Monday, October 11, 2010

Law on Lockdown: Building Codes

This summer, the Goodson Blogson wrote about municipal codes, the county- and city-level laws which impact much of our daily lives. But even the valuable resources listed in that entry do not include some critical local legal materials: building codes and other industry standards. Property owners know the importance of keeping a home or business “up to code”: whether it’s electric wiring, plumbing, construction materials, or fire safety, there is a maze of administrative regulations and commercial industry publications which must be navigated.

"No problem," thinks the seasoned legal researcher, grabbing the North Carolina Administrative Code from the library shelf (or from the virtual shelf). But a search for the 'building code' returns only entries like this one:
All applicable volumes of The North Carolina State Building Code, which is incorporated by reference, including all subsequent amendments, may be purchased from the Department of Insurance Engineering Division located at 322 Chapanoke Road, Suite 200, Raleigh, North Carolina 27603 at a cost of three hundred eighty dollars ($380.00). - 10A N.C. Admin. Code 13G.0302
“What?!” thinks our thoroughly-confused researcher. “The state building code isn’t actually published inside the state Administrative Code? Well, I guess I can try to find it in the library...”

But despite the fact that these building and industry codes are given legal effect by states and/or municipalities, our intrepid researcher is far more likely to find them in an engineering library’s collection rather than at the law library. Indeed, Duke’s print copy of the North Carolina State Building Code resides in the Perkins/Bostock Library.

This scenario is common due to the way these codes and standards are published – rather than each government attempting to draft its own building code, state and/or local governments adopt or incorporate existing codes which have been created by the relevant industry’s association. The International Code Council is a major publisher of such material, including the International Building Code, the International Fire Code, and the International Plumbing Code. The ICC codes form the basis of many states’ own codes on these subjects. Other common industry publications which are used by states include the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code and standards from ANSI, the American National Standards Institute.

Generally, the administrative and/or statutory publications of a government will indicate which “industry codes” apply, and will also tell you which government entity administers the code in question (such as North Carolina’s Building Code Council). But it’s historically been trickier to locate the text of the codes themselves, unless you subscribed to a commercial database (like MADCAD or ICC’s own site, neither of which is available to Duke University), could travel in person to the administrative government agency to review its public copy, had a library nearby which purchased a print copy, or you were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a personal copy.

However, there is a push for this information to be more publicly accessible. Public.Resource.Org has built a free, scanned collection of state and municipal safety codes, which is also mirrored at the Internet Archive. While researchers must still take care to note the currency of the scans, and research any later changes which may not be reflected, the collection is a welcome development in making these materials more generally available.

For more help with researching these types of materials, be sure to Ask a Librarian.