Cracking the Code: Behind the Design Rules That Save Lives

One afternoon several years ago, principal Mark Larson was standing on the construction site of an unfinished parking deck as rescue squad members jumped from an emergency vehicle and wheeled an empty gurney toward him.

They weren’t there to call a code; they were there because of one. It wasn’t an emergency, but there were lives at stake. And as for Mark? He wasn’t going into cardiac arrest, but his heart was undoubtedly racing.

Let’s rewind for a moment. Most people believe that architects simply design buildings—that they’re in the business of sketching swooping forms, constructing precise models, and unveiling lifelike renderings. But that’s only partially true.

“Our work is far more comprehensive than that,” Mark says. “The most important part of this job is to manage the design process from beginning to end, from crafting a vision with the client to creating a physical building with the contractor.” While creativity plays an important role in that process, so does specific technical knowledge, an aspect of the profession that’s often overlooked.

In Case of Emergency

Enter building codes, the minimum standards in place to ensure that people don’t design or build dangerous, unstable structures. “Think about them as a piece of trace paper,” says associate principal and architect Jay Woodburn. “The building code is like a layer of requirements that we place on top of a design.”

The most widely used set of codes, published by the International Code Council, includes the IBC (International Building Code) and the IEBC (International Existing Building Code). Here’s where things get confusing: every state and a number of major cities have their own set of codes on top of the ones published by the ICC. (Imagine these regulations as an additional layer of trace paper.)

When we cleaned out our design library last year, we recycled and reorganized stacks upon stacks of code books.
When we cleaned out our design library last year, we recycled and reorganized stacks upon stacks of code books.

The foundational purpose of these codes is life safety. “Codes define and control things like the number of exits, the amount of air flowing through a building, and fire suppression and sprinkler systems,” Jay says. “When we’re talking about building codes, we’re not only thinking about emergency situations like fires and earthquakes, but also the basic functionality of the building.”

Connecting Codes to Design

All this code talk got us thinking about the rules that shape so many of the buildings we live, work, and play in. What are some common yet influential codes that most people never consider? We asked Jay (a self-proclaimed “technical architect” with a passion for the nuts and bolts of the profession) to enlighten us with examples of the types of design aspects that building codes control.


“Picture yourself passing someone in a hotel,” Jay says. “The hallway needs to be wide enough so that the two of you can roll your suitcases past without bumping into each other. You don’t want to go the entire length of the hallway saying, ‘Pardon me, excuse me, sorry.’ In a healthcare setting, you switch out the carry-ons for gurneys, and the hallway needs to be even wider—as much as eight feet.”


Ever marveled at the number of stalls in the public restroom at a sporting event? That tally isn’t arbitrary. “In an office building, the code tells us that if we have a certain number of square feet per floor, then there has to be a certain number of restrooms per men and women,” Jay says. “There’s a similar guideline that applies to projects like the NCAA softball stadium we designed at Liberty University. At sporting events, people tend to go to the restrooms at the same time, and often, the lines for the women’s room are longer. Those are things we take into account.”


“In the past, architects used to be able to just put up a single sheet of glass and call it a window,” Jay says. “But if you’ve ever been in an old building during the winter, you know that cold air just pours through those single panes; there’s no thermal quality to glass, whatsoever. It really affects the efficiency of the building’s heating and cooling systems. Today, we need at least two panes in a thermally broken frame that’s sealed all the way around. The code also governs the kind of glazing we use in different areas of the building; in a door, for example, we have to use glass that won’t shatter when it closes.”


“A simple rule of thumb is the bigger the building, the more protections (elements like sprinkler systems and non-combustible building materials) will be required,” Jay says. “On the exterior of a tall building, you can’t use wood or plastics, because they might burn. It’s a little difficult for firefighters to spray out a fire burning hundreds of feet above the ground. This was just demonstrated in Dubai, where a part of the skin of the building went up in flames.”


Because an updated code book is published every three years, building codes are continually being tweaked and modified, which presents a constant learning process for architects. “I say this to all my clients: ‘Every year, I am smarter than the year before,’” Jay says. “In this profession, we never stop learning new things, which really keeps our brains ticking.”

Solving the Puzzle

Now it’s time to revisit that unfinished parking deck.

“The project was under construction when we got a call from the building inspector saying that there might be a problem,” Mark says. “According to the code, a four-level deck has to be gurney-accessible so that firefighters don’t have to carry an injured person down more than two flights of stairs.”

Mark’s team designed an access point from the second-level bridge (connected to an office building) to address the issue. The only problem? The fine-print interpretation of the code didn’t take the bridge into account, the inspector said. The deck needed to be gurney-accessible from the ground up.


“That meant the elevators in the parking deck had to be large enough for a gurney,” Mark says, “but since we didn’t realize that on the front end, we had already selected and installed them. Before we did anything else, I called the rescue squad.”

Squad members agreed to drive to the site with a gurney in tow to test out the fit. As luck would have it, thanks to the sloped, tapering design of the gurney—slightly bent and narrower at the feet, with rounded corners instead of rectangular ones—it rolled into the elevator with half an inch to spare.

Mark’s parking deck experience is a prime example of how complex building codes can be. “It really demonstrates the way codes affect the design process and challenge us as architects,” Mark says. “We learn something new with every project, and that keeps this job exciting.”


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