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Design 411: Codes, Standards, and Guidelines

Jane Rohde - May 2018

Codes, standards, and guidelines are critical elements in construction and design. And while the three terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. As a designer, it’s important to distinguish between the three and understand what each is and how these different elements come into play.

Here’s the high-level look:

  • Codes: must do (once adopted by a regulatory body)
  • Standards: completed in a consensus process and approved by a certification body
  • Guidelines: guidance typically developed by subject matter experts for industry professionals

Let’s look a little more at each.

Codes are mandatory requirements in construction and design. A code is adopted by a town, county, city, state, or other jurisdiction. It has the force of law, and it is regulated and enforced. It’s not optional criteria, and you can be fined or even imprisoned for not being “up to code.”

Take fire codes, for example. Every U.S. jurisdiction has one, and fire codes are enforced and regulated by that jurisdiction. Fire and life safety codes are typically developed by the National Fire Protection Association and adopted by local jurisdictions in part or in whole. Another example is building codes, which set minimum health and safety requirements for new and existing building renovations. The International Code Council often produces building codes, including the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Green Construction Code (IgCC). Once adopted, they are enforced and must be followed.

Standards are  developed using a consensus process that includes all stakeholders. That process usually follows an ANSI process for development of a standard that calls for “a balance of interests.”

Standards are often referenced by codes as the requirement to be met. For example, ASHRAE is a standards development organization. The ASHRAE Standard 189.1 is developed using a consensus process; the 2017 version will be used as content for the IgCC. The ASHRAE Standard 90.1, meanwhile, is an energy standard that is referenced in several code documents. From a product perspective, light bulbs are often “UL approved,” meaning they meet a standard for safety and/or energy efficiency.

Guidelines are just that: guidance to industry professionals. NIST, for example, publishes guidelines on topics from fire safety to materials selection. The Veteran’s Administration publishes design guidelines for its facilities. The Senior Living Sustainability Guide® offers guidance on designing housing for older adults and the Facility Guidelines Institute develops guidelines for acute, outpatient, and long-term-care settings.

Here’s where it can get tricky: some guidelines reference standards, and codes can also reference both guidelines and standards as part of their requirements. One example is the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes rating system, which is based upon the GBI/ANSI Standard – which in turn references other standards and guidelines as part of the criteria used to develop the rating system. Technical manuals that are developed for LEED and Green Globes are considered guidelines.  

Codes, standards, and guidelines all have important roles in developing.