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History of Building Codes


The Code of Hammurabi (circa 3000 B.C.)

One of the oldest known writings of early civilization is the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was the founder of the Babylonian Empire over 5,000 years ago. The portion of the Code of Hammurabi which related to buildings read:

228: If a builder build a house for a man and complete it, that man shall pay him two shekels of silver per sar (approx. 12 sq. ft.) of house as his wage.

229: If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.

230: If the child of the householder be killed, the child of that builder shall be slain.

231: If the slave of the householder be killed, he shall give slave for slave to the householder.

232: If goods have been destroyed, he shall replace all that has been destroyed; and because the house was not made strong, and it has fallen in, he shall restore the fallen house of his own material.

233: If a builder has built a house for a man, and his work is not done properly and a wall shifts, then that builder shall make that wall good with his own silver.

The Code of Hammurabi though quite harsh by today's standards, shows that civilization has tried to bring about some control over building safety.

The Burning of Rome (circa 64 A.D.)

Prior to 64 A.D., the wealthy Roman Empire spent large sums of money on major public projects and maintained fairly tight controls on the construction of these public buildings. However, the construction of many vernacular buildings, such as housing, was greatly overlooked. The poor quality of construction (many of these often monstrous buildings would often fall before being completed), the cramped distance between buildings, and the poor sanitation all spoke rather dimly of a great empire.

Emperor Nero had developed a master plan for what he felt would be an idealized Roman city. Nero's idea of a better Roman city was no secrete, so when Rome burned in 64 A.D., the popular theory is that Emperor Nero had something to do with the blaze.

After the burning of Rome, construction was done to Nero's master plan, with sound construction principals regarding fire resistance and sanitation being applied to all structures.

The Great London Fire (circa 1666 A.D.)

London had been hit hard by the plaque or Black Death for two years prior to 1666. This disease, spread by fleas that were carried by the rodent population was killing as many as 1,000 people a week in London in 1666.

It is not difficult to understand why the plaque was so rampant in London (or the rest of Europe for that matter). London was crowded, with buildings tightly spaced. Sanitation was unheard of, with raw sewage flowing through open drains and people dumping their trash from balcony windows into the streets below. Filth and disease were everywhere.

Fires were also common. The prevalent means of construction was timber framing. The fire of 1666 is believed to have started in a rundown neighborhood near the Tower of London. The fire received little attention until it entered a group of warehouses where animal fat, oil, and alcohol were being stored. These highly flammable materials intensified the fire. In the end, the fire destroyed over 15,000 buildings, or two-thirds of the city.

After the fire, Parliament labored for two years over the writing of the "London Building Act", which setup building regulations for the City of London (the rest of England continued to be unregulated). However, in the two years after the fire, much of London was rebuilt using the same poor practices.

The Chicago Fire (circa 1871 A.D.)

There were about 60,000 buildings in the City of Chicago at the time of the Fire of 1871, with about half of the buildings being built of wood.

Development was booming, combustible construction was prevalent, and insurance underwriters continued to issue fire insurance, even though concern was expressed by the insurance companies. Then as the story goes came Mrs. O'Leary's Cow .

Well the fire raged in the City for two days before being extinguished, having destroyed 17,000 buildings, taken 250 lives, and leaving 100,000 persons homeless. The financial ruin to the insurance industry left 60 companies in bankruptcy, with the remaining companies threatening to leave unless better building regulations were enacted. There was still resistance to tightening controls on construction, however by 1875 ordinances had been enacted regulating building construction and fire prevention.

The San Francisco Earthquake (circa 1906 A.D.)

The earthquake which struck San Francisco in the early morning of April 18, 1906 left the City in ruins. Those portions not destroyed by the earthquake were destroyed by the resulting fires which swept the community whose infrastructure could no longer provide water to put the fires out.

As the scientific community quickly gathered to observe what had taken place, many of the building code organizations that exist today were forming or on the verge of forming. The western United States (especially California) has had a primary concern regarding the integrity of structures during and after an earthquake event. Many structures since the 1906 earthquake have been studied after each seismic event has occurred, either for their ability or lack of ability to withstand the event.

Hurricane Andrew (circa 1992 A.D.)

Hurricane Andrew was not as costly as many hurricanes are when it comes to the loss of human live. However, it was one of the costliest hurricanes ever in terms of property damage.

There were 48 deaths attributed to Hurricane Andrew in the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana. 90% of all homes in Dade County Florida had roof damage and 117,000 homes were destroyed or had major damage. Much of what was learned or discovered regarding the construction practices relative to the ability of these structures to withstand strong winds has since been incorporated into the building codes of the Southern United States.