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An Abridged History of the Statewide “California Building Code”


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:

  • The City of San Jose approved its first construction code in 1890.
  • “Building Laws of the City of Oakland” were adopted in 1912.
  • Replacing the 1903 “Building Ordinances of the City and County of San Francisco”, the 1906 “Building Law of the City and County of San Francisco” (adopted less than 3 months after the city’s great earthquake in April 1906) was then replaced with a greatly expanded “Building Law” in December 1909.

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.

  • Over the ensuing decades, subsequent editions of the model UBC increasingly were adopted by local jurisdictions throughout the state.

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).

  • The City of Oakland, for example, did not modernize its building code until after the War’s end (the 1948 Oakland Building Code, modeled on the 1946 UBC, was effective from November 1948 to December 1957).
  • Similarly, in 1947, the completely rewritten and reformatted“1948 Building Codes of the City and County of San Francisco” were approved.  (While this new building code did incorporate various provisions from the model UBC, it still retained much of its independent ‘home rule’ philosophy and character.)

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.

  • “Mr. 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.”

These ongoing State and Federal activities were strongly resisted by the City and County of San Francisco:

  • “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.”

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”:

  • The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the uniformity of codes throughout the State of California is a matter of statewide interest and concern since it would reduce housing costs and increase the efficient of private housing construction industry and its production.

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.]

  • Such a finding shall be available as a public record and a copy, together with the modification or change, filed with the department [i.e., the Department of Housing and Community Development]. Nothing contained in this part shall be construed to require the governing body of any city or county to alter in any way building regulations enacted on or before the effective date [November 23, 1970] of this section.”

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.

  • “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.”

“…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.

  • “The Department of Housing and Community Development adopted noise and energy regulations in February 1974 applicable to all new construction effective August 1974 and February 1975 respectively. The Commission of that department is aware of serious problems existing and deficiencies in the regulations and have been urged that they be rectified at an early date.

“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.

  • “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. 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:

  • “(b) If, prior to the effective date of this subdivision [January 1, 1977], the governing body of a city or county has filed the modification or change but has failed to file the express finding, the governing body shall file the express finding with the department [i.e., the Department of Housing and Community Development] within 90 days of the effective date of this subdivision.

“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):

  • 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.”

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.

  • “To correct the problems and confusion resulting from the uncoordinated proliferation of conflicting, duplicate, and overlapping state regulations, SB 331 (Robbins) (Chapter 1152, Statutes of 1979), effective January 1, 1980, provided the Commission with broader powers.

“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.

  • For example, Section 1711 of the 1982 edition of the UBC reduced the maximum spacing of balusters and stair railings from 9 inches to 6 inches.
  • This important life safety provision became effective in the City of Oakland in September 1985 but was not required until January 1990 for all construction work in the City of San Jose.

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).

  • This 1981 State Building Code adopted by reference the model 1979 UBC.
  • A subsequent 1982 State Building Code was then superseded by a 1985 State Building Code (effective October 1, 1985) which adopted by reference the 1979 and 1982 (residential construction only) editions of the model UBC.

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.

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

Also in 1984, the State Legislature (Stats. 1984, ch. 908) further strengthened the “express finding” requirement of HSC Section 17958.7:

  • (a) the governing body of a city or county, before making any modifications or changes pursuant to Section 17958.5, 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 such findings, together with the modification or change expressly marked and identified to which each such finding refers, shall be filed with the department.  No such modification or change shall become effective or operative for any purpose until the finding and the modification or change have been filed with the department.

(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:

  • “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.

 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.

  • 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.

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.

  • To the widespread acclaim of many active design professionals, 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 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:

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

The Building Standards Commission is further empowered

In 1997, the Legislature (Stats. 1997, ch. 645) modified 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 Building Standards Law takes a straight forward approach to amendments by local governments:

  • 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.”

 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).

  • 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.

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).

  • 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.

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

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:

  • 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

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.

  • 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.


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