What to Know About International Building Codes IBC and IRC

Architect and Blueprints

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All communities have sets of rules for builders and other building trade professionals that govern construction practices and are intended to ensure that all aspects of building construction are safe and durable.

The local codes may vary from location to location, but most are based on model codes that are created on a national or international level by committees or councils consisting of recognized trade professionals. 

One such organization is the International Code Council (ICC), an organization responsible for the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC). These codes govern commercial and residential building and remodeling practices, respectively, and are the basis for most local code regulations. These are in addition to various codes that govern mechanical systems, such as plumbing and wiring. 

ICC vs. IBC vs. IRC

International Code Council (ICC)

The International Code Council is the parent organization that supervises several codes over a wide range of subjects—some of which have little impact on most home remodeling or building projects. For example, the ICC governs codes that apply to property maintenance, swimming pools and spas, fuel gas, sewage, and many more. But two of the ICC's codes do apply specifically to construction practices: the IBC and IRC.

International Building Code (IBC)

The International Building Code contains regulations about practices used in commercial construction. 

International Residential Code (IRC)

The International Residential Code contains information and regulations applying to residential construction, including both new construction practices as well as remodeling issues

Additional codes offered by the ICC, some of which occasionally may be of interest include:

  • International Existing Building Code (IEBC)
  • International Mechanical Code (IMC)
  • International Plumbing Code (IPC)
  • International Fire Code (IFC)
  • International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (ISPSC)

What You Should Know About IBC and IRC

  • The only reliable source for IBC and IRC online is through the International Code Council (ICC). 
  • While there are also unofficial sources of the IBC and IRC, you should use them at your own risk.
  • The codes are updated every three years.
  • Work done before a certain code was implemented might be grandfathered in (check with your local permitting office).
  • ICC itself offers a partial text of the IBC and IRC for free online.
  • ICC is known for vigorously defending its copyrighted materials. As one example, in 2016 it brought a lawsuit against the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials for alleged copying of ICC intellectual property.
  • Municipalities may adopt model IBC and IRC codes to fit local needs. The IBC and IRC are model codes for building structures that communities can adopt and adapt in-part as needed. They are not legal requirements on their own merits.

How to Obtain the Official IRC or IBC

In most cases, it is not necessary for most homeowners or even building trade professionals who do infrequent work to own a copy of either the IBC or IRC since local code requirements will already specify whatever IBC or IRC regulations that apply to construction.

However, if you work with structures in any professional capacity, it is in your best interest to become a member of the ICC. As a business expenditure, it will most likely be tax-deductible. Serious amateurs with a deep interest in building practices may also find it useful to have access to a copy of the IRC or IBC since there is an enormous amount of information contained in them. 

The best way to obtain official, authentic copies of either code is by joining the ICC. Several different levels of membership are available, some of which entitle you to a free copy of one of the international codes, as well as many other membership benefits. Individual copies of the various codes are also available for sale, both as complete editions or "essentials" editions, at prices ranging from about $30 to $170. ICC members receive discounts on copies of the code, but non-members can also buy copies of the codes at the ICC online site. 

Prices of Current and Past IRC and IBC Editions

From the ICC itself, pricing for the full text of the IBC and IRC are as follows:

  • 2021 IRC: $160 for nonmembers, $120 for members (softcover)
  • 2021 IBC: $164 for nonmembers, $123 for members (softcover)
  • 2018 IBC: $147 for nonmembers, $110 for members (softcover)
  • 2018 IRC: $144 for nonmembers, $108 members (softcover)
  • 2015 IBC: $147 for nonmembers, $110 for members (softcover)
  • 2015 IRC: $144 for nonmembers, $108 members (softcover) 
  • 2012 IBC: $143 for nonmembers, $107 for members (softcover)
  • 2012 IRC: $140 for nonmembers, $105 for members (softcover)

In addition, state codes are available from the ICC starting at about $70. 

Changes in 2021 IBC: Topics

  • Puzzle or escape rooms
  • Fire walls
  • Classroom acoustics
  • Metal composite materials and systems
  • Shipping container buildings
  • Automatic sprinklers
  • Aggregate-surface roofs
  • Mixed occupancy buildings with assembly spaces
  • Snow maps adjusted
  • Updated rain load calculations
  • Mass timber structural elements' anchorage and connection
  • Fire stops
  • Frost protection for egress doors
  • Concrete construction tolerances
  • Mass timber buildings

Official Free Access to IBC and IRC

The ICC offers limited free access to lengthy portions of both the IBC and IRC in its public access section of the website. This is the best source for free information on the codes. 

Unofficial Free Access to IBC and IRC

Unofficial portions of the codes are available for free, but be aware that these codes are not officially sanctioned and there is no guarantee of their legitimacy. There may also be issues with copyright infringement on these copies of the code.

However, these versions are valuable in the sense that they can give you a general idea about code requirements. Also, they can point you in the right direction to seek out legitimate sources (code numbering does not change much from version to version).

Other sources of free access to the codes also exist, though these sources are regarded by some as questionable. Though it may sound like a governmental agency, Public Resource is a volunteer operation run by Carl Malamud, out of San Francisco. Malamud and a group of scanners believe that public information should be widely available and free to the public. Archive.org is the host site for Public Resource activities.  

However, since these codes are copyrighted, they (and other documents posted by Malamud) have been challenged by the organizations that own the copyrights. Before using any Archive.org documents, keep this in mind, as well as the fact that these files are maintained by Archive volunteers only.