Early US Building Codes

ICC building code literature – a sampling of their 173 products
ICC building code literature – a sampling of their 173 products

The discussion about Obomba’s new housing program gave me an idea. I was making the point how government programs are initially proposed to sound wonderful so people go along with them, but over time tend to grow and grow until burdensome.

To help make my point, let’s briefly compare early building codes to today’s codes. I found numerous historic building codes using Google Books, some of which are listed below. Note the book length – around 62-77 pages. In comparison, the 2012 International Building Code is a veritable tome at 690 pages (and larger pages to boot). And that’s just one book. The International Code Council has 173 items on their online store. You don’t need all of these books to build a house, of course. I’m just pointing out how much building codes have changed over the years and how homeowners foot the bill for all this bureaucracy. Add to this list the training and certification costs for builders, engineers and architects and the final cost is significant.

I imagine the early building codes were very sensible and easy to understand. Those basic, common sense codes probably did improve the housing situation (no wood chimneys, for instance). That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, government bureaucracies usually (always?) run amok and eventually price average people out of the housing market. Just for fun, browse a copy of modern codes the next time you’re at a library or bookstore and see for yourself if the codes are sensible and easy to understand, and draw your own conclusions.

1948 Washtenaw County Michigan building code for one-and two-family dwellings — 62 pages

1950 National Research Council of Canada — 77 pages
A code for dwelling construction for buildings housing one or two families

1920 National Lumber Manufacturers Association City Ordinance — 62 pages

Image source: ICC

23 thoughts on “Early US Building Codes”

  1. Unfortunately going local is not the solution when the entire State of Oklahoma is forcing the ICC codes on all jurisdictions even in the rural communities. The code beast is larger than local unfortunately. this is the email from oklahoma government forcing the change on all oklahomans http://www.ok.gov/oubcc/documents/Email%20Alert%20to%20Jurisdictions%20-%20Adoption%20of%20IRC%202009%20and%20ICC%202009%20%20NEC%202011%20.pdf
    I feel my freedoms slipping away more everyday….

  2. Thank you Owen for your work. I think to make an impact you should consider a petition on Change.org. Your petition is basically already written from your blog. Then you could organize the codes that keep homes safe for living, in a simple readable format. This would be gleaning them from what has already be written. This is the solution to the problem. As you know pointing out problems is important, more importantly is the solution that follows. Because of your knowledge, expertise and standing in the community I ask that you consider this bold move. Grateful, Lisa Ayres

    • People like David Eisenberg of Development Center for Appropriate Technology http://www.dcat.net/ have spent decades working to change the codes. He’s like a blade of grass in a desert. While he’s managed to publish regular columns in the main building code journal etc., he’s up against a trillion dollar housing industry, a trillion dollar university system that trains architects and engineers, a trillion dollar building materials industry, a trillion dollar insurance industry, mega banks, and a government who sells out to the highest paying interests. It’s not a battle in which I can make much if any difference except raising awareness a bit.

      • I went to the link provided. I was looking for simplicity, it wasn’t there. You brought up the point of simplicity of building,keeping people safe in their homes. I guess I won’t be able to build my perlite earthbag home….sad and depressing.
        Again, thank you for your work. Lisa

          • The link wasn’t broken, http://www.dcat.net, the site didn’t offer simple changes. It mentions numerous memberships, talks, etc. I too am a member of USGBC, Maryland chapter. Maryland now even requires all new construction have fire sprinklers installed! So, the “greenest” way to go is to revamp an already existing house. It just might not be where one wants to live. I am now just a bit to overwhelmed by the enormity of what I thought was going to be a simple, homey place to live out my life. And that was affordable. I apologize, I had put a lot of hope into building this home on a few acres I own to heal from some of the pains of my life. Sorry to vent/share too much here. Continue your great work and I will accept change. Lisa

    • A petition on Change.org would be a complete waste of time.

      For starters… who do you expect such a petition to influence? Who does it get delivered to and what do you expect them to change?

