, codes had shifted their focus from punishing poor construction to mandating requirements for safe construction. Industrialization and the influx of immigrants in the United States in the late 1800s led to the development of the first residential building codes in many American cities. By the dawn of the 21st century, most cities and counties nationwide had their own code, each conflicting with the next.
International Building Code
The first editions of the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family dwellings were published in 2000. Their purpose was to consolidate rules and make them consistent between jurisdictions. As of 2010, most states and localities had adopted both codes. Many localities make amendments to the codes that generally add minor additional requirements in some limited circumstances. Both codes are updated periodically.
Prescriptive Versus Performance
A prescriptive code is one that requires things to be done is a specific way and/or with specific materials. A performance code requires a standard of performance and leaves how that is accomplished up to the professional. Mandating an emergency doorway to be of a certain height and width is a prescriptive rule. Mandating the emergency doorway allow a certain number of people per minute to cross its threshold is a performance-based rule. The IBC and its residential counterpart are a combination of prescriptive and performance regulations.
Building codes such as the IBC, IRC and their local amendments include sections that explain how to obtain approvals to undertake a construction process. Typically, the process starts with a homeowner or contractor filing a building permit application with plans and obtaining the permit. The contractor then begins work, calls for inspections as required by the city or town and has the work approved by an inspector when it is done.
When you are planning residential construction, don't neglect to figure in permit fees when estimating the cost of the project. While there are fee schedules in the IBC and IRC, most local jurisdictions adopt their own fee schedules. Permit fees are generally either a flat fee based on construction type, a scaled fee based on construction cost or some combination of the two.
Mary Gallagher runs Mary Gallagher Planning (mgaplanning.com), an urban planning and consulting business in San Francisco. She is the former assistant planning director for San Francisco and planning director for San Mateo. Gallagher has been writing about real estate, development and land use for numerous websites since 1995. She holds a master's degree in historic preservation planning from Cornell University.