All provisions of the California Building Code are uniformly applicable throughout the State of California, except where made even stricter by a local jurisdiction (i.e., a town, city, or county). While modern construction professionals increasingly tend to assume that State authorities have always enforced a statewide building code, it actually was not until the mid-1980’s that the Legislature seized full control of the codes-writing process from the local communities. This educational brief presents a short history of the development of this statewide California Building Code (CBC).
Local building codes from the early 1900’s to the post-World War II era
By the early 1900’s, California’s leading cities increasingly were adopting their own building codes (primarily addressing commercial property) in lieu of simply relying upon accepted architectural standards and practices of the era. A few examples here in the San Francisco Bay Area include:
In an effort to better standardize this community codes-writing process, a volunteer group of building officials organized a new entity, the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), based in Whittier, CA, which issued in 1927 the first model Uniform Building Code (UBC) for amendment and adoption by any interested city or town — for example, this initial 1927 edition of the model UBC was adopted by the City of San Jose in September 1928.
However, in certain large cities there were long periods of strong resistance, often led by builders, against adopting the model UBC, which imposed stricter (and thus more expensive) construction requirements that allegedly would slow the economic recovery from the Great Depression or, subsequently, could impede our wartime economy (thereby purportedly putting our soldiers and sailors at greater risk).
State and Federal assaults in the 1960’s and 1970’s on ‘home rule’ codes
During the post-War construction boom and associated economic prosperity, even more jurisdictions throughout California and the western United States adopted the model “Uniform” codes published by ICBO — thereby creating a de facto uniformity (pun intended) for construction professionals regionwide. Even so, certain large jurisdictions – even while selectively incorporating into their newer building codes certain new provisions of the latest UBC – remained fiercely resistant to legislative efforts to mandate a statewide code.
These ongoing State and Federal activities were strongly resisted by the City and County of San Francisco:
“The coming years will see still stronger attempts at a takeover made, which will require the concerted efforts of local government and the building industry to stop the empire building of the State and Federal Governments at the expense of the local public.”
In 1970, the State Legislature adopted legislation (Stats. 1970, ch. 1436) that implemented new requirements at Health and Safety Code (HSC) Section 17958.7 to promote “uniformity of codes throughout the State of California”:
“Uniformity can be achieved within a framework of local autonomy, by allowing local governments to adopt changes making modifications in such codes but requiring express findings as reasons for these changes, which would serve as a deterrent to the excessive adoptions of changes or modifications.” [Bold emphasis added.]
The City and County of San Francisco continued its resistance to “the Legislature’s code writing activities as well as the activities of state agencies duplicating code enforcement regulations and activities.”
“As a result, there have been serious problems developing with state agencies thru both the Legislature’s code writing activities as well as the activities of state agencies duplicating code enforcement regulations and activities. These include the State Fire Marshal and the Division of Industrial Safety enforcing the California-OSHA regulations.
“Serious concern exists throughout the State of California and including fire authorities over this new development at the state level which will result in serious overlaps and conflicts between local ordinances and state regulations.”
“…there is a serious lack of awareness on the part of the state enforcement authorities as to the scope of the problem and, in fact, as to the details involved in code enforcement at the local level.”
“This is another example of the lack of awareness on the part of state officials as to what is needed for code enforcement activities when a mandated program is legislated into being and the regulations for such a program are to be developed. Unless such regulations are meaningful and enforceable, there is no way in which the Legislature’s intent can be carried out.
“…All of these areas will cause increased incursions into the building code field and will cause problems in this City and County resulting from overlaps and duplications of authority.
“The Superintendent is active at the national level in all these areas, attempting to eliminate as much as possible the overlapping jurisdictional areas. It is too early to determine whether the actions taken by him, through the American Society of Civil Engineers in concert with other professional societies, will be effective but it is hoped so.”
In 1976, the Legislature (Stats. 1976, ch. 356), strengthened the 1970 “express findings” requirements of HSC Section 17958.7, by adding the following provisions:
“If the express finding is not so filed within 90 days [i.e., on or before April 1, 1977], the modification or change shall have no force or effect on or after such date.”
Meanwhile, as part of its continuing strategic resistance to various State efforts to take further control of its codes-writing powers, the City and County of San Francisco strived to implement measures to revise its ‘home rule’ codes to better match the ICBO’s “Uniform” model codes now being used by most of the State’s local jurisdictions (and also promoted by the State):
“We have for some time been concerned with this matter as well as the Code format in general.
