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An Abridged History of the Origins and Empowerment of the California Building Standards Commission


The California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) is responsible for overseeing the ongoing development, amendment, adoption, and publication of the “building standards” provisions of Title 24 (aka, the “California Building Standards Code”) of the California Code of Regulations (CCR), which is divided into 28 separate titles based upon distinct subjects or state agency jurisdictions. CCR Title 24 is reserved for regulations governing the design, construction, and maintenance of buildings, structures, and associated facilities and equipment throughout the State.

  • The CBSC’s full authority and activities are promulgated in the State’s Health and Safety Code at Division 13, Part 2.5, commencing with Section 18901, (aka, the “California Building Standards Law”).

While some construction professionals tend to assume that State agencies have always enforced statewide construction codes, it was not until the 1980’s that these bureaucracies and the Legislature fully wrested away from local jurisdictions “home rule” control of their codes-adopting powers.

This educational brief presents an abridged history of the development of this California Building Standards Law. Key resources for this analysis include:

  • Haughton, An Abridged History of San Francisco’s Bureau of Building Inspection – Part I (1944 to 1992), 2016; and
  • Haughton, An Abridged History of the Statewide ‘California Building Code’, revised 2020.

These two prior briefs focused on the City and County of San Francisco’s ultimately doomed decades-long struggles after World War II to fend off efforts by various State and federal agencies to seize statewide control of local jurisdictions’ authority to promulgate their own construction codes.

In contrast, this paper additionally explores this bureaucratic war from the point of view of the final victor, the California Building Standards Commission, which was first empowered in 1980 to take codes-promulgation control from competing State agencies and then, in 1988, was granted full statewide authority over local codes.

Representative efforts to enact statewide codes prior to World War II

The following chronology delineates certain representative efforts, prior to World War II, to promulgate statewide construction codes:

  • 1909 – California’s first public building law (the State Tenement House Act) was enacted by the Legislature to much controversy. In 1911, it was repealed and replaced.
  • 1913 – California’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the State Tenement House Act of 1911.
  • 1913 – “The State Division of Immigration and Housing was created along with a State Division of Safety. Each has separate regulatory authority, and this established an unfortunate precedent of having different departments of the State responding individually to specific building problems which had statewide interest.”
  • 1913 – The State Tenement House Act of 1911 was repealed and replaced by the Legislature.
  • 1915 – A Commission of Immigration and Housing was authorized to enforce, only in incorporated cities, the maintenance provisions of the State Tenement House Act of 1913.
  • 1917 – The State Tenement House Act of 1913, and a related Hotel and Lodging House Act applicable only to incorporated cities, were repealed and replaced with a new State Tenement House Act and State Hotel and Lodging House Act. In addition, a new State Dwelling House Act was enacted.  County and city building and health departments were charged with enforcement of these laws and the Commission of Immigration and Housing was authorized to enforce the maintenance provisions of these laws in both the incorporated and unincorporated portions of the state.
  • 1921 – A new Housing Law was passed; however, the voters, by referendum, refused to enact this statute.
  • 1923 – A new State Housing Act was approved by a near-unanimous vote of the Legislature and then signed into law by the governor.
  • 1927 – The Pacific Coast Building Officials (later the International Conference of Building Officials) published the first edition of the model Uniform Building Code (UBC) subsequently adopted on an irregular basis by local jurisdictions throughout the state.
  • 1933 – Within a month of a devastating earthquake in Long Beach, the Field Act assigned responsibility for the design and construction of new public schools to the State Architect.

(“This is another example of a separate regulatory authority adopting building standards in its own title in this case, Title 21.”)

Efforts for and against statewide codes after World War II

With the onset of World War II, any plans by local or state agencies and politicians regarding potential changes in the construction code promulgation process were put on hold. Then, during the subsequent post-war building boom and its associated economic prosperity, more and more local jurisdictions throughout California chose to incorporate all (or portions of) various UBC model code editions into their local codes. Examples include:

  • A new 1948 Oakland Building Code, modeled on the 1946 edition of the UBC, was made effective from November 1948 to December 1957.
  • Similarly, in 1947, a completely rewritten and reformatted 1948 Building Codes of the City and County of San Francisco was approved.

(While this new code incorporated multiple provisions from the model 1946 UBC, it also retained much of its independent ‘home rule’ character.)

Meanwhile, as outlined with representative examples below, lobbying efforts within the Legislature to promote single-agency oversight of statewide construction codes similarly increased after the war. In particular, note in the following citations that these political battles were being fought on two distinct fronts: a) with various State agencies that sought to protect their specific areas of authority, and b) with certain jurisdictions (e.g., the City and County of San Francisco) that similarly did not want to cede their ‘home rule’ powers.

