Breaking the Code

A deep split over format and procedure has fractured hopes for a single national building code

By David Kozlowski  

In 1994, the three major model building code organizations in the country agreed to merge into a single organization called the International Code Council (ICC) and, by 2000, consolidated their model building codes into a single code, called the International Building Code (IBC). Along the way, the other codes — mechanical, fire, plumbing, etc. — created by the three organizations were also merged into the first single family of codes, the International Codes, or I-codes. This was the beginning of the end of a checkerboard of code jurisdictions that complicated life for many building owners, facility executives and other building professionals. What many had been waiting for, a single national set of building codes, seemed at hand.

But before the IBC was even published, a brewing dispute that began in 1998 between the ICC and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) boiled over. NFPA, which produces popular model codes such as the National Electric Code®, broke off an arrangement to jointly produce an International Fire Code with the ICC. Disagreements on the code-writing process and contents of fire code caused a split between the two during a time when there was talk of future cooperation. That rift was torn wider by lawsuits and counter lawsuits.

At the heart of the dispute, code experts say, are a number of things, including money, pride, organizational culture and procedure. The organizations say the split is really about how their codes are created and their formats. With the ICC, state building code officials play a big role in code development, and with NFPA manufacturers, trade groups and fire officials carry much of the responsibility.

Because of these differences with the ICC — and, some say, to advance its own Uniform Fire Code and other codes — NFPA announced in 2000 that it would produce a model building code of its own. NFPA’s model building code was published late last year. This code completed its set of codes, called the Comprehensive Consensus Code, or C3, which competes directly with the I-codes.

While some industry professionals are lining up behind their favorite building code, others in the industry are throwing their arms up in frustration. Some are claiming the two codes can exist side-by-side and may offer healthy competition. But others are saying that the two codes will only raise the price tag for designing, constructing and renovating buildings. One thing all agree on is one code would be better, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Where It Counts

Although ICC and NFPA each asserts that its code and process is better, experts with no particular vested interest in either code tell a different story. When they strip away everything but the guts of each code and put the two codes side-by-side, what they discover is the codes really aren’t much different.

“NFPA 5000, because it is NFPA’s code, leans a little more on the (Life Safety) 101 code and does treat fire protection a little differently with its particular spin on fire issues,” says Randy Tucker, senior vice president of the RJA Group. “But essentially they are not different. There’s a good reason, too. You see a lot of the same faces involved in code creation working on both sides.”

It’s more than a common chorus behind each code, says Larry Litchfield, regional manager for Schirmer Engineering, who is familiar with both codes and is an NFPA 5000 code trainer. Litchfield says it’s also that both code groups are dealing with the same issues. Both codes are nearly the same on structural, accessibility and exiting aspects, which make up most of the codes. Take exiting for instance. Litchfield says both codes reference the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code®. “There are some nomenclature differences,” he says. “IBC calls for 20-minute fire doors, and the 5000 calls for one-third-hour fire door. A lot of exiting is really ergonomics and physics, pretty standard stuff.”

There are some significant differences. Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International says the 5000 code contains items that will cost owners money that aren’t included in the IBC. BOMA points out that the 5000 code references the 2000 versions of the Uniform Plumbing Code and Uniform Mechanical Code and not the newer 2003 versions. Marco Giamberadino, BOMA’s former director of codes and standards, was actively involved in both code organizations’ code development meetings for BOMA. He says NFPA’s inclusion of these older versions will cost owners more money due to higher labor costs on a project. The 5000 code also requires hail-proof roofs for some areas of the country. And one of BOMA’s biggest criticisms is that ambiguous language could lead to problems in interpretation.

So while the codes aren’t carbon copies of each other, where the rubber hits the road, they leave about the same mark.

Developing Code

“I think both codes are good documents,” says Mike Madden, principal with Gage-Babcock and Associates. “When you look at the codes themselves, I don’t think one has any big advantage over the other. So it comes down to a usability issue and a philosophical issue.”

The code development process is a long, arduous one that for the NFPA happens every three years and for the ICC every 18 months. It’s a complicated process of multiple committees and a series of meetings and reams of paperwork. But the philosophical issues that the organizations raise are centered around their approaches to code development. Both claim their code process is more inclusive, better serves the public and is more democratic. But even here, the rhetoric really doesn’t stand up to the reality, say many observers.

