The Building Code: The Minimum Construction Standard / by keith messick


Is it built to Code?

Will It Pass Inspection?

Why do I have to build it to Code?

These are questions often heard on a construction site.  They are referring to the California Building Code.


To what standard should something be built? 

Quality Analogy

Let’s start with an analogy: How would you feel if your doctor said that he/she barely made it through medical school?  He/she received only passing grades (barely) and did no additional work because it simply was not necessary.  Would you have confidence in his/her work?

Background on Building Codes

The California Building Standards Code is published in its entirety every three years by order of the California legislature, with supplements published in intervening years.  Within these documents is the California Building Code.

 The California legislature delegated authority to various state agencies, boards, commissions and departments to create building regulations to implement the State's statutes. These building regulations or standards, have the same force of law, and take effect 180 days after their publication unless otherwise stipulated. The California Building Standards Code applies to occupancies in the State of California as annotated.   A city, county or city and county may establish more restrictive building standards reasonably necessary because of local climatic, geological or topographical conditions.

What Quality Level is the Building Code?

Cities and Counties have Planning and Building Departments to regulate construction within their jurisdiction.  They employ inspectors to verify that work is carried out as planned.

Legislators have decided to set a building standard (California Building Standards Code) so that building inspectors have something to reference when reviewing construction that has been formally issued a building permit.  A building code is the minimum standard to which something can be constructed and still receive an approval from the local reviewing agency (City or County).

The building code is the lowest level of construction that will allow you to receive approval from the building inspector and continue building your project.  It is the minimum.  It is the least acceptable level of quality.

If you build to code, you are barely passing.  In other words, you can do much better than just building to the required building code.

Put another way, building to code is building the worst possible construction the law will allow.

I am purposely redundant here to make sure this point is clear.

Here are a few examples of where the Building Code has requirements:

  • Lighting

  • Ventilation

  • Heating and cooling efficiency

  • Insulation

  • Number and location/placement of electrical outlets

  • Size of shower floor area

  • Space on each side of the toilet

  • Amount of bounce (stiffness) in the floor

  • Transmission of Sound

  • Windows

  • Water proofing

  • Roofing material

  • Structural integrity

  • Management of onsite water flow (storm water)

Construction is complicated, lengthy, and expensive.  Shortcuts that may appear to save you money, will likely cost you more in the long run.

While much time is spent focusing on and selecting finish materials, other areas such as key building systems that make the house more efficient and last longer are often ignored.  Finishing materials are typically a decorative layer on top of the structure of the building.  While the finishing materials may look beautiful, they can hide poor quality construction (beware of house flippers [1] & [2]).  While we want our project to be beautiful, we want it to be built well and built to last.  We want it to be beautifully built, both structurally and aesthetically.

Periodic inspections take place during construction.  The general contractor will coordinate these inspections.  If your project does not pass one (part or all) of these inspections, you should understand why. 

During the Planning/Design portion of your project, your architect should present options involving products as well as methods of construction that affect the quality of the overall building.  They will affect your construction budget (which is immediate) and cost to live in and maintain your house (over the life of the building).  You should consider these options carefully and take the time to discuss and fully understand their impact. Extra time spent in the planning phase of a project always results in fewer issues during construction and a better final outcome.