Buildings must conform to the code to obtain planning permission, usually from a local council. The main purpose of building codes is to protect public health, safety, and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. The building code becomes the law of a particular jurisdiction when formally enacted by the appropriate governmental or private authority.
Building codes are generally intended to be applied by architects, engineers, interior designers, constructors, and regulators but are also used for various purposes by safety inspectors, environmental scientists, real estate developers, subcontractors, manufacturers of building products and materials, insurance companies, facility managers, tenants, and others. Codes regulate the design and construction of structures where adopted into law.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, which had been able to spread so rapidly through the densely built timber housing of the city, the Rebuilding of London Act was passed in the same year as the first significant building regulation. Drawn up by Sir Matthew Hale, the Act regulated the rebuilding of the city, required the housing to have some fire resistance capacity and authorized the City of London Corporation to reopen and widen roads. The Laws of the Indies were passed in the 1680s by the Spanish Crown to regulate the urban planning for colonies throughout Spain’s worldwide imperial possessions.
The first systematic national building standard was established with the London Building Act of 1844. Among the provisions, builders were required to give the district surveyor two days’ notice before building, regulations regarding the thickness of walls, height of rooms, the materials used in repairs, the dividing of existing buildings and the placing and design of chimneys, fireplace stand drains were to be enforced and streets had to be built to minimum requirements.
The Metropolitan Buildings Office was formed to regulate the construction and use of buildings throughout London. Surveyors were empowered to enforce building regulations, which sought to improve the standard of houses and business premises and to regulate activities that might threaten public health. In 1855 the assets, powers, and responsibilities of the office passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works.
The City of Baltimore passed its first building code in 1859. The Great Baltimore Fire occurred in February 1904. Subsequent changes were made that matched other cities. In 1904, a Handbook of the Baltimore City Building Laws was published. It served as the building code for four years. Very soon, a formal building code was drafted and eventually adopted in 1908.
In Paris, under the reconstruction of much of the city under the Second Empire (1852–70), great blocks of apartments were erected and the height of buildings was limited by law to five or six stories at most. The structural failure of the tank that caused the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 prompted the Boston Building Department to require engineering and architectural calculations to be filed and signed. U.S. cities and states soon began requiring sign-off by registered professional engineers for the plans of major buildings.
The practice of developing, approving, and enforcing building codes varies considerably among nations. In some countries building codes are developed by the government agencies or quasi-governmental standards organizations and then enforced across the country by the central government. Such codes are known as the national building codes in a sense they enjoy a mandatory nationwide application. In other countries, where the power of regulating construction and fire safety is vested in local authorities, a system of model building codes is used.
Model building codes have no legal status unless adopted or adapted by an authority having jurisdiction. The developers of model codes urge public authorities to reference model codes in their laws, ordinances, regulations, and administrative orders. When referenced in any of these legal instruments, a particular model code becomes law. This practice is known as adoption by reference. When an adopting authority decides to delete, add, or revise any portions of the model code adopted, it is usually required by the model code developer to follow a formal adoption procedure in which those modifications can be documented for legal purposes.
There are instances when some local jurisdictions choose to develop their own building codes. At some point in time, all major cities in the United States had their own building codes. However, due to the ever-increasing complexity and cost of developing building regulations, virtually all municipalities in the country have chosen to adopt model codes instead. For example, in 2008 New York City abandoned its proprietary 1968 New York City Building Code in favor of a customized version of the International Building Code.
The City of Chicago remains the only municipality in America that continues to use a building code the city developed on its own as part of the Municipal Code of Chicago. In Europe, the Eurocode is a pan-European building code that has superseded the older national building codes. Each country now has National Annexes to localize the contents of the Eurocode. Similarly, in India, each municipality and urban development authority has its own building code, which is mandatory for all construction within their jurisdiction.
All these local building codes are variants of a National Building Code, which serves as model code proving guidelines for regulating building construction activity.