Understanding the Laws of Building

By: Michael Tobias

Whether you are planning to build a new home, a garden shed, or a large multi-story mansion, there are a myriad of laws that you will need to comply with. While a lawyer will likely play a role in your build, especially if you’re buying the land or getting a loan to help cover the construction process, it will be the professionals who specialize in building who will help you to understand the laws that relate to building.

These professionals might be consultants or key service providers like architects, quantity surveyors, engineers who specialize in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), electrics, or plumbing, or even tradesmen like electricians or plumbers with a wealth of personal experience. Depending on what you need or want to know about mandatory processes, you might choose to talk to an architect who can advise on legislation relating to tiny homes in New York or perhaps someone who offers mechanical engineering services in Chicago. There are numerous options.

There are a number of international building codes as well as codes, regulations, and standards that are required by various states, counties, and cities. Individual local authorities also have mandatory requirements that you will need to comply with. Without professional guidance, it can be a minefield.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are also countless laws and regulations that relate to things like air quality, waste, water, and harmful products like lead and asbestos.

So, I’m going to focus on New York just to give an idea of what you can expect if you are a newbie to the building process.

New York Construction Codes

New York City (NYC) has a number of construction codes including one that covers General Administrative Provisions including permits, licenses and fees, and four technical volumes: a Building Code, a Fuel Gas Code, a Mechanical Code, and a Plumbing Code. Each of these is extensive, especially the Building Code that covers everything from structural design and the wide range of materials used for construction to interior finishes and fire protection services. All these codes are constantly revised and updated.

Additional codes include the NYC Energy Code, a separate Electrical Code, and the NYC Fire Code. These are codes that an electrical engineer offering services in New York would be familiar with.

Then there are a multitude of Local Laws, including those that amend existing codes in relation to specific sections that relate to anything from greenhouse gas emissions and bird-friendly materials to document submissions and even issues relating to harassment.

New York State has its own codes, all of which have been adopted from 2015 international codes with various amendments. They include the:

  • Building Code
  • Residential Code
  • Fire Code
  • Plumbing Code
  • Mechanical Code
  • Fuel Gas Code
  • Property Maintenance Code

The New York State Energy Conservation Code comprises six chapters, the most popular of which relate to vital elements of energy efficiency, including:

  • Building envelope requirements
  • Building thermal envelope
  • Building mechanical systems
  • Insulation component R-value-based method
  • Design conditions
  • Electrical power and lighting systems
  • Insulation and fenestration criteria
  • Materials, systems, and equipment

Why We Have Building Codes & Laws of Building

Building codes and the various mandatory regulations that relate to buildings and the construction process are designed to ensure that buildings are safe.

In the U.S., the first building regulations were introduced after fires had destroyed buildings in densely populated cities. So, initially, they were intended to ensure that buildings were safe from fire, though over time the scope of the codes has broadened substantially, and they now specify minimum requirements for materials, structural integrity, lighting, ventilation, and of course resistance to fire. 

Since earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, and other natural disasters are as much of an issue – and threat – as fires, building codes include standards that ensure maximum protection against these eventualities.

U.S. states and local authorities enforce the relevant building codes and other regulations. Where there aren’t any, in a few rural areas, designers and builders work according to standards that are appropriate for the area. 

At the end of the day the laws that relate to building are there for our protection, so it’s a good idea to come to terms with what they mean and entail.

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.