NFPA touts its consensus process, sanctioned by the American National Standard Institute (ANSI), which mandates different viewpoints. ANSI requires that all code-writing committees not have more than one-third of the members represent a particular interest.

“I think the balance is good,” says Gary Keith, vice president of building codes for NFPA, pointing out that hotels, church organizations, the U.S. General Services Administration and the Multi-Housing Council are represented. “I think we do our part of allowing as many people as possible to speak,” he says. “Building owners can have a seat at the table right through the process and a vote on all our codes and standards. We can offer much more exposure to the process.”

In the past, the ICC process did exclude significant input from anyone other than code officials, which opened the ICC process to criticism. That has changed, says Tom Frost, senior vice president of technical services for ICC.

The ICC now allows all members, including building owners, manufacturers and trade groups, to suggest changes and vote on them at the initial code hearings. Previously only code officials could vote.

“Any member is free to submit a code change, and any member is free to vote on code changes,” Frost says. “You just have to say ‘I think the code ought to read this way and this is why’ and then make an argument for it. When the vote comes up, you then have the opportunity to vote on the change.”

But in both organizations initial votes taken are often advisory in nature. Both organizations, by necessity, limit input and voting power toward the end of the process. And at some point in both organizations, a single committee or council makes a final decision. Those final decision-making bodies reflect the majority membership in each organization: In NFPA, it’s contractors and fire officials, and in ICC, it’s building code and fire officials.

The Usability Issue

So it comes down to what many see as the real difference: the format. Some experts have opined that the reason the NFPA chose the format it did was just to distinguish it from the IBC — to be different. NFPA supporters say that’s not true and say its format is more logical.

By format, code experts mean the way the model building code is arranged. The IBC follows the common code format and is arranged by building use and system. Frost says the format goes back to a model used for the last 50 years. Its latest permutation is about nine years old. All the relevant code information on exiting systems or roof assemblies, for instance, is under standalone chapters. Code information for doors is under the chapter on means of egress. If there are requirements for specific types of facilities — schools or office buildings — these specific requirements are noted in each chapter. Users may be sent to check other relevant standards or codes.

For BOMA and AIA, this format is important. Both organizations say most professionals are familiar with the common code format. Familiarity makes designing and building facilities easier and less expensive.

“Familiarity facilitates code reviews,” says Steven Winkel, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects. “The NFPA 5000 is quite different in format from the IBC, and there will be a learning curve in its use.”

NFPA broke ranks with tradition by creating an occupancy-based format. Instead of looking for a product or design issue under a specific building system category, users turn first to a chapter that best describes the type of building. Any information related to hospital doors would be in the chapter for hospitals. The 5000 does have category chapters dealing with such things as egress, interior finishes and accessibility, but each building-type chapter would have its own subsection on doors. There are 18 occupancy categories, including assembly, educational, day care, health care, high-rise, and one- and two-family buildings.

Proponents of the NFPA format say that referencing needed codes is more clearly mapped out for the user and requires less jumping back and forth in the codebook. Litchfield compares the difference between the two code formats to going to the grocery store.

“With the IBC, you’re going to the grocery store with a list of items to find, and you go and find them going up and down the aisles until you find everything,” he says. “If you’re familiar with the store, it’s not too much trouble. With the NFPA format, you go to the store with a list and directions on where to find the items so even if you’re not familiar with the store, you can easily find the items.” In the long run, this could mean less training for code experts.

The NFPA code format is better, Madden says. “NFPA pulls use together,” he says. “It is redundant, but if it puts the relevant information in place — the place you’re looking into — then it’s not a problem. You’re not jumping around as much.”

NFPA’s Keith says the issue of the industry’s familiarity with the IBC format is a red herring.

“Jurisdictions are having to go from regional code bodies and codes to which they’ve become familiar to the IBC,” he says. “That is not occurring without somewhat of a battle even today. Given that, I think we compare fairly well.”

“We chose the common code format because it has a history and because people say it’s the easiest to use,” ICC’s Frost says. “I guess it will be up to the marketplace to decide which really is the best.”

Still, Giamberadino says, it has been BOMA’s goal to reduce the regulatory burden on building owners at every chance, and creating two codes with different formats adds more time and money to the design process.

