The Development of our Building Codes

Ancient building codes are a written legacy providing solid evidence that people have long been aware of their ability to avoid catastrophic consequences to poor building practices and in an act of self preservation began writing and enforcing local building codes centuries ago. This fact is contrary to the popular belief that building codes are historically a recent phenomenon that occurred sometime in the 1920s.  Actually they can be traced back to Hammurabi, founder of the Babylonian Empire about 2000 BC and beyond as many experts claim they go back at least 4,000 years. 

The first building codes in the United States where established in 1625 by addressing fire safety and specified materials for roof coverings. In 1630, Boston outlawed chimneys made of wood and thatch roof coverings. In the late 1770s George Washington recommended that height and area limitations be imposed on wood frame buildings in his plans for the District of Columbia. 1788 saw the first formal building code written in the US (in German) in old Salem, which was well known for many of its infamous fires. (Witches at the stake) Larger US cities began establishing building codes in the early 1800s and in 1865 New Orleans was the first city to enact a law requiring inspections of public places.

History tells us that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson encouraged the development of building regulations in order to help provide minimum standards that would ensure health and safety for building occupants. If there is one consistent building regulation throughout our country’s history of building regulations it’s the one dealing with our fear of fire. With respect to the early requirements for exterior and party walls of brick and stone it’s also interesting to note that early changes incorporated wood-frame structures be not more than 12 feet high and not over 328 square feet in area. However, as our population grew this code was soon abandoned and much larger wooden structures where build and the loss of human life and property by fire grew with it.

By 1862 exit requirements began to become more prominent and plumbing regulations followed around 1880 and by 1883 regulations for hoists and elevators appeared. Building methodology employed the “bearing wall” concept composed of materials used since the beginning of recoded history, but with the invention of Portland cement by Joseph Aspdin in 1884; reinforced concrete construction was made possible. The skeleton steel frame made its appearance in the 1880s and revolutionized our attitude towards tall buildings. The development and use of elevators were already in progress from one of its early inventors, the famous Roman architect of the 1st century, Marcos Vitruvius. Vitruvius began as an architect and engineer under Julius Caesar and later he took charge of the first Augustus's siege engines. When Augustus died, Vitruvius retired. Then, under Octavian's patronage, he wrote a ten-volume account of what was then known about building technology. He was far more than a mere armorer as his scope of work is astonishing. Historians call him the great Roman architect. Most of his books dealt with structures including city planning, building materials, acoustics, and he had a lot to say about timekeeping. He explained water clocks and sundials. He described all kinds of pumps and before he was through he wrote about astronomy, medicine, music, and the arts -- even contract law. He may even have been the very first attorney specializing in construction defects?

October 1927 at Long Beach California during the 6th annual meeting of the International Conference of Building Officials the first Uniform Building Code was adopted. This code was not only the first code book published in the western United States, but more importantly became the accepted standard throughout California.