“People in California generally are familiar with the Uniform Building Code. Therefore, our occupancy numerical system is troublesome for someone versed in the Uniform Code’s alphabetical system, which is the same as is used in many other areas.
“Furthermore, there is no reason why a particular article in the San Francisco Building Code does not correspond as to subject with the Uniform Code, and, if possible, even sections should relate if they are on a similar subject.
“To this end an item was placed in this coming year’s budget to hire temporary personnel to effect this transition. This request was supported by the design professions. Unfortunately, it was deleted from the budget at final passage. We will attempt next year to obtain this needed revision …to simplify the use and understanding of our Code by the construction industries.“
In 1979, the State Legislature (Stats. 1979, ch. 1152) empowered the revamped California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) with “broader powers” to begin the process of taking full control of writing and promulgating statewide codes.
“As a result of SB 331, all proposed building regulations adopted by various state agencies must be reviewed and approved by the Commission before the regulations have any force or effect.
“Further, the legislation called for all building standards to be removed from other titles of the California Code of Regulations and put into a single code – Title 24 – that the Commission is responsible for codifying and publishing.”
The local jurisdictions were not adopting every edition of the model UBC
During this period, even though the proliferating use of the model UBC throughout the State had brought an increasing degree of overall uniformity to the codes used by the local jurisdictions, there was no requirement that these cities, towns, and counties must update their building code every time a new edition of the triennial UBC was published by IBCO. Therefore, UBC revisions that had become applicable in one City were not necessarily applicable in a nearby City.
Consider, in the chronology below, the irregular dates that the cities of San Jose and Oakland intermittently adopted the triennial UBC. Such inconsistencies greatly delayed important life safety upgrades and created a potentially confusing environment for designers and builders who worked in both cities.
Figure 1 – Model UBC adoption matrix (1927 to 1990) for the City of San Jose and the City of Oakland.
The Building Standards Commission issues new State Building Code
In 1981, the Building Standards Commission promulgated a new “State Building Standards Code” that initially took control of only “building” and “electrical” codes. The effective date of these new codes was January 1, 1982 (except July 1, 1982 for new accessibility regulations promulgated by the Office of the State Architect).
Also in 1984, the State Legislature (Stats. 1984, ch. 908) further strengthened the “express finding” requirement of HSC Section 17958.7:
“(b) The department may reject a modification or change filed by the governing body of a city or county if no finding was submitted.”
More power granted to the California Building Standards Commission
In 1988, the State Legislature (Stats. 1988, ch. 1302) further strengthened the CBSC’s power and authority:
The State Building Code becomes the statewide “California Building Code”
In 1989, the empowered Building Standards Commission promulgated a new code (“State of California 1989 Amendments to the 1988 Uniform Building Code”) that adopted by reference the 1988 UBC. (The various State agencies that contributed to this codes-writing were now required to always reference the same model code.
Meanwhile, in further confirmation that the ‘home rule’ codes war had ended, a new 1990 San Francisco Building Code adopted by reference the model 1988 Uniform Building Code as amended by this new 1988/1989 California Building Code.
Further, the long history of local jurisdictional strife – such as San Francisco’s great building code vs. fire code battle in the early 1980’s regarding the new Moscone Center – had now been substantially (but not fully) resolved with the Building Standards Commission’s promulgation of the statewide California Building Code (CBC) and the closely integrated California Fire Code (CFC). Over the following decade, subsequent editions of the new California Building Code published by the Building Standards Commission included:
The Building Standards Commission is further empowered
In 1997, the Legislature (Stats. 1997, ch. 645) modified HSC Section 17958.7:
“(b) The California Building Standards Commission may reject a modification or change filed by the governing body of a city or county if no finding was submitted.”
“Building Standards Bulletin 99-01” issued by the CBSC on March 17, 1999 advised every local jurisdiction: “The Building Standards Law takes a straight forward approach to amendments by local governments:
ICBO merges into new nationwide International Code Council
In 1994, the leaders of the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), and the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) formed an alliance as the nationwide International Code Council (ICC) in order “to promulgate a comprehensive and compatible regulatory system for the built environment” by merging the regional Uniform Building Code, National Building Code, and Standard Building Code into a single model International Building Code (IBC).
