By Victoria Mullen
Ever wonder why building inspectors are so darn picky? Think building codes are just plain pesky? Common mindsets, to be certain, but rest assured, it’s nothing personal—there are valid reasons why houses, commercial buildings, and entire cities must adhere to strict building, safety, and fire codes.
Why should I give a @#$! about building codes?
First, watch your language. Second, there are several reasons why you should give a @#$!. Here are just four:
For the safety of you, your family and your guests.
- To reduce potential spread of fire and disease and thus, ensure the economic health of the community.
- To conserve energy.
- To assure future home purchasers that the home they buy will be safe.
We’re all in this together: Whether in our homes, stores, schools, offices, factories, or places of entertainment, we rely on the safety of structures that surround us in our everyday life. General deterioration, fire, and structure collapse are all potential disasters that modern codes try to prevent.
So, what is a building code?
Practically, it is the government’s official statement on building safety. Technically, it is a collection of minimum safety standards arranged in a systematic manner (codified) for easy reference. It includes all aspects of building construction––mechanical, electrical, structural, fire, and plumbing. Source.
In addition, the modern building code is legally binding and–believe it or not–it’s a part of the same legal system that protects our constitutional rights.
Every year, new hazards are discovered, or an invention or process is found to prevent a hazard, so building codes are constantly changing. Even if a building complies with the code one year, it may not comply the next. They may be the same from one year to the next, or certain requirements may be intensified or removed completely.
They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!
Today, most of the United States is covered by a network of modern building regulations that encompass fire and structural safety, health, security, and energy conservation.
Architects, engineers, contractors, and others in the building community can utilize the latest technological advances these codes provide and pass on the savings to the consumer. Well, in an ideal world, anyway.
For codes to be effective, everybody has to work together––homeowners, developers, urban planners and designers, and others in the construction industry. Codes correlate with the government’s need to protect the public and also keep pace with rapidly changing technology, without sacrificing due process.
Yeah, yeah. So, how reliable are building codes anyway?
Valid question, but there’s no need to be rude. The answer is, they are as reliable as the people who enforce them. Most aspects of building construction–electrical wiring, heating, sanitary facilities–can be hazardous to building occupants and users, and building codes act as safeguards. Although no code can eliminate every single risk, reducing risks to an ‘acceptable’ level does help.
Just think: Without building codes, this guy could have been your neighbor
Long, long ago (well, back in 1992), in a land far, far away (Arkhangelsk, Russia, specifically), a man began constructing a 13-story house. Nikolai Petrovich Sutyagin was a builder, so he was familiar with the concept of construction. How familiar is not known, but we can hazard a guess.
Enthused by a tour of wooden houses in Japan and Norway, the eager entrepreneur couldn’t wait to build the world’s tallest house–and, by god, it would be wood! So what if he had no formal plans or a building permit. He was a builder, dammit!
Driven to inspiration by his formative years spent in a Soviet communal flat, Sutyagin felt lonely living by himself. As you read this story, you will realize that it made absolutely no sense for him to feel that way.
Regardless, building began in 1992 and was only supposed to reach two stories high (taller than those of his neighbors to flaunt his position as the city’s richest man), but then he noticed that he had not used enough roof space efficiently enough and decided to keep building. Source.
During a 2007 interview with Adrian Blomfield of U.K.’s The Telegraph, Mr. Sutyagin explained, “First I added three floors but then the house looked ungainly, like a mushroom. So I added another and it still didn’t look right so I kept going. What you see today is a happy accident.” Source.
Happy accident, indeed.
Neighbors considered the building, variously, a:
2. glorified barn
3. fire hazard, and
4. an eyesore.
All valid assessments, but we’re not here to judge.
In 1998 Mr. Sutyagin was sentenced to four years in prison, his third jail stint, on racketeering charges. He says he was set up. Source. Well, maybe he was. Again, we’re not here to judge, nor can we afford the room for a commentary on criminal law, specifically RICO.
What’s important to note is that while Mr. Sutyagin was languishing in prison, his magnificent structure fell into disrepair.
Perhaps the house could have accommodated the 18 executives of his own construction company, but the unfortunate builder ended up living with his wife in four poorly heated rooms at the bottom of his structure. Which begs the question: if he was married, why was he so lonely? Limited space prevents a thorough exploration of the psychology of this endeavor.
In 2008, Mr. Sutyagin’s amazing, yet unappreciated house was condemned by the city as a fire hazard. I, too, was surprised to learn that the small town of Arkhangelsk, Russia could be so picky.
After a legal battle, the courts ordered the world’s tallest wooden house to be fully demolished by February 1, 2009. On December 26, 2008, the tower was pulled down. The remainder was dismantled manually during the next several months. The remaining four-story structure burned to the ground on May 6, 2012. Source.
Lest you worry about falling into the same trap that ensnared Mr. Sutyagin, rest assured that Kentwood’s building codes will never allow that to happen. Load off your mind, right?
Building codes are nothing new
As far back as 1772 BC, the Code of Hammurabi provided harsh punishments for construction failures. What’s so notable here is the accountability placed on the code violator:
229. If a builder build a house for some one [sic], and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. [Emphasis mine.]
