Why building codes should be open

Here's rogue archivist Carl Malamud's five-minute Ignite Sebastapol talk on "Code City": the democratic necessity of making all of the nation's laws and codes free to read, download and analyze: "The laws that most directly touch our daily lives are not supreme court opinions or bills of landmark legislation, they are the public safety codes: building, electrical, plumbing, and other technical standards. Yet, these laws are the most inaccessible. Open standards make better infrastructure, and if we open sourced our public safety codes, our laws would be not only more relevant, but the law would be better."

Welcome to Code City! (Thanks, Carl!)


  1. Yup, his was a great talk, probably the best of the evening.

    However, Cory, it’s “SebastOpol.” Those of us in the Nuclear-Free Zone take offense. :)

  2. While his argument that codes should be freely accessible is indisputable, it’s a shock to me that this isn’t the case.

    As a former law librarian from back in the days when Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis were the main electronic reference sources for legal materials, I certainly saw hefty reproduction fees for photocopying and printing. But that continues today?

  3. Democracy. A concept often refered to, but seldom made manifest.

    Carl Malamud wants to change that fact, because the single greatest challenge to actual democracy is that it requires an informed population.

    ~D. Walker

  4. He keeps saying “open source,” but like Fezik, that word doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. Open source isn’t just open access (which is a good thing), it also means modifiable. Quite frankly, I don’t want someone modifying fire safety codes for their own (probably lax) purposes.

  5. @coaxial
    you set up an open source strawman and sell fear to knock it down. Increases in safety are often sacrificed to archaic implementations of inscrutible codes. Flexible gas lines vs. solid pipe gas lines come to mind; flexible gas lines are obviously more robust during earthquakes, but entrenched code is slow to adopt any new improvements. Increased openess of the codes allow for modification in an experimental way, not a certified way. Though if a group were to re-write a code to implement technological reason vs. entrenched manufacturing apathy, the municipalities would have a true choice in improving their communities in an open market of ideas, through their choice of which code to certify. You sound like a protectionist shill for the current manufacturing monopolies and their trade associations.

  6. I’m awake in a hotel room at four in the morning reading BB because of stress caused by an unscrupulous builder who has failed to comply with code and cannot close our home. The Ontario Building Code is a pricey document and I’ve been spending my days at the library pouring over it, lately. Why should it be open? So that people like me who are getting screwed by bad builders can easily prove their cases during disputes, and so that builders have no excuse not to have a copy of the code on site and in the back pocket of every tradesperson.

    This isn’t intellectual property, it’s one of the basic mechanisms of building our communities. We all need to have equal access to it. After I finish my very public lobby effort against Ontario’s lame duck home warranty system, maybe I’ll start a lobby effort on this front.

    1. cjp, the Ontario Building Code is available online. It is a regulation, and all Ontario regulations are viewable on e-laws.


      This is a link to the official Ontario Building Code website:


      This site has interpretations of the code, transcripts of the public meetings they are currently in the midst of to do consultation on the next version of the code, and a newsletter you can sign up for to get updated information about the code.

      The reason why the code in book for is so expensive is because it is absolutely huge. The printing costs are enormous, and it isn’t exactly a best seller where you can get massive economies of scale.

      As for the openness of the code in general, while building codes can be arduous to update and may contain rigid rules, Ontario also has the Building Materials Evaluation Commission which allows builders to have innovative materials evaluated by professionals to see whether they are adequate substitutes for traditional materials.

      I agree that building codes should be open and regularly reviewed, and that policy makers should find ways to protect safety without stifling innovation. Ontario, however, is really a model of all of those things.

  7. I am a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and once worked at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the code/standards making body for most everything mechanical.

    These standards are open. Committee members that decide standards are unpaid and uncompensated. It can’t be a completely open process because engineering is a profession with legal requirements and serious consequences; it takes years to develop the necessary skills. And ASME is non-profit. The books are expensive because a lot of work goes into ensuring the decision process is fair. And, don’t worry, people there are far from overpaid. It’s a real non-profit.

    I use and love open-source software, but I don’t think the same process is a wise idea when it comes these engineering standards (although it’s not far off).

    1. Anon, I came here to say the same thing. The codes are incredibly expensive to produce. It seems to me the only alternative to making the users of the code pay for them would be for the government to subsidize the standards authorities. Many European countries do this, however I think it’s a non starter in the U.S. and maybe Canada.

