In the regimented world of building regulation and ratings, 2012 may be considered a year for the record books. In March, the International Code Council (ICC) launched its updated codebook, which included the introduction of the highly anticipated International Green Construction Code (IgCC). Later this year, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) expects to unveil LEED 2012, which insiders assert will be its most significant update since LEED’s debut.

While it will take time for these changes to ripple through the industry, architects are expected to know now what these latest standards will mean for their practices. Since many designers can barely fit sleep into their daily schedule, much less the hours needed to scan thousands of pages of text, here’s an overview of how we have reached this milestone in codification and the revisions you need to know.

Tools of Trade

The idea behind the shelf-sagging volumes of building codebooks, which have morphed into online databases, is almost as old as the United States itself. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saw the need to establish and enforce a standard of construction to safeguard the public from structural failure and fire. But it wasn’t until the building boom—and consequent disasters—of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Industrial Revolution that code enforcement officials along with industry experts in communities nationwide began drafting model codes as guidebooks for laws governing the building industry.

By the 20th century, an abundance of codebooks produced by local municipalities as well as regional organizations—namely, the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, International Conference of Building Officials, and Southern Building Code Congress International—were overwhelming to designers, and particularly for those designers seeking to expand their practices geographically. In 1994, the regional organizations smartly consolidated into the ICC, which released its first national model codebook, collectively known as the International Codes (I-Codes), in 1995. At that point, the ICC became the only organization in the U.S. producing universal model building codes.

The ICC’s codebook helps municipalities legislate the safest and most knowledgeable construction laws possible by compiling suggestions from national experts. “When we print the code, it’s just a book,” says Tom Frost, the ICC’s senior vice president of Technical Services. “It’s a model code—our recommendation for what a code should be. It doesn’t become law unless it’s adopted by state or local jurisdiction. Only they have the police power to enforce the code.” All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the I-Codes at the state or jurisdictional level.

Meanwhile, the USGBC, founded in 1993, encourages the building industry to protect the environment through its Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) certification program, which debuted in 2000. Unlike building codes, which are mandatory, “LEED is optional,” says Brendan Owens, the USGBC’s vice president of LEED Technical Development. “It’s a voluntary rating system intended to recognize leadership in high-performance building design and construction.”

While the I-Codes and LEED operate in different ways, they do have a symbiotic relationship. “LEED is the screwdriver, constantly ratcheting up our expectations of what buildings can be,” Owens says. “With the advent of IgCC, the building codes have become the hammer, mandating that the construction industry keeps pace. … [T]here’s a floor in the codes and a ceiling in LEED. They feed each other, raise each other up, and together are evolving the building industry.”