      No. It’s the wrong strategy.

      Building Code changes must happen at the grass roots LOCALLY. A large national movement won’t influence small local government officials who are the ones that choose to adopt the corrupt ICC building codes.

      A far more effective strategy would be for a group of concerned citizens in a local community to create their own local effort to force their local government officials to reject the ICC building codes and adopt a more sensible approach. As this group does it, they should document their efforts publicly such that other communities can observe and adopt and adapt their strategies to fit their own local situations.

      A strategy similar to the PEACEFUL Democracy uprisings in the Middle East is a better model. The key is to educate the local citizens about how the corrupt building codes are forcing each of them to pay for overpriced and shoddily built housing. When local Mayors and City/County commissioners see that they may lose elections based on the fact that they voted to adopt or retain the ICC building codes, only then will change occur.

      Some communities may actually make the change rather easily with little fanfare. Other communities that are more entrenched with the powerful corporate and banking interests will change very slowly, if at all.

      The key is education of the local citizens. When they realize that simple and sensible building codes can replace the overwhelming expensive burdon of the complex ICC fiasco, they will vote to elect leaders to make the change.

      Where blogs such as this one and the efforts of leaders such as David Eisenberg can make a huge difference is to gather factual evidence over time. Help create educational campaigns that those looking to change their local codes can use to educate average uninformed citizens. The overwhelming vast majority of citizens simply are not aware of what is happening.

      The Alternative Builder advocates on the internet would be best utilized to create a “local voter educational toolkit” or some such package of simple and effective TRUTHFUL AND ACCURATE materials to assist anyone that is trying to start their own local group to create positive change.

      Such a tool kit might include items such as:

      A basic blueprint about how to start such a campaign in your community.

      Downloadable pamphlets that could be printed and distributed door to door about how ICC building codes negatively impact their lives.

      A simple strategy that can be adapted for each local community for utilizing Facebook, Twitter, Email, and other online tools to reach out to local citizens and educate them in their local community.

      Creating educational public service announcments that can be broadcast on Radio and TV.

      A very robust list of Myths that promoters of ICC building codes tend to publicize. Then provide an appropriate factual response to each Myth, complete with documented sources proving that the Myths are inaccurate. This will greatly assist those working for change in a local community to respond with hard hitting data to refute even the most glorified “expert” that the building code establishment attempts to put forward.

      A very robust list of the failures and horror stories building codes have caused in other communities. These can be strategically used to help convince local citizens that may have similar circumstances.

      A comprehensive money diagram mapping out where all the money goes in an easy to understand visual way. Expose how building codes generate profit for banks, insurance companies, and big corporations, who then use some of that money to lobby the ICC to complicate the building codes further and take more money out of citizens’ pockets.

      There’s definitely a much longer list of useful tools that should be available somewhere online to help citizens fight against the adoption and fight for the repeal of the ICC corruption machine. I suggest the above ideas simply as a starting point. Something like a wish list that I think someone in a local community would love to have at their finger tips to help them fight the system that is smothering them.

      • I believe David Eisenberg was (is?) working on an alternative code for owner-builder projects. It would be great to get an update from him.

      • Wow Jay! You have done your thinking on this. However, Change.org does just that, helps get the voice of the people to the change makers. Go to their site and read the fine print. A lot less leg work is required.
        You have organized most of the steps needed using the background work contributed by others.
        Online petitions are the new “grassroots” way of getting things done.
        Look how the pot laws are changing, this was not done by pamphlets and door to door education. I am just trying to show a way to speed this up. Thank you Jay for your obvious knowledge on the subject of codes. Lisa

        • I appreciate your kind words, but I’m not convinced that an online petition will do much good.

          The key is to convince LOCAL politicians to adopt a change in their building codes.

          Just because a national petition gets a lot of signatures from all over the country doesn’t mean that anyone in a particular small town where someone is trying to get the codes change ever signed the big petition.

