rehab codes: overview » introduction » adopt a code

In communities that use conventional building codes, the level of building upgrades required in a rehabilitation project is typically based on the estimated cost of the project, rather than the type or scope of work proposed. The more expensive the project, the greater the degree to which the building must comply with current standards. Use of this system can trigger requirements for extensive renovation in rehabilitation projects that make only minimal structural changes - a scenario that increases costs and may discourage the redevelopment of affordable homes.

In contrast, rehab codes match the level of required compliance to the type of work proposed. This shift can lead to substantial savings in time and money and may be the key to making a particular rehab project feasible.
Energy Codes for Building Rehab

Similar to rehab codes that ensure building renovations comply with safety measures, states and localities can enact building energy codes, which establish minimum requirements and guidelines for the performance of new construction and existing homes undergoing substantial renovation. Energy codes typically provide specifications for areas of the home most closely related to energy consumption including windows and doors, heating and cooling equipment efficiency, lighting fixtures, and wall and ceiling insulation.

Click here to visit's Energy Efficiency Toolkit to learn more about energy codes. 

A case study comparison prepared by the National Association of Home Builders illustrates the differences between conventional building codes and rehab codes: The 250-year-old Stone Lodge single-family house in Chester Township, New Jersey, was rehabilitated in the late 1990s to include an updated kitchen and new 2-story addition. The cost and extent of the project would have triggered a significant number of additional requirements in order to bring this already functioning structure into compliance with conventional codes, including inspection of the building foundation, widening of existing windows and corridors, raising the ceiling height in a first-floor bathroom, and reconfiguring the stairway.

These changes would have added an additional $27,562 to the total project cost, potentially making the project infeasible. Because the project was developed after New Jersey adopted its pioneering rehab code, these changes were not required. Read the full report, Innovative Rehabilitation Provisions [PDF] to learn more about how rehab codes affect development costs.

Click on the links below to learn more about adopting a rehab code in your community:

Adopt a model rehab code

Learn about model rehab codes that states and municipalities can adopt to make rehabilitation more cost-effective without compromising resident safety.

Create a new code tailored to your area
Rather than relying on a model code, officials in some areas choose to develop their own rehab codes, which are tailored to reflect local conditions and priorities. Learn about jurisdictions that have created their own rehab codes to promote revitalization of existing buildings.

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Adopt a rehab code
New "rehab codes" intended specifically to guide the rehabilitation of existing buildings improve on conventional building codes by establishing a proportionate and predictable approach to the regulatory requirements associated with rehabilitation.

Other pages in this section:

Promote a facilitative approach to building code enforcement
When building inspectors take a flexible, cooperative approach to building code enforcement, reasonable solutions to rehabilitation challenges can be found without compromising building safety.

Click here to view other resources on rehab codes.

Adopt a model rehab code

In most states, the authority to adopt and enforce building codes is held at the local level, and most municipalities have chosen to adopt one of several model codes developed by building and code enforcement industry associations. By adopting a model code, jurisdictions avoid the time and expenses associated with creating and maintaining their own regulatory systems, but retain the flexibility to add any amendments needed to ensure the code suits local conditions. In addition, model codes promote uniformity and consistency in code requirements and enforcement, allowing builders to more easily anticipate the level of work, timeframe, and costs associated with a proposed project before submitting their plans for review.

In recent years, two model rehabilitation codes -- the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) and the National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 5000 -- have emerged as leaders in the move towards greater predictability and proportionality in rehab code requirements. The IEBC, issued in 2003, is part of a suite of codes developed by the International Code Council, and has been adopted on a local or statewide basis in 33 states. In some cases, states and localities have amended IEBC to meet their own set of specifications.  For example, in 2009, the Georgia State Department of Community Affairs amended certain sections of the 2006 IEBC code to better align with state fire safety regulations.

It is important to note that the IEBC is not automatically adopted when a jurisdiction adopts the standard building codes of the International Code Council. Rather, the IEBC must be adopted as a separate stand-alone action. The NFPA 5000 is less widely used; although it was adopted by the State of California's Building Standards Commission in 2003, that decision was subsequently reversed.

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Create a new code tailored to your area

Prior to the development of model codes for existing buildings, a number of states and localities developed their own codes to facilitate the rehabilitation of existing buildings. Most notably, the State of New Jersey has been a leader in recognizing the need for a more flexible building code; its statewide rehab code has been a model for the development of similar regulations in other states. It is important to note, however, that creating and maintaining a regulatory code is a costly and time-consuming job. In most cases, communities will be well-served by adopting an existing model code, and making amendments as needed.

New Jersey is one of a handful of states that adopt mandatory building codes at the state level, so all localities are required to implement the state-endorsed code. Reports indicate that adoption of this predictable and proportionate rehab code precipitated an immediate response, prompting significant increases in the level of rehabilitation work, especially in the State's larger cities. Interestingly, while the number of rehab permits issued increased substantially following adoption of the code, the increase in the value of permits issued was relatively small in comparison -- indicating that code implementation had the greatest effect in stimulating smaller projects that might not otherwise have been feasible. [1]

Solutions in Action
After a two-year development process, in 1998 New Jersey began implementing a rehab code of its own design, which replaced requirements found in traditional codes with a more rehabilitation-friendly system. Like the model codes whose development it influenced, New Jersey's rehab code uses the scope of the project, and any proposed changes in building use, to determine the degree of code compliance required.

Based on the type and extent of work proposed, projects fall into one of three categories: Rehabilitation, which includes Repair, Renovation, Alteration and Reconstruction sub-classifications; Change of use; or Addition.

Projects in each category must fulfill a different set of requirements, with smaller repair projects prompting the fewest requirements and additions calling for full compliance with new construction standards in the new portion of the building.

Early estimates from the New Jersey Division of Codes and Standards suggest that the new code reduced redevelopment costs by as much as 40 percent. [2] Since larger projects would likely still be required to comply with current code standards under the new rehab code, most of these cost savings were probably realized by contractors working on smaller jobs, who no longer had to make costly renovations to comply with code requirements.

Visit the State of New Jersey 's Rehabilitation Subcode page for more details.

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[1] Encouraging Residential Rehabilitation with Building Codes: New Jersey's Experience. 2006. By Raymond J. Burby, David Salvesen, and Michael Creed. Journal of the American Planning Association 72(2): 183-196.

[2] Rehabilitation Subcode Success. 2001. By Richard Fischer. Public Management 83(2): 12-17.