What is the Applicable Building Code for my Project?
How do I figure out what codes apply to my project?
First, is this new construction, a major renovation, or existing building with no planned modifications? If it’s existing – go check out our other videos on existing buildings. We’re not covering existing buildings here today.
For new construction, what is the applicable building code?
What is your process for finding this out?
On one hand, this may sound like a simple question with a simple answer: the adopted building code is whatever was adopted in my jurisdiction…. Okay and maybe fire code too. On the other hand, this answer could seem like overwhelming layers of authority or influence from building departments, fire departments, state/federal agencies, client standards, insurance requirements and standard of care (whatever that is).
THE ADOPTED CODE: WHAT IS IT?
Let’s start locally.
Where is the project located?
Assuming it’s in the United States, what city or township is it located in?
This is the best place to start.
While there are some websites which post codes online, the most accurate information is going to come from the city or township’s website if one exists and is maintained up to date.
I would caution against using websites that are not the city or townships own published (or directly referenced) site. These may not be reliable, accurate, or simply may be outdated. If the information is not readily available on the city or in township’s website, a phone call or in person conversation with someone at the building department is probably your best bet.
Most likely, if you find the website of the city or township that the project is located in, you will find the adopted building code listed, including amendments. If the city or township is located in a state with a statewide building code, then the website will likely refer to this and that will be your adopted building code.
Now in more rural areas, jurisdiction might be at the county level. In cases of projects owned, funded or operated by a Federal or state agency, its common for these agencies to have agreements with local jurisdictions, where the Federal or state agency enforces, reviews and approves buildings under their own codes.
So, in these cases, it’s not the locally adopted code that’s enforced but the codes adopted by the agencies. On land owned by the federal government, there will be federal building codes and standards that govern the construction and design of buildings. This will depend on the type of agency that owns or uses the land.
So, what is the adopted building code? First, determine who’s jurisdiction you’re under, search online, and confirm where necessary. Federal, state, or other agencies may apply if a project is owned, funded or operated by that agency.
THE FIRE CODE
Now let’s talk about another type of code that’s usually adopted for projects. It is the fire code.
On most projects, there are two authorities for building construction: the building department and the fire department. The building department typically enforces the building code and the fire department enforces the fire code.
Like building codes, which fire code is adopted is dependent on location, in what township, city or state the project will be constructed. More specifically, what fire department will be responding to fires or other emergencies in the building.
In many cases, the city or township’s building department will adopt and enforce the building code and the fire department will adopt and enforce fire code. In cases where there is a statewide building code, there may not be a statewide fire code, so fire codes can vary from city to city in a state with a statewide fire code.
Even when there is a statewide fire code, there may be local amendments. In rural locations, the responding fire department may be in a different city, township or county than the building department, especially if there is not a capable fire department in the city or township where the building is being built.
Where a state or federal agency has agreements with a city that they will have jurisdiction in the building code used, the responding fire department will be the local fire department, so on these projects it’s best to engage the local fire department to make sure the building is adequately designed so firefighters can safely respond to emergencies in the building.
Whether or not the local fire department has code enforcing authority is a legal question that is outside the scope of this discussion.
So, what is the adopted fire code? Find the jurisdiction for the project, search online, and confirm when necessary.
OTHER APPLICABLE CODES
What other codes might be applicable for my project?
Some types of buildings have special licenses to operate, for example, hospitals. These licenses are often granted at the state level, meaning that hospitals must be designed not only to the locally adopted building code and fire code but also to the code requirements adopted by the state licensing agency.
Most hospitals in the US adopt NFPA 101, 2012 edition, because of state and federal licensing, so even if the locally adopted building code does not adopt NFPA 101, it must be followed due to the special operating or licensing requirements of the facility.
This could apply to other types of buildings, such as medical facilities, educational, universities or others. These will come from state or federal authorities with jurisdiction over certain building types. To determine when these apply, seek out and confirm with the building owner or operator who has review authority, and confirm from there.
BUILDING OWNER STANDARDS
Some projects will have specific standards or requirements imposed by the building owner or tenant. Large corporations or universities with many buildings may have their own standards. While these are not technically codes, they may be enforced like codes by the building owner or tenant and construction or occupancy may not be feasible without compliance, so in a way, they are like codes.
To determine what these are; just ask.
Ask the owner, ask the architect. Does the building owner have any standards?
Another example of something that isn’t technically code but could be enforced on your project is insurance requirements.
One notable insurer, Factory Mutual (or FM) Global has their own set of standards called Datasheets.
Projects which are insured by FM Global are evaluated against the datasheets and if compliance is not achieved, the project may not be insured. So, although these are not codes, the standards set forth by the insurer may make building design, construction and occupancy difficult if compliance with these standards is not achieved.
When do these apply? Again, just ask the owner or architect. Does the owner’s insurer carry any standards which we need to comply with?
“STANDARD OF CARE”
Finally, there are codes and standards which are not adopted by any of these previous situations but could be required for your projects.
There is a legal term called “standard of care.” This means that the building meets the minimum standard that someone experienced and knowledgeable in this field would design to.
Consider an example: battery fires have become very prevalent recently.
The latest 2021 IBC and IFC have provided requirements for energy storage systems, typically large battery systems which provide power for a building. However, most jurisdictions have not yet adopted these codes.
So strictly by code, in these jurisdictions, the latest requirements for energy storage systems are not required because the latest codes and standards don’t apply yet.
However, these are a well-documented fire hazard and someone knowledgeable in the field of building design and fire protection is expected to be aware of industry trends and latest codes, so “standard of care” would suggest that buildings with significant energy storage systems should comply with the latest code standards, even if has not been adopted by the local authority. Not doing so, or not providing a "standard of care” could present a liability to the person and organization who is providing professional services.
What codes are required for my project?
The answer may be simple: it is the locally adopted or the statewide adopted building code…. Or the answer could be a lot more complex. One of the primary factors is location, which will determine who the enforcing building department and fire Department are. Another factor is facility type: some special types of facilities, require additional codes to be followed.
Although not code, some building owners and tenants might have their own standards which are mandatory for projects. Also on some projects, there may be insurance requirements that are enforced a lot like codes. And finally, there are some situations where the standard of care might require that a building be designed to certain levels of safety, even if these provisions are not specifically required by the adopted code.
How do I sort that out? We’ll there’s no secret sauce here; many times if the answer isn’t obvious we have to keeping asking around until we get the answer. Maybe it’s an email, maybe it’s a phone call. Keep asking enough people and you’re bound to find out who the jurisdiction is and what codes they adopt.
In our next segment, we’re going to cover what codes would apply to an existing building that is just under normal operation – no construction or renovation work at all.
I’m Steven Barrett, this is MeyerFire University.
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