The home building and renovating industry is governed by a set of codes that have been developed over the years and that exist for one simple reason: to ensure the safety and security of both the home builders and the people who occupy the home once it is built. The International Code Council (ICC) is the organization that develops the codes, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the organization that monitors and supports the development of the codes. FEMA’s interest is making sure buildings are resistant to disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods.
According to FEMA, building codes “address structural integrity, fire resistance, safe exits, lighting, ventilation, and construction materials” and provide the minimum requirements for protecting a building and keeping building occupants safe.
What types of building codes exist?
Most states and local jurisdictions have adopted the national building codes for use by engineers, architects, builders, and contractors, and some localities have put in place additional code requirements that must be adhered to. Specific codes exist for: new and existing family dwellings (under the International Residential Code – IRC); the continued safe use of existing buildings (under the International Property Maintenance Code – IPMC); and for modifying/repairing/adding on to existing structures (under the International Existing Building Code – IEBC), among others. The ICC publishes updates to their codes every three years.
How do I know which codes apply for my home project?
Homeowners should contact the appropriate official in their local community to understand the building codes that apply to their particular building project. Additionally, reputable home builders and contractors should understand local code requirements and when codes apply. There are literally thousands of different codes and no one person can be expected to know the details of every code. But, as long as a builder knows when a code applies and how to determine the specific code requirements, that is what matters.
In many cases, if a renovation is being done on an older structure, it is very likely the case that the code requirements in effect when the structure was first built will continue to apply. New/current codes apply only if the alteration being done on the building is significant.
Homeowners should not, however, rely solely on their building contractor for handling all code-related matters. They would do well to educate themselves on code requirements, including code enforcement. FEMA has a Building Codes Fact Sheet that provides a good starting point for learning about building codes. Access the fact sheet here: https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1903-25045- 6866/building_codes_toolkit_fact_sheet.pdf.
Another step homeowners can take is to ask specific questions of their contractor upfront. Several good questions include:
Are you licensed, bonded, and insured?
Do you have experience in obtaining building permits?
Do you have experience in obtaining a certificate of occupancy (C.O.)?
Do you use subcontractors? If so, are they properly trained and credentialed?
Can you provide references (for the same type work you want done)?
Who is responsible for obtaining the building permits and necessary inspections? If you are, is there an additional cost for this?
How are building codes enforced?
Adopting and/or establishing building codes is just one half of the process. The other half is to ensure codes are adhered to. For this, oversight and enforcement on the part of local building officials is necessary. Otherwise, building codes would become insignificant. Building codes are enforced by local government building officials. These professionals are thoroughly trained in the requirements and responsible for reviewing both building/design plans as well as inspecting construction work as it is completed. And, once work completes, the code enforcement official is also the one who issues the occupancy permit.
Jurisdictions that take steps to lessen the effects of natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes on the local residents and their homes not only ensure everyone’s safety when these events occur, they protect neighborhoods (and their corresponding tax base), keep services up and running, and support a quicker, more efficient recovery from the disaster.
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