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Referenced Standards and the International Codes

by Mark A. Johnson

Model construction codes and standards regulate a broad number of disciplines with far-reaching consequences. Whether your selected discipline is structural engineering, architecture, plumbing, electrical or any of the other construction/design trades, you have undoubtedly been impacted by building codes and standards. The International Code Council’s building codes provide model regulations that can be adopted by state and local government in order to protect public health and safety. However, these codes cannot be expected to provide complete and in-depth coverage on everything from the behavior of concrete materials to structural analysis and design. As a result, building codes utilize the knowledge of technical experts to deal with specific subjects — which is where referenced standards play an important role.

Material and product standards are necessary for the proper application and enforcement of construction codes. When referenced in building codes, well-drafted standards give clear and detailed examinations of particular specialties within the construction process, thus providing the collective industry expertise on the safe installation, application and use of construction materials. Building codes would be voluminous in length if an attempt was made to transcribe all the wealth and detail of private sector voluntary standards into the codes themselves.

Role of Standards in Building Codes

The building industry is extremely competitive, where manufacturers of materials and innovative new products compete head-to-head with each other for a share of construction spending. In this fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, standards help to assure that the quality of building products and materials do not degenerate to unsafe levels as a result of competitive pressures to reduce costs and streamline operations. Through the development and publication of quality standards, a level playing field is established, which helps to ensure not only quality, but fair competition. Building standards establish the minimum level of safety required, and reflect the level of risk society is willing to bear.

While the International Code Council’s family of International Codes set forth criteria for the minimum level of performance that materials must satisfy, they rely on referenced standards such as those produced by ASTM to validate these criteria. Section 102.4 in Chapter 1 of ICC’s flagship document, the International Building Code (IBC), states: “The codes and standards referenced in this code shall be considered part of the requirements of this code to the prescribed extent of each reference.”

In the event that differences occur between the provisions of the International Codes and one or more of its referenced standards, the provisions of the International Codes would take precedent over its referenced standards. It should also be noted that this hierarchy does not extend to differences or conflicts between the International Codes and state or federal laws.

Criteria for Referencing Standards

There are criteria that the content of standards should meet in order to be considered for reference in one or more of the International Codes. ICC’s referenced standards policy contains these criteria. One of the criteria requires that a standard be developed and maintained through a nationally recognized consensus process similar to that of ASTM. Characteristics of the consensus process include requirements for timely notification, maintenance of records, a balancing of interests, provisions for conflict resolution, published procedures, and an established method for appeals. It is also required that the standard itself be available for purchase.

In order to be referenced in the International Codes, a standard must be written in mandatory language. The application and intent of a standard must be clear to all readers.

Advisory comments and permissive language fails to provide specific direction to the user of a referenced standard. Terms such as should, could and may often create inconsistencies in the application of codes and standards and thereby should be avoided.

ICC’s standards criteria also stipulate that a standard not require proprietary materials nor delineate a proprietary agency for testing or quality control. This helps to ensure fairness by not giving a manufacturer of a proprietary material or the owner of a testing agency an unfair advantage over that of its competitors.

Four Types of Referenced Standards in the International Codes

Building standards adopted by reference in the International Codes can be broken down into four basic categories: material, installation, testing and design standards. Material standards specify the physical properties of a material or manufactured product and establish quality requirements. A good example of a material standard that addresses a product’s uniformity, composition and quality is ASTM A 706, Specification for Low-Alloy Steel Deformed and Plain Bars for Concrete Reinforcement, which is adopted by reference in the 2003 IBC.

Installation standards regulate the proper installation and placement of building components or systems. ASTM C 636, Practice for Installation of Metal Ceiling Suspension Systems for Acoustical Tile and Lay-In Panels, adopted by reference in the International Codes, is an excellent example of an installation standard.

Testing standards encompass structural unit and system tests, durability tests and fire tests. An example of a testing standard is the popular ASTM E 84, Test Methods for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials.

Design standards define the methods of design and specify the accepted design procedures, engineering formulas and calculation methods. A design standard extensively referenced in both the IBC and the International Residential Code is the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures, also known as ASCE 7-02. ASCE 7-02 provides design criteria for seismic, wind, snow, flood, live and dead loads.

Indirect Reference of Standards

In some cases, the International Codes will make reference to a standard that will reference yet another standard not directly referenced elsewhere in the codes. This has caused some confusion as to whether standards that are not directly referenced in the body of a building code, but referenced instead in a standard that is directly referenced by the building code, are treated the same. For example, IBC Section 1903.6 states: “Admixtures to be used in concrete shall be subject to prior approval by the design professional and shall comply with ACI 318, Section 3.6.” Subsection 3.6.5 of ACI 318 states, “Water-reducing admixtures, retarding admixtures, accelerating admixtures, water-reducing and accelerating admixtures shall conform to ‘Specification for Chemical Admixtures for Concrete’ (ASTM C 494) or ‘Specification for Chemical Admixtures for Use in Producing Flowing Concrete’ (ASTM C 1017).” In this case, while the IBC does not make a direct reference to ASTM C 494 or ASTM C 1017, these standards are in fact referenced indirectly through the direct reference to ACI 3.6 by Section 1903.6 of the IBC. These standards, while referenced indirectly, would still be considered part of the code.

Important Role of ASTM Standards in International Codes

ASTM standards are currently the most widely referenced standards in the 2003 International Codes. More than 400 ASTM standards, or nearly half of all those referenced in the IBC, supplement code requirements as diverse as plumbing, energy, building, fuel gas and mechanical provisions. The acquisition of these referenced standards may prove logistically challenging, particularly for small- to mid-sized jurisdictions.

Recognizing the challenges confronting the code enforcement community as well as those regulated by the International Codes, ICC has partnered with ASTM to produce a book of standards that contains all 262 ASTM standards referenced in Chapter 35 of the 2003 IBC. Titled the 2003 International Building Code: ASTM Referenced Standards, the document has met with widespread support from the building industry. It is easily the most comprehensive reference document of its kind, covering ASTM standards on such topics as adhesives, cement, concrete and concrete aggregates, fasteners, fire standards, wood, fire resistance rating and many other building related topics. Further information on this publication is provided on ICC’s Web site.

Each standard that is referenced in the International Codes is listed in a single chapter and appears in alphabetical order by the name of the promulgating organization. Additional information that pertains to each standard is also given, such as the standards developing organization’s acronym, address, publication designation and edition, along with a complete listing of the section(s) of the code where reference is made to a particular standard.


The task of a modern building code is to assemble and coordinate a vast amount of information into an understandable, organized and responsive system that protects the health and safety of the general public. ASTM standards are an important component of our nation’s building system. The addition of the 2003 International Building Code: ASTM Referenced Standards goes a long way towards meeting the needs of the building industry for an economical, comprehensive book of standards referenced by the International Codes. Through this and other cooperative efforts, ASTM and ICC are setting the standard for our nation’s building code system. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Mark A. Johnson is the vice president of Business Development for the International Code Council, a developer of building codes and standards adopted by state and local government. Johnson has more than 16 years of experience in this industry in addition to an educational background that includes undergraduate degrees in economics and electrical engineering, and an MBA.