230. If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means. [Emphasis mine.]
233. If a builder build a house for some one, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.
Even the Bible contains building codes. Deuteronomy 22:8 stipulates that parapets (i.e., low protective walls along the edge of a roof, bridge, or balcony) must be constructed on all houses to prevent people from falling off. Not necessarily because people are stupid (well…), but because gravity is not our friend when it comes to falling from heights.
Still not convinced we need building codes? Here are some preventable disasters that should change your mind.
The Great Chicago Fire: October 8-10, 1871
The Chicago Fire of 1871, a/k/a Great Chicago Fire, destroyed thousands of buildings and caused an estimated $200 million in damages. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has gotten a bad rap over the years, but it has never been proven that she kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn.
Whatever the cause, the fact remains: One simply cannot build wood houses willy-nilly and too close together and expect things to be just dandy, especially in dry weather.
And so it was that in October 1871, dry weather and way too many wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made Chicago as flammable as a tinder box and thus vulnerable to fire. Once it began, the fire quickly grew out of control and spread north and east toward the city center.
Three days later when the embers had died down, the final tally was 300 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
Amazingly, despite the fire’s devastation, much of Chicago’s transportation systems and other infrastructure remained intact. Rebuilding began quickly; architects created a modern city with the world’s first skyscrapers. In the end, the fire spawned unprecedented economic development and population growth, not to mention a plethora of new building codes.
Postscript: In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Mrs. O’Leary, who died in 1895, and also exonerating her cow, whose name has never been revealed, at least not to my knowledge. More than a century late, but that’s bureaucracy for you.
The Iroquois Theater Fire (Chicago): December 30, 1903
The Iroquois Theater in North Chicago opened on November 23, 1903, advertising itself as “Absolutely Fireproof” on its playbills. Fate took that as a dare. Nine years later, Titanic would boast itself as unsinkable, and we all know what happened then. But we’re not here to talk about Titanic.
On December 30, 1903, about 2,000 people packed the Iroquois theater, expecting a lovely afternoon while on holiday from school or taking a respite from daily chores. During a matinée showing of the popular musical Mr. Bluebeard starring Eddie Foy, an arc light shorted out and ignited a muslin curtain. The resulting fire quickly spread to the backdrops, high above the stage, where painted canvas scenery flats hung. Source. It took only 20 minutes for the blaze to kill 602 people in the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history.
A thorough investigation uncovered a great deal of code violations, plus some things that needed to be codified: The theater was not built to sustain fire and many of the fire exit doors in the auditorium were hidden behind curtains and not marked. Source.
Further, the metal doors of the fire exits were equipped with ‘bascule locks‘ that required using a small lever. Europeans would have known how to use them, but Americans had no clue. Most of the lobby doors were locked, and the balcony stairs were blocked by locked gates. The unfinished fire escapes of the six-story tall building prevented many people from escaping alive. Source.
After this fiasco, the fire code was changed to require theater doors to open outwards, to have exits clearly marked and fire curtains made of steel, among other requirements. Source.
Station Nightclub Fire, West Warwick, Rhode Island: February 20, 2003
This is how fast these things can happen: One minute, you’re cheering as Jack Russell’s ‘Great White’ band begins singing “Desert Moon” and the next thing you know, the nightclub erupts in flames after the band sets off illegal pyrotechnics that ignite flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings around the stage.
In the mother of all ironies, after a stampede within a Chicago bar (what is it with Chicago?) earlier in the week that killed 21 people, a TV cameraman and reporter drove to The Station to do a story about nightclub safety measures. The disaster was caught on tape. Source.
On that cold February night, it didn’t help that nightclub patrons at first thought it was all part of the act. Twenty seconds after the pyrotechnics ended, the band stopped playing and lead vocalist Jack Russell calmly remarked into the microphone, “Wow… that’s not good.”
Aside from this astute observation, there were no automatic sprinklers.
The fire moved so quickly that the club was engulfed in only 5 1/2 minutes. Fire trucks arriving on the scene 4 1/2 minutes after the fire began were already too late. Thick, toxic smoke made visibility impossible and many people died of smoke inhalation. In the mad crush to exit the building, some people were stuck half in and half out of the front doors.
When all was said and done, 100 people were killed by the heat, stampede of people toward the exits and toxic smoke. Another 230 were injured. Only 132 escaped uninjured.
After this fire, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) enacted tough new code provisions for fire sprinklers and crowd management in nightclub-type venues. Source.
What does the future hold?
Hotel fires, factory fires in Bangladesh, nightclub fires, devastating earthquakes… there are far too many instances of preventable modern disasters. You get the idea.
The climate crisis is a game-changer. We can expect to see building codes continue to evolve as climate change becomes an increasing threat. Weather-related safety and environmental impact building codes will become stricter as storms increase in intensity and soil, air, and water quality become more of a public concern.
And, of course, the day-to-day code inspections will help keep us safe from fire, seismic activity, and other disasters. Source.
It’s for our own good.