August 14, 2019

The 5 Most Important Building Codes in U.S. Construction

Failing to comply with U.S. and state building codes may result in hefty fines, authorities deeming a building uninhabitable or closure of a commercial business building. In severe cases of noncompliance to building codes, individuals relevant to building the structure could even face jail time.

A person writes on a clip board

An engineer must strictly adhere to building codes to avoid structural or design compromises that fail to safeguard the welfare and health of a building's occupants. 

Colorado and most other states adhere to building codes found in the International Code Council. These codes include the International Building Code (applies to new buildings only); the International Residential Code (applies to townhouses less than three stories high and new family homes); and the International Existing Building Code (these codes regulate additions, repairs and alterations of existing buildings).

Building codes provide rules for engineers that standardize the construction of wall assemblies, location/size of rooms, halls/stairs, plumbing, electrical, roof assemblies/structures and many other aspects of building development. They may also include local or state-mandated fire codes, provisions for energy consumption rates, minimum/maximum exit sizes or ceiling heights and permissible installation methods.

Failing to comply with U.S. and state building codes may result in hefty fines, authorities deeming a building uninhabitable or closure of a commercial business building. In severe cases of noncompliance to building codes, individuals relevant to building the structure could even face jail time.

1. Placement of Smoke Alarms

An engineer planning the construction of a new building must ensure there is a smoke alarm on every floor/level. New homes are required to have smoke alarms in every bedroom that are battery backed-up, hardwired and connected to other smoke alarms for simultaneous activation. Smoke alarms mounted on ceilings must be placed four inches or more away from nearby walls. Wall-mounted smoke alarms must be installed four inches to one foot down from ceilings.

2. Defective/Missing Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters

GFCIs provide protection for outdoor circuits and outlets in bathrooms, kitchens and garages. Ground fault circuit interrupters cut power to circuits if the GFCI detects a current active charge. They are essential for preventing someone from suffering a potentially life-threatening electrical shock. Building code inspectors test for missing or defective GFCIs using receptacle testers that also detect wiring problems like open grounds or reverse polarity.

3. Faulty Beams and Joists

Building code inspectors frequently cite an engineer or construction personnel with a code violation for failing to use beams that provide proper bearing or are not adequately sized for its load. This type of building code violation is more common in renovations than new constructions. Noncompliance with beam and joist codes are seen frequently when someone removes interior walls to create more space. Avoid this building code violation by performing a structural analysis on buildings in which you plan to remove interior walls.

4. Rescue Openings/Emergency Escapes

Bedrooms, attics in which people live and basements must have at least one rescue opening and emergency escape. If a basement or attic has multiple sleeping rooms, then a rescue opening and emergency escape are mandated for each room. Although most engineers adhere to this building code, inspectors often find these openings/escapes are inoperable or partly functioning.

5. Ladders/Steps/Window Wells

Horizontal areas of window wells must be at least nine square feet. Width and horizontal projection must be at least 36 inches. Building codes state that window well areas must permit and facilitate emergency rescues and escapes by opening fully when operated.

A window well with more than 44 inches of vertical depth must have a permanent ladder affixed to the well. Steps may also be used that are usable when the window is fully opened.

Of course, ALL local and state building codes are equally important and essential to the integrity of a building and the safety of its occupants. Always check with local and state Colorado building codes before you begin construction of any building type.

Building Codes vs Zoning Codes

Building and zoning codes are somewhat related but serve contrasting functions. For example, zoning codes describe how land sections can be utilized by commercial or residential building owners. They also regulate the kind of businesses allowed to operate on a specific land area. A zoning code governing a portion of city land may not permit a medical marijuana dispensary from operating there because it is too close to a school. Alternately, building codes mandate an engineer or architect to plan details of a building's structure according to the International Code Council. However, before renovating or constructing a building, you must obtain a zoning permit before you can obtain a building permit.

To learn more about Colorado building codes, visit the Colorado Office of the State Architect.

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