Did you know that there have been building codes dating back to 2000 BC? Authorities of the time were eager to create rules and records, and to create structures that were more reliability unlikely to collapse and kill people. When buildings feel on people, it didn’t make Kings look good! The most elaborate and building code of ancient times was the Code of Hammurabi, which is well-known as the first full-blown law book. Unlike today when enforcement of building codes can be lax, under the Code of Hammurabi a builder that collapses, killing workers and occupants, would be put to death. The history of building construction codes shows a growing concern for safety and reflects advances in technology.
Codes are put in place to protect people, by ensuring that buildings are structurally sound. Of course, this goal is only achieved if the codes are enforced. Codes are developed by federal, regional and local authorities and builders and their contractors must follow these codes or face penalties. Let’s explore the development of building code throughout history.
Jumping to the 1600’s, Sir Matthew Hale instituted fire resistance codes after the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was a smart idea at a time when open fires were used for heating and cooking, and there was no running water system to put out fires. Later, in the 1680’s, Spain created laws to regulate Urban Planning which were known as “The Laws of the Indies.”
In the 1800’s, the London Building Act of 1844 built upon Sir Matthew’s codes to create more structure. This code required, among other things, that two days notice be given before a construction project commenced, regulations were instituted that specified minimum room height, wall thickness, and materials that were suitable for repairs. It also specified the placement and design of chimneys, fireplaces, and drains.
The Metropolitan Buildings Office was developed to oversee the implementation of the code, with surveyors to enforce it in the field. In 1855, the Board of Works was charged with overseeing the building codes. Around that time in Paris, France, codes were being instituted to regulate buildings with a height of more than five stories. In 1959, the City of Baltimore was the first municipality in the United States to form a building code.
In 1915, the first Federal building code department in the United States, the Building Office and Code Administration (BOCA) was developed. It is interesting to note that the codes were not officially updated until 1950. In the interim, local codes were being developed and instituted that regulated town, cities, and States. There was no International Building Code in place until 2008!
In the 1950s codes were upgraded to require materials that could withstand strong winds, focusing on the Main Wind Force Resistance Systems (MWFRS) governing frame construction. Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew prompted requirements for sturdier roofs, and glazing standards became part of the codes. In 1972, the Council of American Building Officials (CABO) developed a single building code to be applied as a minimum nationwide, with some local areas enforcing stronger codes.
In the 21st Century, the shift was toward developing international codes, with most cities adopting these standards. Enforcement of building codes is necessary to protect both construction workers and occupants, but unfortunately, in areas where bribery is rampant, the buildings are often not up to Code. The political commitment to deregulation of businesses has also eroded enforcement in many areas. The history of building construction codes shows an increasing concern for safety, and, as citizens, we must police our government to make sure they keep their commitments to worker and consumer safety.