Rekindled turf war between California’s fire chiefs and building officials
In particular, here in California, the demise of the historic ICBO’s model codes initiated a multiyear political turf war between building officials supporting the new ICC model codes and the fire chiefs, who supported an alternate, and not yet even published, model building code, “NFPA 5000 – Building Construction and Safety Code”, still being written by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
In December 2000, this newly constituted Building Standards Commission voted to reject the various ICC codes (including the 2000 IBC model) being proposed for the upcoming 2001 California codes cycle. Further, because the NFPA 5000 model building code had not yet been finalized, the Building Standards Commission voted to readopt the 1997 UBC model for the 2001 CBC (effective November 1, 2002).
In July 2002, the NFPA finally completed its model Building Construction and Safety Code, which states: “NFPA 5000 is a key document in the collection of integrated consensus codes for the built environment known as the Comprehensive Consensus Codes (C3) which is currently being developed by NFPA and its partners. The first of its kind, C3 is the result of model code and standard developers bringing their expertise together to form one fully integrated, consensus-based code set.”
The recall of Governor Grey Davis suddenly changes the political calculus
However, in October 2003, Governor Grey Davis was recalled by the State’s voters. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall replacement election on November 17, 2003. In 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger replaced many of the voting members of the Building Standards Commission who had supported the NFPA 5000 model code.
In March 2005 (to broad acclaim from building and code professionals statewide who had concluded that the hastily written NPFA 5000 model was not workable), the newly constituted Building Standards Commission (by an 8-to-2 vote) rescinded its July 2003 adoption of NFPA 5000 and NFPA 1 as the models for next set of California’s building and fire codes. The State’s fire chiefs had lost this turf war.
The Building Standards Commission voted to instead use many of the ICC’s model “International” codes — including its 2006 IBC model — for the proposed new 2007 edition of the California Building Code.
The modern era of the “I-Codes”
Since the January 1, 2008 effective date of the 2007 edition of California’s many Title 24 construction codes, most (but not all) of these codes have been based upon the model International codes (I-Codes) published by the ICC.
Upon the Commission’s adoption of the model I-Codes, the following editions of the statewide CBC have been published:
The upcoming 2022 edition of the statewide CBC similarly will be modeled on the 2021 IBC and will become effective on January 1, 2023.
Happily, the overt political wars between the State’s fire chiefs and building officials have ended — in part, because the model International Building Code addresses many of these fire officials’ safety concerns (e.g., with increased requirements for the installation of fire sprinklers) compared to the old model Uniform Building Code.
The International Code Council’s nationwide IBC and IFC models (and, therefore, the associated California Building Code and California Fire Code) are well integrated consensus documents that serve the complementary needs of California’s building departments, construction and design professionals, and fire-protection officials.
The controlling authority of the California Building Standards Commission
As noted above, in 1997 the State Legislature (Stats. 1997, ch. 645) mandated that every local jurisdiction, when making any modifications or changes to the “building standards” adopted by the California Building Standards Commission must issue to the CBSC duly-certified (commonly via the local “ordinance” process) “express findings” that “such modifications or changes are reasonably necessary because of local climatic, geological or topographical conditions.”
In 2011, the CBSC reported: “Following are two principal reasons why some of the proposed local amendment ordinances as submitted by local jurisdictions for the current edition of the California Building Standards Code, California Code of Regulations, Title 24, have been found unacceptable for filing.
These risks of legal challenge are particularly acute for those jurisdictions who fail to properly adopt and/or amend per CBSC requirements non-mandatory Appendices to the various Title 24 codes. Consider, for example, the building standards found within Appendix C (Group U – Agricultural Buildings), Appendix G (Flood-Resistant Construction), Appendix H (Signs), Appendix I (Patio Covers), and Appendix J (Grading) to the California Building Code.
“A local ordinance amendment that relates to the implementation or enforcement of a building standard, such as an amendment to administrative provisions or the adoption of a model code appendix, necessitates an express finding that the amendment is reasonably necessary because of local climatic, geological, topographic or environmental conditions. The amendment also must be expressly marked in a manner to distinguish the amendment text from the published text of Title 24.”
Without doubt, there are local jurisdictions (large and small) throughout California enforcing amendments and revisions to building code Appendices, e.g., Appendix J (Grading), that still have not been expressly filed with and/or accepted by CBSC. These lapses certainly expose these jurisdictions to legal challenges by parties who happen to disagree with local code provisions.