Building a Better Code
But the drive for “One Nation, Under Code” is not complete. In addition to states that have yet to be persuaded, there are measures being proposed this June by the National Fire Protection Association that will be available for any of the 40,000 jurisdictions in the country to adopt as well. Factor in insurance issues like hail and possible security measures through homeland defense, and the reality of a seamless international or even national code remains elusive.
While the United States is often portrayed as a cohesive, integrated market, there are still numerous regional and local differences, especially in the construction trades. The ICC hopes to combine the jurisdictions that participate in one of the three regional code bodies — Southern Building Code Congress International, Building Official and Code Administrators and the International Conference of Building Officials. One result is for contractors, designers, manufacturers, inspectors and government officials to have more mobility in the marketplace where the requirements from sprinklers to single plies are the same.
The ICC is having some success: 15 states have already fully adopted the
International Code statewide, including New York. For the first time in its history, New York is modeling its code after a larger body and was recently commended by Governor George E. Pataki.
“These comprehensive building and energy codes will ensure that our homes and workplaces are safe and energy efficient, while also spurring new construction and job opportunities across the state,” says Governor Pataki. “By reducing development costs and providing greater flexibility, these codes will provide a major incentive for new investment, construction and economic development in cities, towns and villages throughout New York.”
For a state that has gone its own way for so long, New York adopted codes affecting fire, homes, plumbing, fuel, gas and energy efficiency. These are all part of the International Family of Codes that have been tested and updated since the first codes from the 19th Century. “The code adoptions are moving along very well,” says Sara Yerkes, government relations director for ICC. “New York has their act together. They have a great team assembled.”
Other areas present the same inertia that keeps codes in balance and some jurisdictions simply scrutinize the details, even ones that have universally proven to be safe, effective and beneficial. For most it’s simply a process: 97 of the jurisdictions that have codes follow a code body. States like West Virginia are waiting until next year while others like California present setbacks. The most populous state decided in 2000 to remain with the Uniform Building Code and other model codes for the next three years. Yet California followed ICBO so there is uniformity in many areas.
The National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit public safety organization formed in 1896, started work on its own building code in March 2000. The group has 300 codes on life safety or fire prevention that have been adopted by dozens of states. Over 400 hundred volunteers have worked on 16 technical committees to get the NFPA 5000 ready to vote on by NFPA members at the World Safety Conference and Exposition in May. If approved, the codes could be on the streets by August.
“It’s a very natural progression when you consider the life safety issues,” says Gary Keith, vice president of Building Codes and Standards at NFPA. In all its codes, ranging from fire prevention to electrical, Keith says, “The one thing we were lacking was a building code.”
Although the NFPA and the ICC have cooperated in the past on reconciling any differences in the codes, Keith feels that the format of the NFPA building codes gives designers more flexibility and relies on building occupancy to drive the safety requirements. Regardless of how states and municipalities act on these measures in the coming years, the portability of construction products, workers and designs will still take some homework.
Head CodeCodes are universal standards primarily to ensure public health and safety, but some measures address concerns like risk reduction or energy efficiency. Codes have the teeth of law, but other influences impact building practices: Insurance rates, legislative action and local administrative requirements all can impact material usage, job-site logistics, financing, and permitting.
For instance, Seattle has been participating in a federal program called Project Impact, which provides financial incentive to make homes more durable during earthquakes. The payoff occurred last August when an earthquake with a 6.8 magnitude struck the area but only caused minimal structural damage. Retrofitting is not costly or expensive, but it is voluntary with limited resources.
Hail is another problem for specific areas that isn’t addressed by codes. Pockets of Texas have had such frequent hailstorms that the Texas Department of Insurance requires rebates for hail-resistant roofs.
Whether it’s hailstorms or asbestos regulations, governments can find ways to fully engage in building practices. Johnson Roofing works with 10 municipalities surrounding Waco, Texas, each one with its own codes. Some adhere to SBCCI while others conform to UCC. Texas as a state adopted the ICC model. The International Residential Code also went into effect in January 2002, which will lead to a streamlined and consistent construction process. It is the first statewide residential building code in Texas.
“The residential code is going to help with its uniformity,” says Shawn Brown, chief financial officer with Johnson Roofing. But working through the codes for commercial jobs is still a maze. “It would take a person full time to keep up with each city code.”
A recent concern was a state law that required asbestos surveys on all public buildings, even for tear-offs of roofs with no history of asbestos. The Roofing Contractors Association of Texas recently announced a temporary resolution through the Texas Department of Health, but the uproar demonstrated the power of the legislature to directly impact building practices, with codes or without. And many jurisdictions have their own interpretations.
“They’re all different,” says Brown. “We have to go through the whole process with each one. The law was very vague and it’s created a lot of problems for roofing contractors.”
Canada has had national codes for some time, but it too has sovereign areas in a country where building regulations are a provisional matter established by its constitution. Still, most provinces have adopted the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes models or variations thereof. There is a Model Energy Code — which is largely a provincial matter — and a code for government warranties, which many government loans require. As a whole, the market for codes in Canada has matured.
“The mood is not to introduce regulations these days,” says Richard Desserud, manager of the Canadian Codes Centre at the Institute for Research and Construction.
Just when code officials think of just about every contingency that buildings are likely to face, along comes a humbling event. Building security and homeland defense have taken on new priorities and some local municipalities are responding in their own way.
The very nature of the U.S. building code system precludes reactionary forces; the ICC is on a three-year review cycle. While shocking events demand attention, their translation into codes is not assured.