          Why should a city councilman for SmallTownWithTrees, Iowa care at all what New Yorkers or Californians think about building codes?

          The answer must be local. Local voters must learn the truth. Local politicians must begin to understand the issues. Local politicians must believe that their constituents will vote them out of office if they embrace or continue to embrace the corrupt ICC building codes.

          Petitions can be a tool to help accomplish that, but the petition MUST BE LOCAL. It must be created by local citizens, signed by local voters, and delivered to local politicians. It must be delivered at a moment in time where the message will have maximum impact.

          There is not an easy magical solution. Only serious education and hard work can make the change happen, and even then there will be major business, banking, insurance, and corporate forces that are fully invested and profiting from the established corrupt system working to not only keep ICC codes in place, but to make them even more restrictive and more cumbersome.

          • Maybe do a national petition to raise public awareness in general. But focus on the local level where the votes really count.

            The opposition to changing/simplifying the codes will be immense. The building supply centers, real estate and insurance agents, white collar building professionals, universities, banks, etc. will all push back when they hear of the campaign. Like you said, they all benefit from the current system and have little or no incentive to see it changed. The Mendocino, California example is encouraging, although that’s hardly an ‘average’ county. It’s a good start though.

          • I agree that the Mendocino example is an encouraging sign.

            Encouraging signs are nice, but RESULTS are what really counts. Hopefully Mendocino will get real results and get the laws changed.

            If they succeed, it then will become important for their story to get out. Others looking to do the same thing need to learn what worked for Mendocino and what didn’t.

            Over time, as each local community addresses the issue, those that are interested in pushing the issue nationally can start building a database of effective and counterproductive techniques. What should people do? What should they avoid? How does someone get real results?

            Some communities may embrace the change easily. Most will fight it with everything they’ve got. Over time, as more and more communities attempt to address the building codes issue, those that are trying to fight it will learn from others that have attempted it before.

            A completely different method of attack would be to try to work to get the ICC to change their code system at their national convention, but that is the corporate lobbyist paradise. I cannot imagine how any positive change can ever happen in that environment. It’s simply too corrupt. Critical mass has already been reached there.

          • That sounds like a good plan. The slow economy and low level of housing starts may help push through our agenda. Steps are needed to reduce housing costs, not increase them. New construction is a big part of any healthy economy. One good tactic is to focus on the rights of owner builders who want to build their own home. If they want to build with adobe, earthbags, cob, cordwood, whatever then they should be able to easily get a waiver. Stricter codes are obviously needed for schools, libraries, town halls, high rises and other public buildings. But it’s absolutely insane paying thousands of dollars for a single family residence building permit out in the desert like Carolyn Roberts. (It may be higher now. That was over 10 years ago.) Get this — she had to go through 23 county inspections for a relatively simple straw bale house! https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/building-your-own-straw-bale-home/

            She could have saved thousands of dollars using an earthbag foundation instead of concrete.

            And, of course, the fees are much higher in some parts of the country.

          • Great points Owen,

            The exorbitant fees are a serious problem.

            In reality, many communities institute outrageous fees simply as a tactic to cause inflation of property prices. If all the fees are crazy high, then only expensive homes can be built and the average property price skyrockets. Those higher property prices then produce higher tax revenues sucking even more money out of taxpayer pockets into government coffers.

            What most citizens fail to realize is that those fees drive away the middle class. When the middle class cannot survive in an area, the entire economy soon starts to collapse. You simply must have a balance to maintain a healthy economy and a healthy society.

            When middle class citizens pay all their money just to barely pay their mortgage and taxes, they can’t spend money in the rest of the economy. That is EXACTLY why the mortgage crisis of 2008 nearly bankrupted the world.

            Yes, there is a direct causal link between the corrupt ICC building code and the financial collapse and world wide depression we are barely trying to climb out of right now.

            Thriving communities and thriving local economies require a balance of different types of housing for all income levels.

