An Architect’s Guide to Building Codes: 7 Steps to a Safer Design

It may seem like a boring subject, but make no mistake: Building Codes are critical for architects to understand.

Michael LaValley Michael LaValley

Mike LaValley is the architect, speaker, and writer behind Evolving Architect. For more creative and nerdy insights, follow him on Instagram or check out his upcoming book.

Building Codes. Why did it have to be Building Codes?

At first glance, they sound a little bit boring, a little bit real, and a little bit scary.

Any architect who doesn’t respect Building Codes is probably not doing their job.

So what are Building Codes exactly? And why do we need to make sure that we understand them as architects? Because trust me, you do.

They may seem like something to gloss over when you’re trying to make your next design masterpiece, but Building Codes protect those who use the buildings you design.

Building Codes 101

While there may have been ramifications for poor construction, construction hazards, and construction mishaps in the past, it wasn’t until the 1800s when the first Building Codes were established. As industry and technology continued to thrive, the potential for new hazards such as sweeping fires became far more common.

And so, at the most fundamental level, Building Codes were established in order to protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of society.


Originally, the Building Codes weren’t very pretty. In fact, when Building Codes were first established, they varied greatly and held much different priorities from one another. Over time, Model Building Codes were been developed by regularly iterating upon them and a continued collaboration of professionals across the globe.

Today, you’re far more likely to come across a situation that is treated in a familiar way between states because of the adoption of the International Building Code. Even so, most States adopt the larger Building Codes such as the IBC and make modifications to it based on their specific political and regional priorities. For example, California is more likely to strengthen Building Codes related to earthquakes and seismic activity than a state like Vermont.

As an architect, it’s an inherent responsibility to identify what Code applies to your project and who is the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The AHJ will have the final interpretation on the Building Code for your project and will be able to enforce the Code in kind.

Navigating the Building Codes

Each and every time I sit down to perform a Code Review, I know the review will be unique to that particular project. It’s something that you realize very quickly – No Code Review is ever the same.

When I start looking at the Code, I go through a series of basic steps to help guide the types of major information I need to document and confirm. Skipping steps is not advised. It can lead to backtracking later, missing critical information to assist in design, and possibly the need to change conditions during construction for a much higher cost in order to meet key Code requirements.

The Steps:

  1. Occupancy Classification
  2. Sprinkler Systems
  3. Construction Type
  4. Allowable Floor Area
  5. Building Height and Number of Stories
  6. Location on Property
  7. Means of Egress

Step 1 – Occupancy Classification

The first thing you need to know about a given project is what the project will be used for. It sounds simple, right? But do you know what the difference between an S-1 and S-3 Occupancy Classification is? Do you know when to classify an educational project as a Business (B) Occupancy over an Educational (E) Occupancy?

I’m not saying that you should be able to rattle off the answers to the above questions from the top of your head. The point is that you should check to see if the project requires an Occupancy type regardless if you’ve done a hundred projects before just like it.

I’ve performed many Code Reviews in my career to date, and I was caught off guard when an Occupancy that I had assumed for a project was completely different because of one difference from previous projects I had worked on.

As a good friend always reminds me, “Don’t Assume, you’ll just make an ‘Ass’ out of ‘You’ and ‘Me.’” Lame, I know. But it’s effective. In some ways, the Occupancy Classification dictates everything. Youíll treat every move you make differently based on what types of activities will take place throughout the project.

Just think about it. A hospital has so many different needs than an industrial factory. A school uses different programs compared with a big box retailer. There are different levels of hazards at each. Some are less hazardous than others. Some are more dangerous and have to be dealt with appropriately.

As such, Occupancy is the key to determining almost every other piece of information in the Code Review.

Step 2: Sprinkler Systems

I’m not a plumber and I don’t imagine I’ll ever be one. But damn if I don’t appreciate how much easier a good sprinkler system makes my life as an architect. Anyone who has ever done a Code Review will tell you the same thing. Sprinkler systems, while not always required per Code, will almost always reduce the construction restrictions and requirements for the rest of your project.

The Building Code is primarily concerned with safely protecting the users of a building. It’s also concerned with protecting property. Even without specific requirements for them, Insurance Companies will often lower an owner’s insurance rates if the project incorporates sprinkler systems.

Let’s make no mistake here: Sprinkler systems cost money. Depending on the type of fire suppression you’re using, they can be very expensive on top of the overall cost of doing a project in the first place. They also tend to be one of those items that some Owners shy away from because it’s not something they see active value from.

In short though, they make my job easier — a lot easier. Sprinkler systems can reduce the requirements for fire-rated wall, ceiling, and floor assemblies, or in some instances, negate them altogether. I remember working on one project where the building was just on the edge of needing a sprinkler system. It wasn’t a mandatory requirement, but the owner ultimately decided to incorporate one because the offset in all of the labor to properly rate the associated corridors throughout was worth it. The sprinkler took all requirements down by an hour of fire-rating, essentially negating the need for fire-rated assemblies in 80% of the building.

No need for special wall systems. No need for additional specifications.

I love sprinkler systems.

Step 3: Construction Type

Did you know that there’s actually MORE than one way to construct a building?! Stop the presses!


Yes, indeed. There are a variety of ways to build a building. But according to the International Building Code, there are technically only 5 types of construction.

