The foundation of society is based on order, and order requires rules. We have rules for everything in life. There are good rules to follow (like don’t kill people) and there are bad rules to follow (like the new overtime rules for the NFL). And there are rules for constructing a building.
First rule about constructing a building: You can’t build whatever the hell you want. There are many rules about designing and constructing a building, but most of these rules (as stated in the building code) refer to public safety and diminishing the odds of people perishing in a building. There are rules about buildings being able to withstand fire long enough for people to get out of the building before it collapses, rules about not having electrical outlets in a shower so that people don’t fry themselves getting ready for work, and rules about not having your garage open to your kitchen (because carbon monoxide adds a little kick to your cooking).
When it comes to designing and constructing a building the building code is the rule, and the building department is the seer of rules. The building department interprets the applicable building code (typically in a good manner, but I’ve seen some weird interpretations), and after they review the drawings they will either bless the drawings or request modifications (or simply an explanation of something they don’t understand). These rules are not in an effort to deter construction (the building department loves it when buildings are being constructed). They’re there to assure safety when people are living/working/worshiping/playing football in them.
Another attribute to the rules of construction – they can be confusing as hell. People working in the building department are paid to know the code. Architects are required to design to the code. Contractors are required to build to the code. Does anyone who is not a related to the field of architecture really want to read a thousand pages of text, graphs, and charts to discover which rules apply to their project and which of those rules has exceptions that allow for something not as stringent as the original rule?
The building code is a language all to itself. Everyone who ever wanted to build a house/office/church/NFL stadium has to deal with the building department, and if you don’t speak the language you may have to spend more money and time on your project.
Recently a friend of mine visited the local building department to obtain a permit for a garage renovation. The building department representative gave him a list of requirements that needed to be fulfilled before he could receive a building permit. Of course my friend doesn’t speak the language, so of course he became frustrated at what was required. But because being an architect I speak the language I quickly realized that these requirements seemed a little extreme considering the scope of my friend’s project, so I spoke with a higher-up within the building department and told him about what my friend intended to do for his project. The higher-up agreed with me, and now my friend will have no issues obtaining the permit.
Speaking “building code” is sort of like speaking Latin – I’ll learn it only if I’m required to learn it. If you are not related to the design and construction industry, definitely don’t learn it. But if you ever travel to the realm of house construction, you’ll be much better off if you get someone who speaks the language.