Clearly there were not really building codes several hundred years ago when many of the worlds' greatest architectural feats were designed and built, were there? I mean, there aren't even egress windows in the Pyramids! Actually, the earliest recognized building code dates to around 1772 BC, and is known as the Code of Hammurabli, a Baylonian law code. It states as follows:
228. If a builder build a house for some one and complete it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface.
229 If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
230. If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.
231. If it kill a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.
232. If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
233. If a builder build a house for some one, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.
You'll even find a building code in Deuteronomy which states that parapets (short walls) must be constructed on all houses to prevent people from falling off. Sounds reasonable.
What all these building codes have in common is the health, safety and welfare of the general public.
However, just like a loving parent's duty does not stop at merely providing a roof over a child's head, but hopefully extends to some wider quality of life, building codes also are not the final word in the construction industry. They are merely the start of the conversation.
Building Codes are the MINIMUM acceptable standards for performance.
Does this mean that if your dream house is built "according to code", it will be everything you thought it would and stand the test of time? Perhaps, but probably not really. It's life span may be 25 to 50 years, which is really irresponsible if compared to some of the oldest structures on earth.
The code does not require casing and baseboards, but most owners of traditional homes like these sorts of things. But those are cosmetic," you say. "Codes are about fire and structure and the general construction of the building."
As an example, do you really want a roof that sags after 10 years because the Code stated that rafters spaced two foot apart with 1/2" plywood was "structurally" sufficient? For a few hundred dollars more, you could simply increase the number of rafters and provide a slightly thicker roof deck.
Another example: 1/2" thick drywall/sheetrock is what's seen in most homes, and is the acceptable minimum standard as outlined in the Residential Building Code. However, 5/8" drywall has many additional benefits.
So, what's the cost for such an "upgrade" to the homeowner? Would you be surprised if I told you that it was only about $500 more for an entire 2,200 square foot house? This is why many high dollar homes feel better constructed. They are.
Want to take durability and effect a step farther? Try finishing that drywall with a traditional 3 part plaster instead of a flimsy skimcoat. The wall will have an amazing "visual depth", and be rock solid. Like anything, when you're working with a firm foundation, the results are much more durable, and beautiful.
You'll often hear, "they sure don't build 'em like that anymore." Well, I'm here to tell you WE do - at least we design houses to a much higher standard of quality, if a client so desires.
Even the most basic home or renovation can benefit from understanding the Codes and "going above and beyond" for better value and quality. I suppose the only thing I recall taking away from my earliest Cub Scout days was the motto of "Always leave things better than you found them." This is how I approach building, especially additions and renovations.
So, how do you get to know what's minimally acceptable? Of course, you can hire a Design Professional, like myself; but you can also go to any local library and check out the book for yourself! I warn you, it's not light bedtime reading.