  • 1949 – House Resolution No. 183 established a panel that reported: “The state has no one agency concerned principally with building regulations. There are at least ten state agencies having some degree of authority in this field, and not one of them is responsible for taking the lead in coordinating the activity of all of them. This produces two kinds of confusion–conflict between state agencies themselves, and too many kinds of relationships between state and local agencies.

There is no consistent pattern for defining the relative responsibility of the state and of local agencies in enforcing state regulations.”

  • 1953 – The authorization of a new State Building Standards Law included establishment of the initial California Building Standards Commission, which had limited powers.

The CBSC could not question the substantive provisions of the code if it found technical defects, or that the provisions would have a negative impact on the public. Also, the CBSC had no control over the filing of a building standard with the Secretary of State, and no appeal powers. Because of its limited powers to control the building standard regulatory process, the CBSC was unsuccessful in its attempts to resolve long-standing problems that made it almost impossible for users of the code to understand and comply with it.”

Building standards continued to be buried in different titles of the Administrative Code – OSHA in Title 8, Health in Title 17, Fire Marshal in Title 19, Hospitals in Title 22, etc. There was no codification of indexing, and these standards were scattered through the 30,000 plus pages of the California Administrative Code. Enforcement was complicated, costly, and in some cases, nonexistent.”

  • 1957 – A report by the Senate Interim Committee on Governmental Organization advised: “The handicaps under which the California Building Standards Commission operates emphasize the inadequacy of halfway measures. The promulgation of the State Building Standards Code would eliminate some of the confusion resulting from uncoordinated building regulations issued by the various state agencies but would not be a substitute for an integrated department or agency with the responsibility for administration of the state’s building laws activities.”
  • 1960 – “ Bentson traced the history of the State code, noting in 1960 that one code was proposed for the entire State. The Federal government got interested in developing a nationwide uniform building code but ran into funding and other problems resulting in the program being bounced back to the states to solve. The Federal government has looked to California to take the lead in this movement because of our expanding population and the rapid growth of the construction industry.  …The aim is to condense all State codes into one document.
  • 1961 – “…the State Housing Act was repealed and the State Housing Law was enacted. …The new law established authority for the Commission of Immigration and Housing to adopt rules and regulations applicable to apartment houses, hotels, and dwellings to carry out the legislative intent.”
  • 1965 – “The Commission of Housing and Community Development was created. The Division of Housing within the Department of Industrial Relations, along with all its duties, powers, responsibilities and jurisdictions, was placed in a new Department of Housing and Community Development.”
  • 1967 – “This last year witnessed increased pressures for preemption of the building code field simultaneously at the State level and at the Federal level, San Francisco’s historical position favoring home rule was the basis of this Bureau’s participation in activities to counteract this tendency. Appearances at the Building Standards Commission hearings and Federal meetings to present the arguments for home rule were undertaken by the Bureau.”

This is a very serious erosion of the basic home rule philosophy, and appears to be backed by certain minority factions in the building industry who feel that through the intervention of State or Federal governments they can get their materials used to a greater extent…

“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.”

  • 1970 – “SB 952 (Moscone) …proposed to create a Board of Building and Safety with sole authority to adopt building standards. It was opposed by the State agencies who were adopting building standards. It was vetoed.”
  • In 1970, the California Legislature made a finding that uniformity in building standards throughout the state is a matter of statewide interest and concern since it would reduce housing costs and increase the efficiency of the private housing construction industry. To assure uniform standards, the legislature enacted Health and Safety Code Section 17958 which required the local governing bodies to enact ordinances imposing the same building standards as those adopted by the Department. Other provisions in this same legislative bill allowed local governments to modify the state standards provided the local government made specific findings of need.”
  • 1973 – “The State Legislature has been enacting legislation over the last three years increasing the amount of overlap between local government and state agencies. Furthermore, they have been, in the bills they consider, writing code at the legislative level rather than providing enabling legislation which would allow the use of the Uniform Building Code or equivalent.

“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.

  • 1974 – “Increasingly there has been a greater degree of activity of Federal agencies entering the code field. …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.

  • 1978 – Meanwhile, over several decades, the City and County of San Francisco, as part of its strategic resistance to State efforts to take control of its codes-writing process, had increasingly implemented 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.

One of the main comments received in the Bureau from users of the Building Code is, ‘Why can’t you use the same Occupancy designations as the Uniform Code?’. 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.

A review of the Building Code is expected to commence early in 1979. This review is expected to compare each section of the San Francisco Code with the Uniform Building Code (which is used as a base by the State) with the expectation of making the San Francisco Code more similar to the Uniform Code as well as clarifying and up-dating it. It is hoped that the professional groups will aid the Bureau in this time-consuming comparison.”

