Building Code of Jurisdiction: Determining the Rules of the Game

Jason Pirtle, P.E.


Before starting any game, it's best to know what the rules are. Rules define what is to be achieved and how to successfully achieve it.

"In much the same way, the building code of jurisdiction establishes the rules of design and construction that an engineer or architect must follow when designing a structure, whether it be a home or a commercial building."

The building code defines many things such as what materials may or may not be used for construction, dimensional constraints the building must adhere to, what other referenced standards must be followed, among others. Once a building code is adopted by a jurisdiction, this code information becomes law and forms the basic groundwork for any good investigative assignment.

When an investigating engineer is tasked with forming an opinion about an incident involving a structure, the first piece of information that must be found is what building code of jurisdiction was used in the location of the structure during the time of construction. Once that is determined, the rules that had to be followed at that time are known, and the investigating engineer can go about determining whether the building requirements used for the design and construction of the structure were in compliance with the code required at the time of construction.

"The state, county or city governments are the jurisdictions that establish what building code and which version of that code is to be used."

Many times a model building code, such as the International Building Code (IBC) or the International Residential Code (IRC), is adopted with amendments added as the local jurisdiction deems necessary for their particular location. The amendments may add, remove, or revise the language of the model building code. A few jurisdictions write and adopt their own building code requirements.

Additionally, knowing the version of the building code which was adopted is just as important as knowing which code was in place at the time of a structure's construction. Building codes are updated in defined cycles. The IBC, for instance, is updated and republished every three years. The updates can change what the code requires. In other words, just because the newest code version requires something does not necessarily mean it was mandated when the structure was built. So, a thorough investigation, using the pertinent building code, is required.

However, the investigative engineer's task does not stop there. The building code does not necessarily define in detail all requirements. The code can rely on specific versions of referenced standards, typically listed in the back of the building code publication. The referenced standards can establish critical factors in the building's design such as handicap accessibility, material specific design and testing, fire protection, etc. It is important to comply with the requirements listed in these referenced standards, as well as the building code itself.

"To accurately determine what building code was in effect at the time of construction, the jurisdiction in which the structure lies and the date the structure was built (or when the building permit was issued) must be determined. "

Since the state, county, or city is the governing body that establishes which building code of jurisdiction is in effect, the governmental office that regulates construction (state fire marshal's office, local code official, building code department, etc.) is normally the best place to find this information. Many times, they can provide construction permit or plan review records that could establish which code was required for the structure when it was built.

In some instances involving older buildings, the jurisdiction cannot provide the engineer information on when the building was built or what code was in place. In these cases, the investigating engineer may rely on research of past codes used in the area or region and other types of records such as property tax records or deed transfers to determine the year of construction. However even when the code and version is determined, finding some of the older code versions to review can prove to be difficult.

While it may sound simplistic, knowing the building code of jurisdiction is many times the key to determining a successful investigative conclusion involving a structure. Because the building code is the rule book that had to be followed by all the players when the building was designed and constructed, knowing what rules were in place determines what was in compliance and what was not.




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VCE Investigative

2604 Foster Ave.
Nashville, TN 37210

Phone: (800) 747-3844