What is a Model Code?
In the last segment, we covered how codes and standards are developed. Both the international code council and the national fire protection association develop model building codes that can be adopted into law.
But what is a “model” code? Is a model code different than an adopted code?
A model code is the “template” or the “example.” It is the “model” upon which adopted codes are based.
In the United States, the “model codes” typically refer to the I-Codes, the series of codes adopted by the International Code Council (ICC). The most prominent model code is the International Building Code (IBC), but there are numerous others, such as the International Fire Code (IFC), International Existing Building Code (IEBC), International Mechanical Code (IMC), International Plumbing Code (IPC)… the list goes on.
But portions of the model codes might not be applicable to your project. There may be code requirements you must follow for your project that are not listed in the model codes.
Because the model codes themselves are not enforceable. The International Code Council does not have authority to enforce its codes. The International Code Council develops the codes but the adoption and enforcement of codes happens at a township, county, state or federal level, depending on who has legal authority for the construction and occupancy of buildings in the jurisdiction.
The adopted code is the actual code that is adopted into law, by a local, regional, or federal authority. The California building code, as an example, is a modified version of the international building code. It applies to all projects in the state of California. In this case, the international building code is the “model” building code, but the California building code, which again is a heavily altered version of the international building code, is the adopted building code.
At the other extreme, a jurisdiction could adopt the model code as is, with no amendments. In this case, the model code is the adopted code. The specific edition or year of the model code will be dependent on what edition the local jurisdiction adopts. As of the time of this recording, most jurisdictions are probably on the 2018 edition of the I-codes but some are on the latest, 2021 and some are still using 2009 IBC or maybe even earlier.
But it’s unusual that a jurisdiction adopts the model code with no amendments.
What is an amendment? Amendment means a certain portion of the model code is modified to meet the needs of the particular jurisdiction. Any section of the model code can be amended. Most jurisdictions will make some amendments. These can be minor and administrative in nature to the more extreme cases, like the State of California, where the model code is heavily modified.
The adopted code is what you must follow on your project. This will vary from city to city and state to state. Both the edition of the code that’s adopted and the specific amendments. In fact, in rare cases, the IBC may not be the adopted code.
Like California, there are several states that adopt state-wide building codes. Where no state-wide building code exists, building codes are typically adopted at the township, city or county level.
In the case that a project is on federal government property, or the federal government has authority over the building, then federal building codes may be applicable to the project. So how do I know what codes are adopted for my project? We’ll cover that in an upcoming video.
THE FIRE CODE
Now a lot of the focus of this series has been on the building code.
Every jurisdiction in the US adopts some type of building code. This is typically enforced by the local building department, but could also be a state or federal agency, depending on the project. However, nearly all projects also fall under some type of fire code.
While the building department ensures the building was designed and constructed safely, the fire department ensures the building continues to be operated safely, within the design parameters of the building and, most importantly, responds to fire or other emergencies at the building. So, the responding fire department also has a vested interest in the design and operation of a building. Accordingly, the fire code adopted in the jurisdiction is also a code that just be followed. Like the building code, these are typically adoptions of model codes with amendments, for instance, the International Fire Code (IFC).
One key distinction: when there is a statewide building code, it may be tempting to think that all projects in that state will follow the same requirements. However, the locally adopted fire code can vary between jurisdictions, even within a state that has a statewide building code. The fire code has a lot of overlap between the building code, so there may be cases where a locally adopted fire code has requirements that affect building design and construction which are more stringent than the statewide building code.
Finally, another commonly adopted code is the life safety code, NFPA 101. Like the IBC, this code on its own has no authority. The authority comes from the jurisdiction that adopts it… or doesn’t adopt it. While the IBC has means of egress requirements section, if a project has authorities enforcing both IBC and NFPA 101, both codes will need to be complied with. This is more common than you might think. Especially in projects that have higher levels of scrutiny or oversight, like hospitals or projects involving government agencies.
What are other examples of model codes?
In some rare cases, the adopted building code might be NFPA 5000. NFPA 5000 could be considered the IBC of the NFPA world. Most jurisdictions adopt IBC as the building code, in some rare cases, NFPA 5000.
But a jurisdiction could write their own building code.
MUNICIPAL-WRITTEN BUILDING CODES
In the cases of the City of Chicago and City of New York, this was the case until relatively recently. (Although in fairness, their building codes predate the IBC by a century or so.) Like IBC, NFPA 5000 has extensive requirements about building construction and design – it is a building code. More commonly than NFPA 5000, a fire department could adopt NFPA 1 – The Fire Code. This is similar to the International Fire Code (IFC). For most projects, there will be one building code (IBC or NFPA 5000) and one fire code (IFC or NFPA 1) adopted.
WHY USE MODEL BUILDING CODES?
Why use model building codes?
Namely, having “templates” or “examples” help streamline the development process and make adoption across many different places much easier. This ensures that the general level of building construction and safety is consistent across the United States.
From a design perspective, it allows architects and engineers to readily implement code and any specific amendments from a local jurisdiction in designs of their buildings.
While a permitting authority, like a city, state or federal agency could write their own building code, starting with a model code and modifying the portions the permitting authority disagrees with is a far more readily implementable solution than starting from scratch, which could result in buildings that are unsafe and make design of buildings in the local region extremely cumbersome, as architects and engineers would have to learn an entirely new code. By contrast, because most jurisdictions follow the same model codes, it makes practicing architecture or engineering across the country in many different locations feasible.
What is a model code? A model code is the basis for which the locally adopted codes are based. While a model code on its own has no authority, most jurisdictions in the United States, who do have enforcing authority, will adopt some version of a model code, with specific amendments or modifications to certain sections, but for the most part, keeping most of the model code intact. By most of the country generally aligning around the model codes, this ensures consistency in the safety and design of buildings across the country.
In our next segment we’ll cover what code organizations exist.
I’m Steven Barrett, this is MeyerFire University.
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