Understanding Your Local Building Codes

Published January 14, 2014 by Whirlwind Team

ID 10093372Building codes “define the requirements to protect public health, safety, and general welfare as they relate to construction and the occupancy of a building.” There is no national building code in the U.S. All are legal requirements defined and enforced locally for any building project. Violations can result in fines, the inability to use the building for its intended purpose and other legal issues.

Because they are locally governed you need to be in contact with the correct city, county or state office governing them to remain in compliance and to receive updates for any changes during the course of your project.

You will find any number of similarities between sets of codes. Since building codes are so complex, many local code enforcement offices will follow a standard model, making modifications for their specific geography, environment and population.

What Are the Codes For?

These codes cover:

  • Fire protection
  • Building materials
  • Structural design
  • HVAC
  • Electrical and lighting requirements
  • Sanitation
  • Energy conservation

Before buying or leasing land for your building project, you need to be conversant in the local ordinances so there will be no surprises during construction or after.

What the Code Doesn’t Cover

Building codes have nothing to do with quality of workmanship or materials outside of the code requirements. These are warranty issues and consumers are protected through the warranty system.

Parts of a Building Defined in Building Codes

In keeping with the general areas of code regulation, these specific parts must meet code for a successful inspection:

  • Foundation
  • Framing
  • Skin
  • Roofing
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • HVAC options

Keeping Up with Changes

Codes are not static; they undergo revision over time. The best way to keep up is to find an updated copy of the codes at the beginning of the project and make it your business to regularly check for updates.

See if the local office will send email updates or if the information can be found on a website. It is up to you as a contractor or builder to keep the codes in mind as your project moves forward. This is information easily found online or in printed form.

Most of the changes will be driven by changes in technology or from experience. For example, building codes in seismically active areas have undergone revision as building weaknesses are discovered after an earthquake.

International* Code Models

  • International Building Code (IBC): Applies to most new buildings.
  • International Residential Code (IRC): Applies to one and two family homes and townhomes three or fewer stories high.
  • International Existing Building Code (IEBC): Comes into play when existing buildings are altered, repaired, or if changes are made in occupancy.

*Note that International typically means the United States and sometimes Canada.


Just as building codes can differ from one place to another, so do enforcement policies and practices. Each jurisdiction determines inspection requirements, fines and other penalties, and certification of occupancy.

Realize, also, that building codes for residential will probably differ considerably from those for commercial buildings.

Communications Keep You Compliant

The best way to keep within the code is to keep communications open between you and the local code enforcement office. They are only too happy to keep you in the loop about changes and help you complete your project on time.

*Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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