Speaking Coded Language: An Inside Look at Regulating Our Built Environment

Jonah Margarella Codes Committee

No matter the scale, budget, or scope of a project, design teams must navigate the specific local, state, and national codes and standards that make up our building code system. Published by the International Code Council and enforced at the state level by specific jurisdictions that have authority, building codes and standards are utilized day in and day out by architects, engineers, and designers in their design of buildings and spaces large and small.

Meet Jonah Margarella, AIA, LEED AP, an Associate and Studio Director based in Baskervill’s Richmond office. A member of the Virginia State Building Code Technical Review Board, he possesses a wealth of invaluable insights into the intricate art of code creation and regulation.

“I have been interested in the building code ever since I started to practice architecture,” he explains. “The vastness of the readings and usage has kept it engaging for me as I progressed in my career and worked on various project types. I enjoy deciphering the language and incorporating the ideas into our built world.”

Now, with a recent appointment to The AIA National Codes and Standards Committee, he bridges the gap between the state technical review board and the country-wide organization tasked with educating architects on the value and usage of code – expanding his understanding of this complex landscape further than ever before. Here, a closer look at the critical role of code development and enforcement.

The State Building Code Technical Review Board: The Masters of Regulation

Adopted in the early 1970s and updated every three years, Virginia’s Uniform Statewide Building Code contains three distinct but related parts that govern every project: Virginia Construction Code, Virginia Existing Building Code, and Virginia Maintenance Code. Virginia also employs model codes—for elements such as life safety, fire protection, indoor air quality, and many others—from the International Building Code, further modified with Virginia-specific amendments and enforceable only within the Commonwealth. The layers of code are intentional, but how they’re employed can be less clear.

“Life safety and building code review is integral to the success of every project,” Jonah explains. “They lay the groundwork for many early decisions of how we design and evolve projects through all phases.”

Enter the State Building Code Technical Review Board; guardians of the various code entities regulating safe building practices in Virginia. The Board reviews appeals from local enforcement actions taken by cities and towns and provides owners and their architects the opportunity to challenge or otherwise contest interpretations made at the local level.  

AIA Codes and Standard Committee: The Keepers of Wisdom

If you’ve ever wondered how the AIA is involved in code development, the AIA National Codes and Standards Committee is the ticket to shaping them. Formed in the 1950s, the Committee’s mission is to guide AIA leadership in developing and promoting the national model building codes and standards published by the International Code Council, National Fire Protection Association, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineer and serves as a vehicle for the AIA to interact with local and state jurisdictions. 

“Code improvements can be initiated by a catastrophic event, technological advancements in the industry, or new interpretations of the language of the code instigated through specialized committees,” says Jonah. “It’s a constantly evolving art form.”

Architects like Jonah play a pivotal role in leading the development of construction codes and standards, which can, in turn, directly impact the success of individual projects, firms, and the industry as a whole. The Committee is a premier example of how members from all parts of the nation’s architectural community embrace the call to be advocates with the shared goal of providing a reliable, credible voice to the public policy process.

A Harmonious Convergence

Now that Jonah is an active participant of both entities—the state technical review board and the national AIA Committee—he sees first-hand how each decision, modification, review, and appeal shapes the industry. The two organizations, with uniquely different purviews, give great insight into the world of code development and enforcement.

“Deeper knowledge of how we employ and interpret our codes gives me the expertise to guide clients in making decisions for the design of their specific spaces. This insight allows me to be a reliable asset for every studio in our firm,” says Jonah. “Codes and standards are the foundations for crafting safe and reliable spaces.”

Have a curious code query and looking for insider insight? Let’s talk.

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