I heard it again this morning in reference to our cherished local landmark, Fair Park. A comment was made about how the buildings there are crumbling and how many millions in public and private funds will be needed to just "bring the buildings up to code." When this phrase is used in connection with work needed at existing and/or historic buildings, an alarm should sound. The clear implication is that any building that is not up to code is a disaster-in-waiting. It's only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt by such a neglected, non-compliant building. To be Fair to Fair Park, that may actually be true in some instances, but how is it we continue to let millions of people use these and other buildings if they don't meet the legal standards? Basically, it's because not being to code rarely, if ever, actually equates to danger. Or neglect. Or any other of the building maladies such a phrase is clearly intended to conjure up. Outside of a meeting with a building official considering new work, that phase is used mostly as a scare tactic. Coercion in an effort to get something else.
Here's what I mean. The City of Dallas, Texas is currently considering adopting the 2015 International Building Code family of codes. Realize that the day Dallas City Council adopts those codes as the standards for Dallas, EVERY BUILDING IN THE CITY OF DALLAS will almost certainly not be to code. Does that mean that all the buildings built to the current 2012 code are unsafe? Certainly not. The truly big items, things like structural integrity, fire safety, access to light and air, and durability were substantially addressed in building codes many decades ago. Code changes now are incremental and, at their best, reflect current thinking in the science and technology of buildings. Often, they are updated to address new materials, new findings, or evolution in construction practices.
There is also the question of which code. Part of the IBC code family is the Existing Building Code. It is better at recognizing the qualities of and the realities of working with buildings constructed before the current codes. We use it a lot in preservation as most jurisdictions have adopted it. Some have not. So here you have the situation that a building renovated to code in a city where the Existing Building Code was adopted would not be legal were it located in a city where the Existing Building Code were not in effect. Does that make it unsafe? Silly question. Add to that the fact that many cities amend these standard codes with their own, specific requirements. In light of this, it is possible to have an existing building renovated to code in one city, but know that it would not meet the code provisions of multiple cities nearby, and for different reasons in each. This has little to do with safety or soundness of a building.
With historic buildings I often get to point out that those buildings were built 100 years before our current code, but they are still standing, still structurally sound and haven't killed anybody that anyone is aware of. There are reasons they are still here and still able to contribute to the urban fabric. Be wary of the fear mongers.