      The industry I’m in also relies on ASME codes. The code committees are filled with 60 and 70 year old men and there’s no supply of younger engineers willing to take over. Companies aren’t as willing these days to participate unless they have some proposal they want pushed through and I don’t think anybody would see this as a good way of moving the codes forward.

  8. WAIT, hold on a second, I just assumed building codes WERE in the public domain, aren’t they law?
    How can law not being the public domain?
    Isn’t that one of the fundamental tenets of democracy?
    Isn’t this why the Greeks made a big fuss — because their leaders started charging admission to the archives to see what the laws actually were?

    How can the state enforce laws that they don’t give you access to?

  9. In NYC, the codes are free online, but they’re very hard to find and navigate on the inexplicably designed website, and a lot of it seems to be first draft – missing sections, and many errors not present in the print version.

  10. Building codes are the last vestige of the closed, “apprenticeship” means of transmitting knowledge.

    It predates the masons, the middle ages, and even before the invention of the printing press.

    They are expensive and unjustifiably so.

    The codification of construction is subject to extremely rigorous application of pragmatism and dogmatism.

    On one hand, they require absolute proof that they work. (A building MUST NOT FALL DOWN. The pyramids are proof that it works.)

    On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to prove anything new. (That kind of dogmatism is what led to Giordano Bruno being burned at the stake. [Earth revolving around the sun? Poppycock! ])

  11. Printing the laws was essential to bring about the rise of humanism; digitizing and uploading the laws is essential to preserve it.

  12. Well many municipal codes incorporate commercial standards “by reference.” Of course under the merger doctrine, the very copyrightability of those standards is questionable. You can’t copyright a “method or means of operation,” which those codes (arguably all laws) are. That can only be protected by patents which are much harder to get, and are of far more limited duration. Copyright only covers the literay description of the underlying means. And really, there aren’t too many ways to say ‘2×4 studs, 16″ on center.’ To the extant that the description can’t be separated from the underlying methods the merger doctrine holds that the copying the description is okay. To say nothing of the obvious public policy considerations which would tend to make copying a “fair use.”

  13. You miss the point. building codes are not for safety, they are to create union jobs for the building trades. St. Louis County recently passed a seemingly benign change to the lawn sprinkler code. the new type of back flow valve required here (no where else in Missouri) doesn’t work any better, it just requires an annual inspection by a licensed plumber. These codes are written by the trades and by lawyers all of whom make money as a result.

  14. In Ontario, Canada the Building Code is easy enough to refer to online and search using a browser.


    The problem definitely is the free access to the referenced standards.

    The various related Standards documents from from for example CSA, ULC, CGSB etc. cost an arm and a leg. Probably OK when a Company has a limited area of expertise and only has to buy one or two, but it falls apart when one has to look at the big picture and is faced with thousands of dollars in document purchase fees.

    A lot of construction contract documents will just quote the title of the standard with neither the writer nor the reader having any idea of the actual contents. Therefore relying on a manufacturer or makers statement of compliance and having no knowledge to verify actual compliance.

    The common person faced with dealing with this in perhaps a one shot, single project, one time deal is effectively blinded to these extensions of the law in the form of standards. The Law is held ransom by the cost of the reference documents.

    When it comes to enforcement, ignorance of the law is no excuse, but how many can afford to know the total picture?

    Free Standards could change all this, and perhaps open the door to innovation with compliance alternatives once people can read the “hidden” part of the law.

  15. As a health and safety professional: GOD YES PLEASE.

    Fun fact: Theoretically, in Canada, all provincial acts, regulations, codes, etc, are available openly.

    Double Fun Fact: Many of the laws, in particular to health and safety, specifically cite standards from associations like the CSA.

    Triple Fun Fact: The CSA, like many other such standards bodies, are FOR-PROFIT organizations who do their damndest to restrict or otherwise prevent free distribution of their standards lists.


  16. Like some of the other posters, I work in an industry that relies heavily on building codes. In my day-to-day work designing and installing PV for residences and commercial buildings, I use:

    ASCE 7-10
    NEC 2008
    IPC 2006
    IBC 2006

    To buy all these code books would cost roughly $500-$600, and you would need to refer to them all to build your own system on your own home (or to know for sure why we’ve had to perform work on your home that is very expensive, claiming that the code made us do it). While many of these are available at the library (reference section only), during realistic projects you will refer to your code book many many times. When an inspector says, “We’re failing your project due to NEC 690.64(B)”, you need to be able to look that up.

