Building Codes in History
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Building Codes in Stone
So, you think it is hard to deal with city hall? Then, you gotta check this out.
The beginning of documented building codes came from Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. The black stone stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was carved from a single, four-ton slab of black diorite.
Most of us know that dealing with a slab of stone weighing in at four tons, measuring 7 feet 3 inches high, with a circumference at the base of 6 feet 2 inches and at the top of 5 feet 4 inches is no easy feat.
And those of you who deal directly with stone know diorite is difficult to sculpt because it is hard, its composition is variable, and it has a coarse grain size. Leaves you wondering why this type of stone was chosen.
So, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, this stele is a phallic symbol which Hammurabi used to declare more than the simple fact-of-the-matter laws.
Building Code preamble
I mean, check this out. This is what Hammurabi had the stone masons carve as the preamble to the laws:
“When the lofty Anu, King of the Annunaki and Bel, Lord of Heaven and Earth, he who determines the destiny of the land, committed the rule of all mankind to Marduk, when they pronounced the lofty name of Babylon, when they made it famous among the quarters of the world and in its midst established an everlasting kingdom whose foundations were firm as heaven and earth – at that time Anu and Bel called me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, the worshipper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people. Hammurabi, the governor named by Bel, am I, who brought about plenty and abundance.”
Hell—low! Ego much?
And, remember I noted above that this stone is hard to carve. It isn’t likely Hammurabi was trying to make life difficult for those carving the laws into stone. It is more likely Hammurabi was doing his best to make it difficult for anyone to pick up a “stone eraser” and change the law. So yeah, there is the difference between “let’s do it this way for now,” and “sorry buddy, this stuff is carved in stone.”
The down and dirty of the Building Code
While there are a lot of other laws on the stele, this is a short list of the laws we would construe as building code. (With my thoughts and notes following in parentheses.)
If a builder builds a house for someone and completes it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface. (Area measures are based on the sar, which is one square nindan or about 36 square meters. That’s about 387.50078 square feet if you’re wondering.)
229 If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then the builder shall be put to death. (Doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room here. Like, never mind trying to blame the subs!)
230 If it kill the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death. (So, I guess we’re just assuming the builder has a son. And, if he didn’t, I’m not sure where daughters might fit into the picture. Kind of makes me glad – again – I’m a girl.)
231 If it kill a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house. (Rather than eye-for-eye it looks as if, when it came to slaves, it was good enough to provide value-for-value. Although you do have to wonder if it was the less-than-attentive slave who caused the “falling in” in the first place.)
And there is more
232 If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that is ruined, and in as much as he did not construct properly this house which he build and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means. (And, he darn well better hope he gets it right this time! Although, it could have been worse – see laws 229, 230, and 231)
233 If a builder build a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it, if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means. (Kind of puts the kibosh on today’s nonsensical business “wisdom” of fail fast, fail often.)
Of course, Hammurabi’s isn’t the only ancient documented set of laws we know of. Yet, it is often touted as the first to have guidelines for contractors.
Building Codes in a newly formed country
In 1788, the Constitution of the United States of America was working its way through the ratification process one state at a time. Georgia became the fourth state to ratify on the second of January. By June 21st New Hampshire provided the needed ninth ratification and the Constitution went into effect. (It wasn’t until May 29, 1790, that Rhode Island voted to ratify the document. It was the last of the original 13 colonies to join the United States.)
In June of 1788, Old Salem (now Winston-Salem) North Carolina adopted the first known building code in the United States. Yet, confusing matters just a bit, North Carolina didn’t ratify the Constitution until November 21, 1789.
If you check the Constitution, you’ll find there is no official language mandated in the United States. Yet, it is intriguing that in a (mostly) English speaking nation, that the first building code was written in German.
The Building Code of New Salem
You can find an introduction to and a translated copy of the Code of New Salem here.
Go check it out. It is rather short – I mean, there are only 11 Building Regulations in the document. I know! Right?
And, I love the preamble:
“We are not going to discuss here the rules of the art of building as a whole, but only those rules which relate to the order and way of building in our community. It often happens, due to ill- considered planning, that neighbors are molested and sometimes even the whole community suffers. For such reasons, in well-ordered communities, rules have been set up. Therefore our brotherly equality and the faithfulness which we have expressed for each other necessitates that we agree to some rules and regulations which shall be basic for all construction in our community so that no one suffers damage or loss because of careless construction by his neighbor, and it is a special duty of the Town Council to enforce such rules and regulations.”
Beware of peeping neighbors
The tenth regulation in which there is mention of “peeping neighbors” as well as instruction concerning fences and window placement is perhaps my favorite. Here it is in its entirety.
“10. Since experience has taught us that so many complaints and quarrels and damage can arise from access between lots, so that often one cannot enjoy his own piece of land and work on it, it is mandatory that henceforth every lot must be completely fenced in. No gates or openings shall be left for communication except with the knowledge and permission of the community government. A house that is placed near the side line of a lot shall not have any windows that look into the neighbor’s yard and in general all gable windows shall be well considered as to whether they are necessary, so that the aforementioned molesting can be avoided.
For the lower floor there is not too much objection because of the fences, and in kitchens and service porches only high windows can be used anyway. However, a common rule cannot be fixed and decisions must be made from one case to the next. There are no objections at all to windows facing the street. The people will have to take care of peeping neighbors in the usual way.”
So yeah, today’s codes are much more complex. Yet, it is in these early codes where we find the concepts of standards, zoning, and enforcement that have reached down to our present-day building codes. Think about this the next time you’re dealing with permits, inspections, and all things code.
Schulte and Schulte provides Accounting and advisory board level Strategic Counsel for small to medium commercial construction subcontractors. You can learn more about us here. http://www.schulteandschulte.com/
So you can Run With the Big Dogs. 866-629-7735