House to House: Is Your Home Up to Code?
2 October 2011 - 17:59, by , in House To House, No comments

houseBy Carolyn Cahill

Arkansas REALTORS Association

There you are, feet up, enjoying a peaceful weekend of relaxation when suddenly the water backs up in the bathroom, or the circuit breaker throws  your electrical power off.

You summon the plumber or the electrician, expecting a fast fix back to normal.  Then you hear the six words that forever after will strike an alarm in your mind every time you hear them uttered:

“It (your plumbing, your wiring, your setback space) is not up to code.”

To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no house is an island.  A network of connections is hovering above, in and below your house.  They link your house to the public street or road, to water, to waste disposal, to electricity, to gas, to mail service…on and on.   Those links are controlled by organizations and industries that influence your daily life through the codes –call them “standards” or “restrictions” or “guidelines”– they promulgate.

It was not always so.  Settlers that chopped down trees for a log cabin knew from experience and personal knowledge how to hew and stack the logs so the walls would not fall down. They did not have anyone looking over their shoulder citing from a code book that the R-factor from the thickness of the logs was inadequate for proper insulation.

As population and size of houses increased, as settlements became towns and as towns became cities, the notion of safety standards for buildings took root.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson each promoted the creation of minimum-standard regulations for buildings so the safety of the public would not be endangered.

Buildings became taller and bigger.   Multi-family housing cropped up as pockets of high-density population grew.  Propelled by the insurance industry, the construction industry, the engineering profession and the tenement movement, codes became more detailed and intricate.

In the 1900’s model building codes were created by code officials within the various industries.  In 1933 the National Association of Master Plumbers adopted residential and commercial codes that were intended as national standards.  Organizations like BOCA (Building Officials and Code Administrations International, Inc.),  ICBO  (International Conference of Building Officials),   and SBCCI  (Southern Building Code Congress International)  each put their codes into a global scope.

Then in 1994 these three groups formed the International Code Council (ICC) as a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated codes.

With approximately 50,000 members worldwide, the ICC’s scope is global.  It is also minute.  For instance, for 2012 the ICC clarified when unenclosed stairways can be used as a part of the means of egress, and it has two new codes in 2012—the International Green Construction Code and the 2012 International Swimming Pool and Spa Code.


For one thing, the ICC may affect the codes that affect your house, because among many  purposes it develops model codes that many local communities adopt.   Local codes definitely affect your house and local codes usually trump any state or federal code.

Codes come into the mix at the time your contractor applies for a permit.  The code “categories” generally are building codes (structure, fire safety, general safety, interior environment and materials), plumbing codes, mechanical codes, electric and gas codes, energy codes and accessibility codes.

Generally, the local codes that apply to your residence after it is finished and occupied  are fire codes, housing codes that set standards for sanitation and a healthy environment, codes for property maintenance and codes for hazard abatement that identifies structures that pose a hazard to the public.   A city can and usually does also set zoning guidelines.  If you live outside city limits, the county’s codes and zoning kick in and are generally less stringent than those in a city.  But whether in the city or in the county, a subdivision can, and usually does, go beyond the city or county codes with use restrictions that are binding.

Part of a city or town’s governmental charge is to insure the safety of the public.    Codes are one way this is accomplished.  (A less sanguine view is that codes are becoming more political than protective.)     You may want to check the codes that affect your house—what they are, who writes them, how often they are they revised and how they are enforced.   A starting point is City Hall, or theCountyCourthouse.

Nonetheless as you relax for the weekend be aware that codes are hovering over you.  If  the plumbing goes out, don’t wail and rend your garments should you hear those dreaded words, “It’s not up to code.”    If the basic purpose of codes is fulfilled, your plumbing will be all the better once it’s “up to code.”     You can then wail and rend when you get the bill.

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