Getting into the Weeds of Compliance

Cal. - San Francisco - Earthquake & Fire, 1906: Kearney St. from Telegraph Hill, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington,

Cal. - San Francisco - Earthquake & Fire, 1906: Kearney St. from Telegraph Hill, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington,

This is part of an introductory series on Inspectus, building tools that guide small business owners through government compliance. In the previous post, we briefly discussed how restaurant owners struggle to navigate the regulations on their own. In this post, we discuss what the codes there are,  who develops them, and who enforces them.

Compliance is essentially abiding by the codes that are specific to a business’ operations. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, for many American business owners, code is anything but easy to figure out. It’s especially difficult for retail food establishments that are regulated by multiple codes, given the unique function of the business.

Let’s take an example of someone who wants to run a pub. First, she must understand which laws apply:

  1. Zoning: pubs can only be in specific zoning classifications

  2. Building code: pub needs to be located in structurally safe building

  3. Fire code: pub is designed to ensure the safety of people in the event of a fire

  4. Health code: pub serves food that is prepared and served in a way that prevents illness

  5. State alcohol code: pub sells alcohol to customers in line with state law

  6. Municipal ordinances: pub follows the laws enforced by the city or town in which it operates

Once she finds all of those, the pub owner must find the specific regulations within each code that apply to her business. From the material of floor tiles used in the bar area to the number of exits in the pub, code prescribes a specific vision of compliance; however, code often fails to explain how compliance is actually achieved (like which floor tiles you are allowed to use and where to buy them). And so, the pub owner doesn’t understand exactly what she needs to do or implement to be considered compliant. This begs the question: why is code so damn complicated?

Code in the United States

There was great concern at the founding of the United States over establishing a centralized federal government that was too strong, like the monarchy the Founding Fathers left behind in England. The U.S. Constitution was therefore written so that power would be shared between federal and state governments. The final clause of the Bill of Rights, or the 10th Amendment, further spelled out clearly that powers not given to the federal government or explicitly prohibited to the states “are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” [1] Why the brief history lesson? Because the codes business owners need to navigate - including building, fire, health, zoning - are all enacted by individual states, cities, and towns as a result of the way the nation was founded.

When code was first introduced in the United States in the late 1890s to early 1900s, it was generally done as a reaction to either catastrophe or technological innovation. Take building code, for example: the destruction caused by disasters, like the Great Chicago Fire in the late 19th century and the San Francisco Earthquake in the early 20th century, took cities by surprise. Cities, counties, and states quickly realized the need for standards that would ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens. As given to them in the 10th Amendment, states held the power to decide what rules would govern their jurisdictions. But, without the expertise on how to design and construct buildings safely themselves, state governments had to turn to external organizations to write the rules, or what would become their first building codes.

The Chicago Fire-view of the city in ruins, northwest from Michigan Ave. hotel, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington,

Where Code Gets Complex

At the turn of the early twentieth century, a few organizations dominated the market for writing building code in the United States. While similar in some respects, each organization developed and maintained their own versions of building codes and marketed them to different regions in the county. The Building Officials and Code Administrators, International (BOCA) was the first organization to market, founded in 1915 and issuing what became known as the National or Basic Building Code to the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. [2] The International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) was founded in 1923 and issued the first edition of the Uniform Building Code in 1927, used mainly along the West Coast. [3] Finally, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) formed in 1940 and issued the first Standard Building Code in 1945 for use in the Southeast. [4]

And so, not only could the codes vary from state to state, but the rules themselves could be based on different organization’s standards entirely. As the nation experienced urbanization, it became a norm for cities, and later counties and towns, to enact and enforce their own codes as well. It was entirely possible for a city to have a significantly different code than the state it was located in. At the same time that building code evolved, new standards for fire safety, mechanical engineering, plumbing, electricity, and HVAC arose in response to the evolution of those technologies or inventions, each with their own standards for installation. As anyone could foresee, constructing buildings in the United States got complicated and confusing very quickly.

It’s only in the past 25 years that some consolidation has taken place so that, instead of multiple organizations developing multiple codes, there is a unified code of standards that can be issued at scale. In 1994, the leaders of BOCA, ICBO, and SBCCI came together to simplify and integrate the three families of code. In 2003, all three organizations dissolved to form the International Code Council (ICC), an organization that develops and maintains a family of codes that are the recognized standards for building, electrical, fire, plumbing, and beyond. The power to determine what actually becomes law lays still remains in the hands of the states and the people, as the 10th Amendment conferred on them.

The Silver Lining

There is no denying that the way code varies from state to state is complex and frustrating, particularly for a business owner like the woman at the beginning of this post, who is trying to navigate all of this on her own. But there are ways where states have empowered the food service industry in ways that the federal government could not. Food trucks, for example, were an innovation in the food service industry that did not exist (at least in regulatory terms) even 20 years ago. If the federal government wrote and enforced that code, food trucks like Kogi BBQ, who graced the streets of Los Angeles county in 2008, might have needed to wait for the federal government to write the rules. If that were the case, we might still be waiting today. Or those food trucks could have committed federal crimes by operating. Instead, cities and states developed their own regulations on food trucks, opening the market for a multi billion dollar industry. Not only can some chefs test culinary concepts on the streets before opening a brick and mortar, but an entirely new way to serve gourmet food was invented. Imagine what our local food entrepreneurs and independent restaurant owners could do if we could simplify compliance to better support their businesses…


In the next article, we’ll explore how food entrepreneurs and independent restaurant owners currently navigate the system and why government isn’t the best positioned to solve the problem.

[1] The Federalist Papers, No. 39.

[2] BOCA was founded in 1915 as the Building Officials' Conference of America and acquired the name of the Building Officials and Code Administrators, International. BOCA issued its first edition of the National Building Code in 1950. For the first edition of the BOCA Basic Building Code, see: Building Officials' Conference of America. Basic Building Code of the Building Officials Conference of America, Inc,. Chicago, IL: BOCA, 1950.

[3] ICBO was founded in 1923 as the Pacific Coast Building Officials. For the first edition of the ICBO Uniform Building Code, see: International Conference of Building Officials. Uniform Building Code, 1927 Edition. Long Beach, CA.L ICBO, 1928..

[4] For the first edition of the SBCCI Standard Building Code, see: Southern Building Code Congress. Standard Building Code. Birmingham, AL: SBCCI, 1945.


Inspectus believes in simplifying government regulations to support small business owners and entrepreneurs. Inspectus builds tools that guide small business owners through government compliance at every stage of their business, providing easy-to-understand explanations of the rules and options to pass that meet both the government’s requirements and the business owner’s needs.