            This is NOT about hating the rich. I have no problems with rich people buying/building expensive houses. People who have the resources can do that if they want to.

            What I have a problem with is people being essentially forced to buy expensive houses built in a way that they are almost assured will mold, rot, burn, and spew toxins.

            Average citizens need to be able to afford their own home, and still have money left over to buy food, educate their children, and even spend a little money at local businesses (many of which are owned by the rich people buying the expensive houses referred to earlier.)

            Lower income citizens also need to be able to afford their housing. It sure would be great if that could be done without truckloads of government handouts. Well, changing the building codes is a great place to start making it possible for lower income citizens to be able to afford their housing without dependency on government handouts.

            Let them build their own inexpensive home with the help of their family, friends, and neighbors.

            Just like the traditional American values that built America in the first place. Homesteaders banded together in wagon trains and headed west. They helped each other survive, build, and thrive. At least they were able to for a while, until the bankers and corporate manipulators forced corrupt building codes on their communities and screwed everyone over.

          • “there is a direct causal link between the corrupt ICC building code and the financial collapse and world wide depression…” This conjured a mental image of the banker, insurance exec, real estate agent and the owners of the steel, concrete, timber and brick industries meeting in a smoky backroom deciding how to divvy up the world. So far their plan is going swimmingly well (for them). “Oh, but these codes will help keep you safe.”

            “What I have a problem with is people being essentially forced to buy expensive houses built in a way that they are almost assured will mold, rot, burn, and spew toxins.” This is what really gets to me and provokes me to expose the building code scam. People lived satisfactorily for untold thousands of years in adobe, stone and timber houses (and millions still do) without any codes whatsoever. It’s only been quite recently that for some reason people put up with thousands of pages of regulations.

            Most readers haven’t read through all 1,500 or so blog posts here, but take a look at these two earlier posts and let me know what you think.
            How to Build a House That Will Self Destruct and Burn Like Crazy https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/how-to-build-a-house-that-will-self-destruct-and-burn-like-crazy/
            Trailer Houses Versus Earthbag Building https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/trailer-houses-versus-earthbag-building/

  3. Owen:

    I don’t know if you are aware, but your links in this blog post send the reader to what appears to be a Thai language web page.

    Here are some English language links:

    1920 Ordinance Book you linked
    entire copy free online pdf

    I can’t find an online Ebook of the Canadian link or the 1948 Washtenaw link you gave.

    As I was searching for english versions of what you linked, I stumbled across some other old books you might find interesting.

    I did find this 1904 code book for Cleveland Ohio.

    New York code from 1908
    free pdf copy

    Baltimore 1908
    free pdf

    The building code of the Department of inspection of workshops by Ohio. Dept. of inspection of workshops, factories and public buildings 1908
    free pdf

  4. The ICC is really a protection racket for big business.

    Their job is to make the building codes as complicated and restrictive as possible such that only the biggest businesses with the deepest pockets can afford to pretend to follow the rules.

    No local community that adopts the ICC codes has anyone on their local council that can ever hope to understand the overly complex and restrictive code system. Not even trained inspectors can hope to stay abreast of all the complicated rules and changes.

    This serves to protect existing monopolies and push small guys out. The best small contractors and small businesses can hope for is to find a nich where they can follow some of the biggest rules and skirt around the rest of them. Only as long as they use the “standard accepted products” produced by the biggest corporations with the expensive lawyers can they hope to stay in business.

    Basically… the ICC is put in place to make it illegal for individuals to build their own home with their own two hands. People must buy the worthless expensive products, full of toxins, that will mold, burn, and make their children sick, all while costing them a mortgage that they will have to work the rest of their life to pay off.

    Small businesses and individuals don’t stand a chance against that overwhelming bureaucracy.

    This is the REAL PROBLEM.

    It is the 9 gazillion ton gorilla that dominates the entire country.

