The Basics of the Residential Building Code Explained

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When constructing or renovating your home, understanding the residential building code is crucial. Prior to 2000, the United States lacked building regulation standards that applied to every region of the country. In 2000, the International Code Council (ICC) published the first edition of the International Building Code (IBC). The IBC contains over 700 pages and regulates both residential and commercial building and renovation. The most recent edition of the IBC was published in 2009 and serves as a minimum standard for building and renovation regulations in the United States. While all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted the IBC, not every city has done the same, though most use it as a baseline for legislation.

Anyone embarking on a home renovation journey should check their city's residential construction codes, for specifics such as natural disaster protection, building materials, dimensions, and height limits and requirements, and minimum insulation standards may vary based on climate and region.

The IBC replaced region-specific codes; the Building Officials Code Administrators International developed codes used on the East Coast and most of the Midwest, the Southern Building Code Congress International regulated the Southeast and the International Conference of Building Officials governed the West Coast and part of the Midwest. Rather than adopt the IBC, Chicago uses the "Municipal Code of Chicago," developed by the city, entirely independently from the ICC, and New York City implemented an NYC-specific modified version of the IBC in 2008.

Historical Sites and Grandfather Clauses

Historical sites, such as those on the National Register of Historic Places, are not exempt from state or local code requirements, but the city in which they are located may have historical site-specific subcodes. New Jersey is one such place that provides owners a separate set of requirements when adopting current standards would be impossible.

Contents of the IBC

Chapters included in the IBC outline regulations on building and fence height, acceptable construction materials, proper fire protection systems, and their design requirements, foundations, finishes, walls, roofing, occupancy, minimum and maximum entrance sizes and their locations, drainage, and green spaces, natural disaster protection, fire code regulations, elevators and escalators, accessibility for people with disabilities, parking, and traffic impact rules, and means of egress, which includes the path to the exit, the exit itself, and the path to a safe area away from the exit.

The ICC and Environmentally-Friendly/"Green" Building Standards

In addition to the IBC, the ICC, in cooperation with the National Association of Home Builders, co-developed the National Green Building Standard (NGBS/ICC-700), which provides guidelines for green building standards, including energy and water efficiency, lot development, efficiency in resources used in building materials, safety, maintenance, and indoor environmental quality. Like the IBC, the NGBS/ICC-700 should be used as a guideline, with potential constructors and renovators turning to local codes for the final word on materials, dimensions, resources, limits, and regulations.

Availability of the IBC

The IBC is published in print and e-book format and is available for $100-300. Laws based on the IBC are available for free.