Decoding Building Codes

By David Kirk, AIA

We don’t have to look too far back in history for a real-world example of the importance of building codes:  In 2013, 1,129 people were killed in Savar, Bangladesh when an eight-story commercial building collapsed.  It was later discovered that the top three floors of the building were built without a permit.  The building was also being used for factories, instead of the shops and offices for which the building was originally designed.  In this case, lack of compliance with, and enforcement of, building codes directly contributed to the deaths of 1,129 people.[i]

The above example clearly illustrates how building codes impact our everyday lives by keeping us safe –preventing tragedies such as the one that happened in Bangladesh.  Similarly, my last blog post How Building Codes Can Impact Your Business Decisions gave a real-world example of how building codes can impact business decisions.  The bewildering array of building codes out there, each tailored for a specific building use or system, can be difficult to navigate.  In this blog, I’ll give an overview of building codes, to increase your familiarity with what you’re likely to encounter in a new building or renovation project.

Building codes have three distinct purposes:

  • Life safety for building occupants
  • Firefighting safety
  • Preservation of property, including adjoining property

Building codes generally fall into two categories:  The first category involves building types and uses, including assembly, business, education, factories, high hazard, institutional, mercantile, residential, storage, utility, and miscellaneous buildings.  The second category addresses the components of buildings, including stairs, walls, roofs, doors, mechanical-electrical-plumbing systems, and cooking equipment, to name just a few.

Four main factors are used to determine the code requirements that will apply to your building’s design.  They include:

  1. Height:  Building height affects the ability of firefighters to reach different areas of a building, as well as the time it will take to evacuate in case of an emergency.
  2. Area:  Similar to height, building area also affects firefighting and the ability to quickly evacuate.
  3. Use Groups:  An assembly space that has a high density of occupants who are unfamiliar with the space has different requirements than, say, a light industrial space, which has a low density of occupants who are mostly employees.
  4. Type of Construction:  Requirements are different when using potentially flammable materials, such as wood, as opposed to non-combustible materials, such as steel.

The “Use Group” factor is of particular interest to people buying a building with the intention of re-purposing it for another use.  For example, a building that is code-compliant as a retail space may become non-compliant if converted to a restaurant, and therefore require costly modifications.  This is to prevent situations similar to the real-world example from Bangladesh, where a building designed for offices and shops was converted to factory use, creating a life safety issue for the workers.

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How Building Codes Can Impact Your Business Decisions


  By David Kirk, AIA, NCARB

Building codes can have a profound impact on your business or organization. Simply put, a building must comply with local, state and national building codes for the specific use or activity that will take place in a building.   For example, if you are considering purchasing a building for use as a restaurant, that building must comply with the requirements for an Assembly Use and meet local Health Department requirements. If the building was not originally designed as a restaurant the cost to make it compliant could entail significant renovations beyond interior design and restaurant decoration.


A few years ago a small religious congregation was looking for a building to purchase to hold church services and to grow its outreach ministries.  

The church leadership team found a building they believed would meet the needs and budget of the congregation. The property was zoned to allow the land to be used for the intended purpose, a church. So the leadership team purchased the property. Once the property was under their ownership they secured the services of an architectural firm.  Before starting on the renovation plans the firm conducted a due diligence study by performing a building code analysis. The analysis revealed that while the land was zoned for use as a church, the building did not meet the building code requirements for use as a church. To meet the requirements they were required to provide adequate parking spaces on the same site, provide handicap accessibility, increase exiting capacity (two exits were required from each of the building’s two levels) upgrade the building’s construction type, and add toilet rooms.

The congregation was upset because their budget was built with the understanding that they would purchase a building that did not require a lot of infrastructure improvements and the money they have would be used for cosmetic paint / fix up for the building. The congregation had to find additional financial resources to cover the tens of thousands of dollars needed to bring the building into compliance with the building code before they could use the building.

This case study demonstrates that building codes can have a significant financial impact on your business when they are not addressed early in the process of purchasing a building.

Did You Know ?

Hammurabi, who was king of Babylon some 2000 years B.C., formulated a very exacting building code. “…it stipulated that if a builder built a house and the house failed, killing the householder, the builder was to be slain….” [1]Today’s building codes are not quite as harsh as those that existed over two thousand years ago but the requirement to design building structures that are safe for occupants and the public is still at the core of the code.

[1] G. Driver and J. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 2 vols (1952,1955)

_MG_8213David Kirk, AIA, NCARB      is Principal of DNK. He is a former City of Cincinnati, Ohio Building Code Official, with more than 35 years ‘experience interpreting, writing and enforcing building codes. In addition to practicing architecture, he consults on building code issues on a variety of public and private projects.

About DNK

DNK is one of Cincinnati’s leading boutique design firms specializing in architecture, interiors, planning and landscape architecture.  For over 25 years the firm has served clients – public and private, on projects in the healthcare, education and urban design markets.  We creatively balance people, economics and the environment to produce transformative, sustainable solutions.  For additional information contact:   888-771-2195

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