Understanding the Difference Between the Zoning Code and the Building Code

It’s easy for certain industry vocab terms to go over our heads when discussing plans for new construction projects. Sometimes the exact meaning of a word or phrase will slip right past us.

In construction, contractors learn a lot of the basics on the fly as they work. So it’s no surprise when a collective understanding, or lack thereof, of certain terms gets taken for granted.

Whether you’re here looking for a refresher or if you’re here learning for the first time, we are sharing this article to shine a spotlight on the difference between the zoning code and the building code.

Zoning Code vs. Building Code – What is the difference?

While the zoning code and the building code relate closely to one another and are each essential for making sure that construction projects prioritize safety and order, they serve different purposes.

Zoning Code
The zoning code is a detailed set of requirements that conveys how land can and will be used. Anyone involved with new construction relies on the zoning code to determine how properties can be used within a specific jurisdiction.

Local planning departments or zoning boards enforce the zoning code. In addition to making decisions about permissible land uses, they also set the standard for various aspects of construction like building heights, density limits, and property setbacks.

A few common categories of zones that zoning codes regulate are residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use zones.

Building Code
The building code is a separate set of requirements that focuses on the safety and structural integrity of buildings and structures.

There are building departments and code enforcement agencies who are responsible for this code and here’s a quick list of the areas that their rules cover:

  • Construction standards in general
  • Specs for building materials
  • Structural design
  • Fire safety
  • Electrical systems
  • Plumbing
  • Mechanical systems

And just for reference, here are a few widely adopted building codes:

  • International Building Code (IBC)
  • National Electrical Code (NEC)
  • International Residential Code (IRC)
  • International Plumbing Code (IPC)

Unlike zoning codes which dictate how land can be used and developed, building codes help us work according to agreed-upon standards and requirements for construction projects.

Where Do General Contractors Learn About Zoning Codes and Building Codes?

When general contractors are studying ahead of taking their licensing exam, they learn all about zoning codes and building codes as part of their licensing school curriculum.

Understanding these codes is necessary for building foundational career knowledge for general contractors.

And once they secure their license and get more experience in the field, this info will be reinforced again and again because zoning and building safety and compliance are so important.

Contractor licensing schools also teach contractors a lot about how to keep up with laws, regulations, and ordinances throughout their careers.

How Can General Contractors Educate Their Clients on the Local Laws, Codes, and Ordinances Affecting Their Construction Projects?

General contractors know that maintaining clear communication with their clients about any restrictions or constraints concerning their construction projects. While “clear communication” is a simple practice, keeping it up and remaining transparent with clients is not always easy.

To achieve a consistently open and clear line of communication with clients, sometimes contractors have to go above and beyond to educate them on local laws, codes, and ordinances affecting their construction projects.

Provide Information
Showing clients literature, either printed or digital, about relevant zoning restrictions, building codes, permit requirements, and project timelines can be a huge help. Different people retain new information differently.

Meet them where they’re at and ask them if they need additional help with understanding the information that you’ve shared with them. Once you have confirmation from them that their expectations align with yours, you’re on the right track.

Offer Guidance
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve offered a client multiple options to consider, you may have noticed that the client isn’t even sure which option is best for their project.

Navigating the permitting process, obtaining approvals, and addressing regulatory concerns might not be the most familiar or intuitive thing for every client. It makes sense that they’d have a bunch of follow-up questions for their contractor!

Communicating clearly with clients means developing a clear understanding of their goals and interests so you can guide them and empower them to make the best choice for themselves.

Collaborate with Other Design and Building Professionals
Working in collaboration with architects, engineers, and legal experts can help a general contractor build up trust and credibility with clients.

If you can foster open communication and a productive exchange of expertise with your colleagues in construction, it will leave your clients feeling assured that they are in the right hands.

While this might seem like an invitation for a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen type situation, it is the responsibility of the general contractor to run point and make sure that the client doesn’t get overwhelmed or confused.

Developing this team of professionals naturally adds accountability to the overall project. More qualified people with specialized focuses working together on a construction project means more professionals working to ensure comprehensive compliance and high-quality standards.

Are Contractors or Their Clients Responsible for Pulling Permits?

It is typically the contractor’s responsibility to obtain necessary permits for construction projects. But there are a lot of situations that could come up where clients might prefer to handle permit applications themselves.

We write about this topic in more detail in our recent post, Does a Contractor Have to Pull Permits? but at the end of the day, whichever person is handling this process, you want them to do it right!

Whether the person handing permits is a project manager, a permit expediter, or a homeowner who happens to be extra familiar with the local regulations in the area, it is ultimately the general contractor’s job to make sure that their construction project is safe and compliant.


Zoning codes and building codes serve different purposes but they work together to enforce safety and quality standards for anyone concerned with erecting, maintaining, or demolishing a building or structure.

Zoning codes focus on land use while building codes regulate building use, aesthetic and structural integrity.

General contractors need to learn about zoning codes, building codes, local laws, regulations, and ordinances early in their careers and continue learning about them as they work.

Understanding all these details can be tricky for that one general contractor overseeing all of the construction. But it’s majorly important for them to keep their crew and clients informed about how their work will remain compliant with the laws and quality standards set by local authorities.

In doing so, that general contractor isn’t just maintaining the integrity and high quality of the properties they build, but they’re also reinforcing the integrity of their strong professional reputation in the construction business.

Additional Reading

Contractors State License Board – License Law & Reference Book

California Permits – Permit Services for the Construction Industry

Millman National Land Services – Zoning Codes in California to Know About

International Code Council – California Building Codes

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