    While the codes shouldn’t be “open” in the modifiable sense, they should be open in the viewable sense. It is expensive to make codes – but that should be something we all pay into a little at a time. Let tax money contributed from jurisdictions that are selling building permits pay for code development, and let everyone have access to the codes.

    Regular laws are also expensive to research and modify, but you don’t have to pay to read supreme court decisions!

    Codes should also be open in the sense that their processes for revision should be more public. While some code committees do a good job of explaining their reasoning, many do not, and revisions appear with little or no explanation. Technology is moving quickly now, but codes do not adopt the technology quickly at all. Sometimes this is a realistic conservatism, but sometimes it is just that the committees just don’t understand the technology yet – and you don’t know which it is. If the process were more open, then people in the industry would know when additional education was needed.

    The fundamental point still stands – the code is the LAW, and laws need to be viewable by the public for no cost.

  17. It’s also important to note that not only are manufacturers and gov’t interested in maintaining their control of technical standards (i.e. building codes), so are the organizations of the tradespeople who use them. Just have a read of the wired article on the waterless urinal, and how plumbing unions kept them out based on their selfish interests and without consideration for the public good.

    The process behind technical codes should be far more transparent, and more publicized, so we know who is preventing innovation and why. Maybe some already are, at least after a fashion, but the gov’t needs to reinforce this sentiment.

  18. Placing building codes within a form based development and urban planning system like Smartcode and you can avoid the nightmares.

    Only a subset of pages out of any code book will be applicable to a specific project. Why use books? Its 2010.

    Many cities have adopted such intelligent urban planning. Want it in yours? Get on the phone and make a call to your city. Let them know you want a Smartcode system adopted.

  19. Seems to me that any government body that wishes to have a public law refer to another document should be required to ensure that said document can be accessed under the same terms as public law.

  20. Just as a general questions to the masses: if a public law refers to a technical standard that costs money to access, what happens when you request access to that standard via the FOIA? Any thoughts?

      1. I can’t speak for the U.S.A., but in Canada municipalities, and the provincial and federal governments each have their own equivalents of the Freedom of Information Act. Just curious as to what happens when a FOIA request, or something of that persuasion, tries to cross this type of boundary.

  21. The problem is not just the general difficulty in finding the building codes (in our library system, only about 1 out of every 5 libraries owns a copy, and they are mostly reference). Another problem is the byzantine way in which the codes interact with the local laws. I am trying to replace the wood pillars that support my back porch roof with cement ones. It took me several days of perusing the code and the revised statutes to determine that I needed to get a building permit, and that I not only needed the permit, but supporting documents that most homeowners would have to pay out the wazoo to produce, like 8 sets of varying building plans. All for a relatively simple project! Meanwhile, if the termites take a fancy to my back porch, I might be looking at structural failure while waiting for permit approval.

    Even where the codes and relevant laws are available online, usually the website that supports them seems to be maintained and designed by trained apes. There is no quick and easy way to sort through the data and find the relevant bits. I suppose that’s what many people pay big bucks to architects and contractors for.

  22. I just looked for Baltimore City building codes and they are available online for download as a PDF. However they incorporate the following: International Building Code (2006 Edition), National Electrical Code (2005 Edition), National Fuel Gas Code (2006 Edition), International Mechanical Code (2006 Edition), National Standard Plumbing Code (2006 Edition, 2007 Supplement), International Property Maintenance Code (2006 Edition), International Fire Code (2006 Edition), International Energy Conservation Code (2006 Edition), and International Residential Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings (2006 Edition). This effectively renders these documents law but not freely available to the public.

  23. it’s a compelling argument for a sensible thing; it also looks like a wedge toward taking builders & suppliers off the hook for bad results, by placing responsibility at the feet of the final consumer ‘who should have known better’

  24. nobody has mentioned is that the International Building Code and its associated codes are developed by a private company and then sold to the city. The city then codifies them into law, adding to them or rejecting them. Hence the purchase price of the Code. It has also been mentioned that the code is LAW, it is reactionary by nature, since it has always been a minimal standard of practice. It wouldn’t be a very free country if the law forced you to build everything with heavy timber construction or concrete slab buildings, now would it? The beauty of a democratic beaucracy is that you have the right (and responsibility) to march down to the building official’s office and yell at him for a variance, IF what you propose goes above and beyond the minimal standard. And no this cannot be some mickey-mouse solution you engineered in your garage, it probably has to be tested and approved by a Material Standards Testing Board, lest your open-source design kills someone.

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