Why Are Building Codes Important?

March 9, 2020
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Why do we need up-to-date building codes? 

Extreme weather and fires in the United States over the past five years caused approximately $500 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now more than ever, it is imperative that buildings and structures are designed and built using the most current building codes to allow for maximum safety, resilience, and sustainability.

Not only do building codes provide a standard benchmark that contractors must meet, they establish a building’s safety and energy performance for years to come. In recent years, we’ve seen their importance in preserving building resilience and durability in the face of increasingly severe weather events. 

A Brief History About Building Codes

Building codes in the United States are developed by private-sector institutions like the International Code Council (ICC). States and/or local municipalities then adopt these codes with slight modifications that best suit their geographical or constituent needs. The necessity for a standard method of devising construction codes across all states was recognized by builders in order to have a level playing field across state and company lines.

To meet the desire for code consistency, the ICC developed its first “I-Codes” in 1997.  The family of I-Codes is the most comprehensive set of model codes, which operate seamlessly across all construction disciplines. An integrated family of coordinated, modern building codes help ensure the safe, sustainable, affordable, and resilient design of buildings and structures. It is the most widely accepted set of model codes as all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and many other countries have adopted components of the I-Codes at the national, state, or jurisdictional level.

Building codes encompass more than guidelines for the traditional building disciplines as they include regulations covering everything from swimming pools and spas to high-rise buildings and best practices for fire-rated construction. But obviously not all states are the same and neither are their needs. California for example, has the risk of severe wildfires while New York City has more high-rise buildings than any other city in the country.  

With updates produced every three years, building codes allow for ongoing consideration of new technologies and incorporate scientific understandings about flooding, wind loads, and other extreme weather events. For example, I-Codes take into consideration areas that have specific weather needs like calling for hurricane clips and bracing to stop wind damage, ice and water shields on roofs to prevent ice damming and water infiltration, flood-resistant construction to prevent foundation damage, impact and wind resistant windows/doors, deck attachments, and more. 

Risk Management

Building Departments nationwide are given a numerical rating based on several factors, including which edition of the codes has been adopted and the level that the codes have been modified. The rating is established by Verisk’s Insurance Services Organization (ISO) for the purposes of developing rates for insuring commercial property, based on susceptibility.

The ISO Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS) provides insight into a community’s building code enforcement activities as it relates to property losses due to natural and man-made hazards. The BCEGS program looks at a community’s adopted codes; the resources made available for the enforcement of the codes, and the utilization of these resources. Each community receives two classifications: one for commercial properties and one for single- and two-family residential properties, ranging from 1 (exemplary commitment to building code enforcement) to 10. These classifications may be utilized by property and casualty insurers in underwriting and rate development. Multiple academic studies have shown that BCEGS classifications are a valuable indicator of risk and potential losses in a hazardous event.

Energy Savings

While safety is the primary goal, new energy codes are making a major contribution toward solving our energy problems. To date, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) has saved U.S. consumers over $44 billion and avoided 36 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Between 2010 and 2040, the U.S. Department of Energy expects that model building energy codes, such as the IECC, will save homeowners and businesses up to $126 billion in energy costs.

The National Model Building codes, produced by the Codes Council, are updated every three years to ensure that the construction design professionals and building trades are implementing the latest technological and safety provisions available.  As climates and high-tech landscapes evolve and change, preparing to meet the future challenges of resilience requires buildings to perform more efficiently and be ready to stand up to physical challenges that were unimaginable just a decade ago.

Stephen D. Jones, CBO, MCP, MS, NJCEM is the Senior Government Relations Regional Manager for the International Code Council responsible for the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and New Jersey. Jones is a past-president of the International Code Council’s Board of Directors and a sitting Governor for the World Organization of Building Officials. Additionally, he is a former member of the Board of Direction for the National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards for the National Institute of Building Sciences as well as having served as a member of the International Accreditation Services Board of Directors. Jones obtained professional designations as a Master Code Professional (MCP) and a Certified Building Official (CBO); which are the highest designations available in his field.

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