A bit confusing, but it’s straightforward when you think about it. Each Construction Type assumes not only an inherent set of potential materials that can be used, but also how flammable those materials are.

On about 90% of the projects I’ve ever worked on, Type IIB Construction has been used because of the fact that it provides a common palette of non-flammable materials to select from. Because of that, it’s also able to bring many Fire-Rating Requirements down to 0. On the one hand, you’ll be paying a premium to use materials that are more flame resistant, but you gain the freedom to use them in a much more liberal way.

Step 4: Allowable Floor Area

Alright, I’m going to get real with you. We’re into the less exciting portions of Code Review, albeit important ones.

Allowable Floor Area is the maximum amount of square footage the Building Code allows each Floor Plate of a Building to be built to. There are charts that tell you this number based on (you guessed it) the occupancy and construction type. An included sprinkler system may extend the allowable floor area as can a building’s proximity to property lines.

Step 5: Building Height and # of Stories

Another part of the Code that will truly knock your socks off is Allowable Building Height and Allowable Number of Stories your Building can be built to. You’ll find that, like Allowable Floor Area, a Building’s Height is dictated primarily by Occupancy and Construction Type.

Another factor that you have to consider is that many Buildings can be limited by real-world things like Fire Truck Ladders and other life safety equipment. There are obvious exceptions (I see you skyscrapers), but just keep in mind that many of the Code Requirements for Building Height can be lessened as other concessions are made such as Sprinkler Systems.

If you haven’t realized it yet, the Building Code exists to protect people and property. To a degree, it doesn’t care how you do it as long as you do it one way or another.

Step 6: Location On Property

Ok. Now we’re back into the exciting stuff – Property Lines!

Ahem. Ok, well I was excited.

Imagine two scenarios. The first — two, five-story mixed-use buildings in an urban environment that have a zero lot line, meaning they are literally right next to each other. The second — a large munitions facility in the middle of nowhere with ample amount of space between the building and its property line; hundreds and hundreds of feet. When I say nowhere, I mean the only thing nearby is open field as far as the eye can see.

Which is safer?

One could argue that the two urban buildings are safer because they’re not building things that explode.

But I’d actually argue in this case that the two urban buildings require more attention here in terms of their location. Maybe the munitions facility is building hazardous products, but the two urban buildings are far more likely to endanger each other, causing injury to people or property.

The requirements for the separations between these buildings is much higher because the Building Code would require that they essentially protect themselves from each other.

If there was a fire in one building, the fire rated assemblies must be constructed in such a way as to prevent loss to the other structure.

In the case of the munitions facility, it’s removed enough from all other buildings that it actually is more likely to have a lower exterior fire rating based on property location alone.

Step 7: Means of Egress

It’s not just enough to protect users from other buildings. Once the overall requirements for the building have been established by Steps 1 through 6, an architect needs to properly map the Means of Egress (aka safe path out of the building).

It takes a significant amount of planning to ensure that not only is there a proper path out of the building, but that the path is no greater in length than the maximum distance allowable and that the path is protected at various stages to ensure safe passage.

If there are too many people calculated for a given space, you may even need a second means of egress from that space and out of the building.

I’ve found that determining the proper means of egress for all spaces in a project is often the place where I spend most of my time in a Code Review. Many of the previous criteria become readily apparent with experience, but the Means of Egress is always different from project to project because the spaces area always different.

When in doubt, think about how many exits from a space are required, how far the Code will allow someone to travel before exiting the building, and how much the building has to protect their paths from where they start to the building exit.


Other Considerations

The Building Code is up to your interpretation as a Design Professional, but NEVER try to break the Building Code. Your design intent must always align with the Codes established to protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of those who will use your built work.

I’ve noticed that sometimes younger staff (without knowing any better) will avoid having to research the technical standards required to execute the nuances of fire-rated construction or neglect to analyze each room for compliance with ADA.

I’ve started to recognize that many without a professional license, just ‘doing a job,’ tend to care less about whether or not things are actually Code-Compliant in every instance.

Having been doing this for a while now, I can tell you that if you’re working at a firm and it’s not your stamp on the line, that doesn’t mean you can or should ignore anything that may be in non-compliance with the Building Code.

It’s possible that you’ll miss something in your own Code Reviews. No one is perfect, but architecture and the responsibility we hold as architects is much more than most.

No offense intended when I say this, but if a graphic designer misspells something, it won’t accidentally kill someone. If a Candy Store manager doesn’t sell their quota in lollipops, the store won’t start on fire.

I think of it this way: No matter how you analyze the Building Code, make sure that you’re doing your due diligence to protect those people who rely on you to do your job. They have families. They have lives. Building Codes are in place to make sure they keep on living them.

Further Reading on Building Codes

Also, I’m an Architect, but I don’t memorize every aspect of the Code. I’m always trying to understand more about it.

Here’s some additional reading and a few key resources to help you on your own Code journey.

  • Up.Codes – A Free Building Code Website to Easily Help You Track the Latest Building Codes
  • Building Codes Illustrated – By Francis D.K. Ching
  • ICC – International Code Council – Gate Keepers of the International Building Code
  • NFPA – National Fire Protection Association – Standards Regarding Fire Protection in Construction
  • ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act

This post originally appeared on Mike LaValley’s Evolving Architect blog. Architects: Showcase your next project through Architizer and sign up for our inspirational newsletter.

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