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Smart Codes: A New Approach to Building Codes 

12-09-2015 17:35

We all know it often makes good sense to restore and reuse-rather than replace-older buildings in downtowns and established neighborhoods. But the building and safety codes currently used in most states can discourage this.

Developers and property owners who wish to build an addition, change the way a build-ing is used, or rehabilitate a vacant building must often com-ply with the latest building and safety codes for the entire structure, not just the parts being altered. These codes, written with new construction in mind, typically require costly and extensive changes (enlarging windows and widening hallways for example) even when a com-parable level of safety could be achieved in other less expensive ways.

If the cost of full compliance is very high, the owner may simply decide to neglect, abandon, or demolish the building. And so, old and historic areas that might otherwise undergo revitalization are left pockmarked with surface parking lots, and deadened by forlorn-looking buildings amid debris-strewn empty lots. Meanwhile, developers opt instead to create easy-to-build sprawl development out-side of town.

But a new form of building codes, called "Smart Codes," may change that. Smart Codes recognize that while older buildings need to meet established standards for safety and accessibility just as new buildings do, they can be evaluated and regulated differently.

Preservationists and smart growth advocates need to urge their state and local legislators to adopt building codes that are more favorable to the reuse of older buildings. And this is the ideal time to do that. Here`s why:

Taking a New Look at Building Codes

First, some background: Most states now adopt and apply one or more model codes promulgated by professional organizations made up of engineers, architects, and others. The major model codes are:

  • Uniform Building Code, published by the Interna-tional Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and used heavily throughout the West and Midwest;
  • Southern Building Code, published by the Southern Building Code Congress (SBCC) and used primarily in the Southeast;
  • BOCA National Building Code, published by the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) and used widely in the Northeast; and
  • Life Safety Code, published by the National Fire Protection Association. In contrast to the above-mentioned codes, the Life Safety Code focuses primarily on fire safety and is applied throughout the country.

Building industry experts are now urging the use of a single set of codes nationwide to bring the entire design and construction industry under the same standards. A new model building code-the International Building Code (IBC)- has been created by the Inter-national Code Council (ICC), an organization formed by ICBO, SBCC, and BOCA.

Most of the states that have adopted one of the three model codes will likely be switching to the new IBC soon. And when they do, they (and local jurisdictions, if permitted by the state) will also have the chance to amend it to add their own historic preservation code or obtain more specific exceptions or requirements to encourage preservation.

New Jersey: A Model for the Nation

New Jersey created a special rehabilitation subcode so that investment in older and historic buildings is encouraged. The "Rehab Code" has created cost savings that have made possible projects that wouldn`t have been financially feasible before. In fact, 25 percent of the total cost of construction has been shaved off the budget of many construction projects. "The Rehab Code is the most power-ful tool available for preservation projects in the state," says Preservation New Jersey`s executive director Pat Huizing.

Before the new subcode, New Jersey`s standards for rehabilitation projects varied, based on the "25/50 percent" rule. A building project that cost 50 percent or more of the building`s value had to bring the entire building into compliance with new-building standards. Rehabilitation projects that cost between 25 and 50 percent of the structure`s value had to bring altered parts of the build-ing up to new-building standards. Work that cost less than 25 percent of the building`s value had to meet standards set by the local code official reviewing the project. Often this required building owners and developers who were investing in old buildings to spend considerably more on each project than they budgeted or could afford. The result: It was harder to fix up empty buildings in cities that were full of them.

In 1995 the Department of Community Affairs began creating a more flexible, user-friendly rehabilitation subcode, which was adopted in 1998. Now older buildings being fixed up or altered are not automatically required to meet all modern- day standards. Instead, code requirements are based on the amount of work planned and the current and proposed use of the building. In an easy-to-read "cookbook" format, rehabilitation work is divided into six categories with a "recipe" of code requirements listed for each- from "repair," which involves almost no code compliance requirements, to "addition," which triggers the most stringent code requirements for that portion of the project.

"The old code was a major disincentive to rehabilitation and historic preservation," says Jane Kenny, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. "Now we have practical and predictable rules for building renovations. Developers know exactly what is required and how much it will cost."

Because of the Rehab Code, rehabilitation activity has risen dramatically. In 1998, the first year of the code`s implementation, the money spent on rehabilitation work increased 40.6 percent from the previous year-totaling $510.8 million. In 1999 the sum was 60.5 percent higher than in 1997-$590.4 million. Rehabilitation work has increased most dramatically in New Jersey`s 16 largest cities, although virtually every building in the state that undergoes a renovation benefits from the new subcode.

New Jersey`s approach has received national and even international attention. In 1997 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted a rehabilitation subcode for properties it owns around the nation. Wilming-ton, Del., adopted a similar code for its 16-block business district in 1999 and may extend the same regulations throughout the city.

Maryland: "Smart Codes" Mean Smart Growth

At a 1999 Maryland "Smart Codes Conference," Governor Parris N. Glendening stated that "Ultimately, Smart Growth cannot work if people cannot build, if people cannot reuse, if people cannot redevelop. Yes, our buildings must be safe, accessible, and fit the historic character of their surroundings. But what requirements are counterproductive?"

The outcome of this conference was the passage of "Smart Codes" legislation in Maryland in 2000. The new statewide rehabilitation code is designed to make modernizing buildings easier and cheaper. It also includes model development regulations for counties to adopt if they choose. Maryland chose to use a model rehabilitation code developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the basis of its own code. The HUD code, called the "Nation-ally Applicable Recommended Rehabilitation Provisions," was based on early drafts of New Jersey`s Rehab Code and incorporates some of its basic features.

The new code encourages rehabilitation and reuse of existing buildings in at least three ways:

  • It integrates the 10 codes that govern construction work on existing buildings into one document.
  • It clearly separates rehabilitation requirements from those for new construction.
  • Like the New Jersey Rehab Code, it sets up an easy-to-understand, graduated scale of code requirements.

Unlike New Jersey, Maryland does not have a mandatory set of statewide codes. Each local jurisdiction adopts its own building, fire, plumbing, and other codes-which makes creating a rehabilitation code challenging. Maryland tackled this issue by offering incentives to local jurisdictions that agreed to go along with the new rehabili-tation code. In addition, the state legislature allocated new money to a number of existing state programs that aid in the rehabilitation of older buildings, to be available for those local governments that do not adopt the statewide code.

Smart Codes are good for preservation, good for the environment, and good for economic development. They are working in New Jersey, and Maryland leaders are optimistic that they will help there as well. As more and more states consider adopting new building codes, now is the time for preservationists and smart growth advocates to get that message out to legislators and the public.

HUD`s Office of Policy Development and Research has many publications and programs to help state and local governments and interested organizations develop reasonable planning and building approaches for existing communities. Publications include "Nationally Applicable Recommended Rehabilitation Provisions" (the NARRP), a template for code-enacting agencies that is similar to New Jersey`s Rehabilitation Subcode; and "Community Guide to the NARRP and Rehabilitation Building Codes," with step-by-step instructions on improving local codes. Both can be downloaded from In addition, limited funding is available for a HUD representative to present an overview of rehabilitation codes to state and local groups and to advise communities on how to take action. To find out more, contact Dr. Carlos Martin at

Publication Date: May/June 2001

#buildingcodes #ForumNews

Author(s):Elizabeth G. Pianca

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