The History of Building Codes and Construction

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The History of Building Codes, Construction, and the Aftermath of September 11 Jhimelle I. Sepulveda
Columbia Southern University

Abstract
There have been many catastrophic incidents involving fire throughout history with countless of lives lost and billions of dollars’ worth of damages. The lessons learned from these incidents have led to changes in the way we plan and how we build high-rise structures. These changes evolve into codes and building standards with people’s safety in mind.

Early building construction laws were enacted to prevent building collapses as early as the Roman Empire. Laws were passed that limited the height of buildings, first to 70ft and then to 60ft. Later in history, laws were passed to prevent fires and preventing its spread; in early North American cities, structures were built in close proximity to one another and often construction started before proper building codes were in place. (Cote) After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, tall buildings were built with safety in mind. The National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU) and now the American Insurance Services Group, organized in 1866, began to emphasize safe building construction, the prevention of fire spread, improvements of water supplies and fire departments. As a result, buildings would be built of concrete and steel. In 1906, the NBFU wrote that “San Francisco has violated all underwriting tradition”; although the city had concrete and steel buildings, most of the structures consisted of wood shacks. Following the damage of the San Francisco fire, the information gathered was used for the basis of early fire protection and building codes. (Cote) There have been many factors that have shaped modern building codes. The development of the insurance company and the concept of mitigating risks has been a part of building codes for years. As social organizations were created to improve building conditions, building codes were enacted to meet those needs. Chicago was the perfect location; it is near waterways. The city had to build quickly so they built with wood. It was quick, cheap and it was easy. There was plenty of wood coming through the city. Many of the buildings although they had a hard shell made of masonry but the insides were made out of wood. Since the city was growing, quickly there was no proper planning on how to correctly build a structure and there were no rules. There were homes next to lumberyards next to businesses’ and by 1871; Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. (The University of Chicago Library, 2009) The swamps by Lake Michigan made visionaries into millionaires. The summer of 1871, was extremely dry and by October, people were suffering from a drought. (Billington) On the evening of October 8, 1871 on the city’s west side, a small fire erupted at a barn owned by Catherine and Patrick O’Leary. The night operator sent a telegraph to firefighters; but failed to inform the firehouse closest to the fire. By the time firefighters reached the O’Leary barn, about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the fire had spread throughout the block. (Bales, 2004) The winds pushed the fire north and east by the banks of the river. Most people did not expect the fire to cross the Chicago River but by 11:30 PM, the river was in flames. The river was lined by wood buildings, wood ships, and the water itself had an oily residue due to pollutants. After jumping the river, the fire tore through the city’s business district. The heat of the fire helped it generate its own wind by sucking in oxygen while the rising flames spread upwards like a fiery tornado. Around 2:30 am, the fire jumps the river once again sending fiery ambers into the city’s North District towards the city’s only water pump station. The wooden roof ignites and eventually collapses cutting all water supplies to the city. Nearly 30 hours after it began, rain extinguished what was left of the city. The fire burned 4...
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