  • 1979 – “SB 331 (Robbins) – Effective January 1, 1980, legislation provided broader powers to the CBSC… As a result of this legislation, all proposed building regulations promulgated by the various State departments must be reviewed and approved by the Commission before they have any force or effect. Further, the legislation calls for all building standards to be removed from other titles of the California Code of Regulations and put into a single code, or Title 24. The Commission is responsible for codifying and printing of Title 24. In addition, since January 1980, the Commission is charged with reviewing proposed regulations to be sure they meet the …criteria found in Health and Safety Code Section 18930(a).”

(In short, the greatly empowered California Building Standards Commission was victorious in its 25-year-long political battle to gain single-agency control of the State’s codes promulgation processes. However, as further reviewed below, there still were numerous bureaucratic battles remaining.)

  • 1981 – The empowered Building Standards Commission promulgated a new State Building Standards Code – applicable to state-controlled buildings and property, including public sidewalks – that initially took control of only the “building” and “electrical” codes. (This 1981 State Building Code adopted by reference the 1979 edition of the model Uniform Building Code.)

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 of behalf of the physically disabled).

  • 1985 – A subsequent 1982 State Building Code was superseded by the 1985 State Building Code (effective October 1, 1985) which adopted by reference both the 1979 and 1982 (residential construction only) editions of the model UBC. (At this time, State agencies still had the authority to reference different UBC editions; however, as reviewed below, this power soon was lost to the CBSC during yet another political skirmish.)
  • 1985 – Meanwhile, a new 1984 San Francisco Building Code, extensively reviewed, revised and rewritten from 1980 thru 1982, marked the City and County’s surrender in the decades-long ‘home rule’ codes war/

This new 1984 San Francisco Building Code similarly adopted by reference the model 1979 UBC (with some provisions taken from the model 1982 UBC), in general conformance with the new 1985 State Building Code.

  • 1988 – “1988 AB 4616 (Lancaster) – Effective January 1, 1989, legislation provided that administrative regulations adopted by State agencies which apply to the implementation or enforcement of building standards must be submitted to the CBSC for approval.”
  • Also in 1988, the Legislature even further strengthened the CBSC: “SB 2871 (Marks) provided that …the building standards contained in specified codes (model codes) published by the Commission apply, with certain exceptions, to all occupancies throughout the state.
  • 1989 – The victorious 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. This new “California edition of the 1988 Uniform Codes” became effective on July 1, 1989 for State projects and January 1, 1990 for private construction.
  • 1990 – Meanwhile, in final confirmation that its ‘home rule’ codes war had ended, the new 1990 San Francisco Building Code advised: “Like the cities and counties, the State adopts model codes by reference, with substantial amendments to accommodate State needs. …In turn, cities and counties are mandated by law to adopt the same editions of the model codes with six months of their adoption by the State.”

To widespread acclaim, one model building code now controlled all construction projects (except Federal) located throughout the State of California.

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 yet fully[32]) resolved with the CBSC’s promulgation of the statewide California Building Code and the closely integrated California Fire Code.

Over the following decade, subsequent editions of the renamed “California Building Code” (CBC) published by the Building Standards Commission included:

  • 1991 CBC (modeled on the 1991 UBC) – effective August 14, 1992;
  • 1995 CBC (modeled on the 1994 UBC) – effective December 28, 1995; and
  • 1998 CBC (modeled on the 1997 UBC) – effective July 1, 1999.

In 1997, the Legislature (Stats. 1997, ch. 645) modified Health and Safety Code (HSC) Section 17958.7:

  • (a) …the governing body of a city or county, …shall make an express finding that such modifications or changes are reasonably necessary because of local climatic, geological or topographical conditions. Such a finding shall be available as a public record. A copy of those findings, together with the modification or change expressly marked and identified to which each finding refers, shall be filed with the California Building Standards Commission. No modification or change shall become effective or operative for any purpose until the finding and the modification or change have been filed with the California Building Standards Commission.

(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 governing body of the local government must make express findings that amendments to the building standard contained in CCR, T-24 [i.e., Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations] are necessary because of local climatic, geological or topographical conditions.”
  • The local government amendments must provide a more restrictive building standard than that contained in CCR, T-24.”
  • The amendments are neither effective nor operative until copies of both the express findings and the amendments, with the amendments expressly marked and identified as to the applicable findings, have been filed with the California Building Standards Commission.”
  • California Building Standards are applicable to all occupancies throughout California, whether or not the local government takes an affirmative action to adopt those California Building Standards.”
  • Local governments should work closely with counsel to develop adopting Ordinances for California Building Standards, develop express findings for any amendment of those Building Standards, and provide for enforcement of those Building Standards.”
  • The absence of a filing with the California Building Standards Commission of local government amendments implies that California Building Standards and the related regulations of the Department of Housing and Community Development are applicable within that local jurisdiction, without amendment.
  • The California Building Standards Commission will not question the express findings of a local government as to the local climatic, geological or topographical conditions necessitating their amendments.”
  • The California Building Standards Commission will reject, by letter, the filings by local governments where no express findings are submitted with proposed amendments. No express findings will be deemed to have been submitted under the following circumstances:
  • There are, in fact, no express findings submitted with the proposed amendments.
  • The proposed amendments are not expressly marked and identified as to the applicable express findings.
  • There is no evidence by signatures or the certification of the city/county clerk that the express findings were a lawful action of the governing body of the local jurisdiction.”