    When a lobbyist attends the annual ICC convention and passes out gifts to get a certain corporation’s products adopted into the building code, he is greasing the skids to billions of dollars in sales. Since the overwhelming vast majority of homes in America must follow the ICC codes, getting a product approved in the code is a license to steal from every homebuyer.

    It’s a perfectly legal system of extortion. “You have to put this expensive product full of toxins in your home in order to make is safe. If you don’t your building inspector, local government, insurance provider, and banker won’t let you build your home or occupy it.”

    Pay up or go homeless. That should be the ICC’s corporate motto.

    Or… move someplace where they have not adopted building codes and build your own home with natural and/or salvaged materials with your own two hands for a little as 1%-10% of the cost (that’s not an exaggeration!!). Not only that, but can easily have your entire home paid off in less than a year.

    If you do your homework and build smart, it will be a far safer, far more comfortable, and far more cost efficient home to live in than a “code approved” home of similar size.

    The ICC is the true enemy of good housing. Far more dangerous than any President, by a factor of at least 1000.

    • Perfectly stated my friend. This is legalized extortion. “Pay up or go homeless.” says it all. On the one hand, the UN and other organizations claim people have a right to housing. But the reality is home ownership is less and less affordable the more building codes are adopted. It’s more than a crying shame. It’s criminal.

      There are rays of hope though. There are areas where people can still build sustainably with few or no codes at dirt cheap cost. Our number one blog post is Counties With Few or No Building Codes https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/

      Also, some areas are hurting real bad from the housing crash and there’s more than a decent chance now that building officials will be a little more lenient and open minded. They understand that no new housing is terrible for the local economy. I’m sure local businesses are applying pressure on code officials to ‘lighten up’ a bit, if you know what I mean. I suggest talking to building officials in various counties as you’re searching for a place to build to help get a feel of their attitude towards natural building. Go in prepared with books, testing reports and home plans and be prepared to briefly explain your goals. Ask if any similar projects have been built and approved in the area — that speaks volumes.

      • What is greatly needed is an alternative building code.

        Currently the ICC is the only building code organization in existence. Since they are practically the puppets of the big money establishment, nothing is going to change with them.

        There needs to be a reasonable alternative that local governments can adopt. A simple code system that makes sense. Keep reasonable rules like keeping sewage out of everyone’s drinking water. Scrap rules that prevent use of locally harvested lumber unless it is graded by a “licensed lumber grader.” Did you know that the only lumber grading school in America is owned and operated by Weyerhaeuser? Talk about a monopoly that holds the entire country by it’s [private parts]. That single corporation decides for the entire country what wood is allowed to be used and what isn’t. Talk about a tyrannical dictatorship!

        • I wrote this blog post about a friend’s house in Colorado. It sums up my feelings on using locally sourced lumber:
          https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/three-ways-building-codes-escalate-construction-costs/ (The wood on his house is way stronger and harder than the junk in most new houses, and yet it doesn’t meet code. The corrupt lumber inspection system drove the small sawmill owner out of business. It’s a racket, I’m telling you.)

          The Mendocino County code experiment has decent potential for leading to something more reasonable:

          • I have a challenge for anyone that wants to attempt it.

            Try to search through the official ICC website and code books.

            I dare anyone to discover what are the rules, regulations, and performance criteria for someone to start their own Lumber Inspection School.

            I’m not kidding. What exactly is required for someone to open a lumber inspection school that will pass muster for the ICC?

            When you don’t find the rules, you’ll understand that the key to getting ICC approval to run an ICC approved lumber inspection school is most likely to essentially bribe the ICC to get yourself exclusive rights like Weyerhaeuser probably did. … oops… I meant to say “lobby”…not “bribe”… cough… ahem …. what’s the difference?

          • The fact that there are no other inspection schools pretty much sums it up. This is not an isolated event. This same basic problem is happening throughout every walk of society as bloated government agencies keep expanding every year. The focus of our blog is clearly on positive solutions, but sometimes I feel the need to expose what’s going on in hopes of improving the situation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.