Homes and the IBC

I’ve recently come to understand a universal truth about people and the perception of interior spaces. There’s an odd dichotomy between the way we (I include myself in this) think about our homes in comparison to other spaces and the way the code books (and therefore the education of Architects and Designers) treat our homes compared to other spaces. The short version is that while most people think of their home as the most important space in their life, the code books give residential spaces, as a category, much less attention and consideration than they do other spaces. So while our residences have an importance of a 10 to us, the International Building Code (IBC) probably would rate your home about a 3 in importance.

When you consider the purpose of these codes it makes sense. The books are written and then referenced into law to protect the health safety and welfare (much of this is related to protecting people in case of a fire) of the largest number of people possible. They express a minimum level of risk in an environment that the public, any public, should be exposed to (without the need for signing a disclaimer, like you do before engaging in more risky activities, like a paintball arena). Because codes are written to avoid risk to the public, it is more concerned with and spends a lot more time codifying large spaces with lots of people, and how to get them out of a building safely in case of a fire. It’s a matter of scale. Getting thousands of people out of a hospital in the event of a fire is a lot more challenging than getting a family of 5 out of their home. While avoiding fires in both buildings is preferable, the number of chemicals and flammable objects in the hospital is more strictly controlled because the ramifications of a hospital ever having a fire can affect so many more people.

This isn’t so suggest your home isn’t important. It is. Your home is probably the only space in your life where you have complete (or almost complete) control over the space: what and who is allowed in, where things are located, the overall feel, colors and cleanliness of the space are whole yours. There are good reasons that our homes are our most important spaces. I only mean to suggest when a designer is helping you to pick, lets say drapes, they come from a world with oodles of rules and codes governing drapes in a hospital; none of which apply to a residence. You can construct a drape made of matchsticks (could be pretty cool in a the sense of making a woven material from small sticks). It wouldn’t be advisable but there’s no one to stop you.

The bottom line is when I’m asked about the appropriateness of a material, like a type of carpet, for someone’s home, I usually have to go research the material proposed. Because while I may know straight off that I would never use that carpet for a hospital (solution dyed nylon with a moisture barrier backing all the way!), I often have to double-check its properties to know if its good in a home. Odds are, it’s probably fine.