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).

  • The last edition of the regional Uniform Building Code (serving the western United States) was published in 1997.
  • The first edition of the new nationwide model International Building Code was published in 2000 (followed by updated editions in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018).
  • While many states (and regional jurisdictions in states – e.g., Nevada – that do not exercise statewide control) rapidly transitioned to the new IBC, there was resistance in some jurisdictions, including New York City, the State of Hawaii, and the State of California, to accepting these new ICC model codes.

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).

  • NFPA had joined forces with IAPMO (International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials), WFCA (Western Fire Chiefs Association,) and ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) to promote a proposed new model “Comprehensive Consensus Code” (CCC) to compete with the ICC’s new “International” model codes.
  • California Governor Grey Davis, whose election in November 1999 had been strongly supported by certain unions and industry groups, soon loaded the Building Standards Commission with supporters of the proposed new model codes being developed by NFPA and its partners.

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.”

  • In July 2003, the Building Standards Commission adopted NFPA 5000 and NFPA 1 (Uniform Fire Code) as the models for the intended 2004 editions of the CBC and CFC.

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 2001 CBC, based upon the model 1997 UBC, continued to rule statewide construction until the 2007 CBC became effective on January 1, 2008.

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:

  • 2007 CBC (modeled on 2006 IBC) – effective January 1, 2008
  • 2010 CBC (modeled on 2009 IBC) – effective January 1, 2011
  • 2013 CBC (modeled on 2012 IBC) – effective January 1, 2014
  • 2016 CBC (modeled on 2015 IBC) – effective January 1, 2017
  • 2019 CBC (modeled on 2018 IBC) – effective January 1, 2020.

CBSC’s procedural requirements for receiving/accepting “express findings”

As noted above, every local jurisdiction (e.g., city, county, or other political subdivision) throughout the State of California, when making any modifications or changes to the “building standards” adopted by the California Building Standards Commission must (since 1997) 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.

  • These duly-certified local amendments must be more restrictive that the CBSC-adopted building standards.
  • Importantly, amendments of CBSC-adopted building standards made by local jurisdictions have no validity unless such “express findings” have been filed and accepted by the CBSC.
  • Copies of these “express findings” are maintained for public review at the CBSC website.

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.

  • Lack of “express findings” as to the rationale for topographical, geological and/or climatic need as required by (H&SC) §§ 17958.7 and 18941.5, and/or
  • Lack of “expressly marked” modifications or changes to Title 24 pursuant to (H&SC) §§ 17958.7.”

If challenged in court, local jurisdictions who have not filed with the CBSC such acceptable “express findings” for their code amendments very likely will lose this legal battle.

  • Brief review of the CBSC website providing public access to such accepted “express findings” reveals many local jurisdictions for which their various code amendments (if any) have not been filed with the State.
  • Note: while some of these missing jurisdictions simply may not have made any such amendments to the CBSC’s triennially-adopted building standards, it appears clear that others – by failing to meet their filing burden with the CBSC – are risking legal challenge.

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.

  • While adoption by a local jurisdiction of any of these specific CBC Appendices explicitly is “not mandatory” (for example, some jurisdictions may determine that they have no local need for construction requirements regarding “flood-resistant construction” or “patio covers”), any adoption and/or modification of the building standards delineated within these Appendices must be submitted to and accepted by the CBSC in accordance with the “express findings” requirements of the Health & Safety 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.

Summary discussion

This memorandum presents an abridged bureaucratic history of the founding of the California Building Standards Commission and its decades-long battles for statewide empowerment and single-agency oversight of California’s construction codes-writing processes.  The CBSC’s foes included multiple State agencies (e.g., the Division of the State Architect) and certain ‘home rule’ jurisdictions (e.g., the City and County of San Francisco) that, though still very powerful in their specific areas of influence, had to cede an extensive degree of overall authority.

My previous 2016 paper, An Abridged History of San Francisco’s Bureau of Building Inspection – Part I (1944 to 1992), addressed this storyline from the perspectives of local leaders.  This memo takes an alternative look at the same battle lines from the historical viewpoint of the ultimate victor, the statewide CBSC.

The phrase “history is written by the victors” (often miscited to Winston Churchill) is a simple truism: CBSC continues to have a vested interest in painting a rosy history of its past, while San Francisco’s code agencies have no real reason to further memorialize decades-old political losses into the written record. However, it is only through comparing these alternative viewpoints that one can best understand the meaning and intent of our modern codes.


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