Building Codes & Standards – An Overview

A Historical Insight:

The earliest appearances of Construction Codes & Standards are way older than you may think. Though primitive and impractical, the first ideation of normalizing the way architects designed and built structures appeared during the 20th century B.C. by King Hamurabi of Babylonia. Rather than giving guidelines on how construction should be carried out, Hamurabi’s construction law revolved around the punishments architects have to endure should a structural failure results in an injury or death of the inhabitants.

The first practical approach saw the light in the Roman Empire during the reign of Julius Ceasar, when the height of buildings was restricted to 60ft (18m) after a series of deadly collapses. Codes and standards kept evolving throughout history, and focused mainly on concerns specific to a certain country. For example, countries threatened by frequent earthquakes developed standards with seismic protection at its core. Other countries where high temperatures or heavy industries caused ravaging fires, enforced fire protection laws to reduce risks of human or property damages.

Only until the beginning the 20th century, Codes and Standards became comprehensive documents covering all aspects of the construction industry, from structural integrity (ASCE) to fire safety (NFPA) and everything in between.

The Constant Struggle:

It is common knowledge that the sole reason Codes & Standards exist is safety. However, safety comes with cost; the higher the safety, the lower the risk, and the higher the cost. Acknowledging the fact that ultimate safety is not achievable, what is then an acceptable level of risk? And at what cost? In other words, what are people ready to pay to achieve what level of safety? Each country dealt with this issue differently.

The model that the United States built to deal with this struggle seems one of the most effective. It is no more the job of the government and public organizations alone to set the codes & standards that people are to follow. The entities that work on the development and constant modernization of the existing building codes & standards expended to include different stakeholders involved in the process. Manufacturers, local city councils and municipalities, private Standards-Developing Organizations (also known as SDOs), government agencies and bodies, all join forces to write the construction standards that are later voted on in the senate to become a law.

The outcome, in theory, should be a document that takes all the participating parties’ concerns into consideration and finds a middle ground that is a compromise between ultimate safety, and affordability. This law has to be regularly updated as years pass, since technological advancement brings with them both additional safety hazards and solutions for public safety risks that should be incorporated in the building Codes and Standards.

Enforcement:

The methods of enforcing building codes & standards differ considerably from one country to another, though on a high level many similarities can be distinguished. While drafting, formalizing, and legislating the building codes are practiced on a country, or even global level, enforcing it usually falls under the responsibility of local authorities such as municipalities or decentralized government entities.

It is worth noting that regulating the construction market should accompany each phase of the construction process: design, construction, and operation. The lack of enforcing the applicable standards on any of the phases will threaten the safety level of the project.

The Economic Role of Building Codes & Standards:

Needless to say, building codes & standards not only describe how the construction process should be, but also provide detailed descriptions of the characteristics of the products that should be used for any given project.

Here is where building codes start to affect the industries that feed from the construction market; not being able to provide products that comply with the code in question means your business will be drastically damaged. This also implies that efforts should be made by code writers, in order to restrain industrial corporations from influencing the codes, giving them an edge in the market against smaller competition. This is a worldwide problem that is being addressed by some countries including the US and the EU, by involving all concerned parties in the writing and updating of the Codes & Standards. By doing that, building codes are no more controlled by huge industrial corporations and politicians that could be influenced in the favor of the former.

The future of Construction Codes & Standards:

The evolution of construction codes & standards means more security and less risk for the overall population; however the result of this progress should not be exclusive to one, or a group of countries. Although a bit far-fetched, a globally accredited and enforced code should be a target for the international community. Sharing engineering and scientific knowledge between countries will help save lives and improve the quality of life for people everywhere around the world. 

Moreover, unifying Codes & Standards will allow construction companies and project owners to make use of a global workforce of engineers and architects. In the present status-quo, it is difficult and sometimes impossible for a design engineer in a certain country to work on a project that follows a code he/she is not familiar with. The same applies to construction-related industries that are limited to their market since they do not comply with the specifications imposed in another country. Opening the market for manufacturers around the world means more competition, which in turn leads to better quality and service to clients everywhere.

Conclusion:

On March 13, 2019, a building in Lagos, Nigeria housing a private school collapsed, resulting in the death of 9 people and 50 others were severely injured. The main cause of the incident was found to be the lack of enforcement of building codes and regulations. Similar incidents happen regularly around the world.

As the world population is on the rise, and the need for mass housing is increasing as a result, building codes and standards should always improve and adapt, and more importantly, enforced, so that people around the world are safe in their homes, places of work, and anywhere they happen to be.

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