“If NFPA or IBC was the only code out there, then it might be different,” he says. “But we have two codes — one that is more familiar and one that is not. And I think the choice of format is going to be a very big deal to owners.”

Two National Codes?

There’s another issue that is not raised by either code organization. Some code experts believe that regardless of what anyone thinks of NFPA’s code, the code and organization weren’t quite ready. BOMA points to poorly or ambiguously stated language that is going to open the door to a lot of interpretation. These were statements that might have been clarified if there were more time, Giamberadino says. BOMA raised this point frequently during the code’s development.

“But they seemed in a real rush to publish the code,” Giamberadino says.

Keith rejects the idea of rushing the code, as do some other code experts.

Nevertheless, the issue of code not being quite ready is popping up. RJA’s Tucker says, “I wouldn’t call it not ready for prime time, but it has some things that NFPA needs to fix up, and with a three-year code-development cycle, well, that’s a little unfortunate.”

California Building Officials (CalBO) are concerned that in a rush to publish, NFPA gave short shrift to how the organization was going to support the new code with training and questions of interpretation. This is critical for a state the size of California, which is in the process of deciding on a new code.

“We are on record as saying that at this time we do not feel that NFPA is set up to provide the kind of services we need,” says Anthony Elmo, president of CalBO. “And I might be going out on a limb saying this, but I don’t think its going to happen in the next six months or a year.”

This time frame is important because California should be making its decision during that time. The state is poised to be a major battleground for two reasons: It is a very lucrative market for the organization that wins, and its decision also may provide leverage across the country as other states and cities wait to see what California does.

But building officials in California are only one voice in a decision that ultimately the legislature has to make. It is too early to tell what direction the state may go. And even though CalBO may be leaning in the direction of the IBC, California is also the home of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, which has broken away from the ICC and joined ranks with NFPA.

Some experts play down the influence of the state’s decision, but most recognize that it could have some effect. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what California decides,” Madden says. “The state is one of the most important jurisdictions to decide on this issue.”

Certainly California’s decision won’t influence New York City or Chicago, both of which have decided to go with the IBC. So have Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Montana, New York, North and South Carolina and Wisconsin. In all, 19 states have adopted the IBC while a significant number of communities in 36 states have also adopted it, including Texas where most of the cities have chosen the IBC.

Nor will California’s decision influence Phoenix, which has decided for NFPA 5000 — the only city or state that has chosen NFPA 5000 as of January 2003. But Keith says there are a number of states and communities looking seriously at the 5000 code. And some code experts say that the 5000 code does have a leg up because of the popularity of NFPA’s life safety, fire and electric codes, which many jurisdictions across the country use.

While this battle continues, many building professionals believe more effort should be put into bringing the two code bodies together. With the exception of the few who think two codes are good for competition, most experts say the country needs a single code. The United States is the only industrialized nation without a single national code.

Holding Out Hope

“If we had just one building code for the country, we’d all understand it,” says Holly Gerberding, assistant commissioner in the Department of Buildings with City of Chicago. “Students would be taught that in school and be that much further ahead when they came out.”

AIA’s Winkel says there is enough competition between trade groups and manufacturers that there need not be competition between code organizations to make sure new product developments, designs and uses are written into the codes. So the need for the two organizations to get together and work out their differences remains as compelling as the reason for the three old code organizations to come together. AIA demands that the ICC and NFPA put aside their financial interests and produce a single set of documents for construction throughout the United States, Winkel says. While money, philosophy and organizational culture are major hurdles, the interest of the public is at stake.

It is not as simple as a business merger, he says. “We lived through the process with the merger of the three model code agencies into ICC, and doing it again with NFPA would be a daunting process, but it must be done.”

New Tools, New Codes

Federal officials investigating the World Trade Center report progress into what ultimately could change design practices, standards and codes that govern facility construction and operations.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a workshop with nearly 70 international experts to review current practices for achieving fire resistance, explore the potential of fire dynamics simulations and structural behavior predictions at elevated temperatures, and identify new fire-resistance options brought on by advances in materials.

The results of the workshop, part of a larger research and development program undertaken by NIST, will guide further work that could ultimately lead to changes in facility design practices, standards and codes. The results also will contribute to the agency’s efforts to establish the need for a possible National Structural Fire Resistance Laboratory.

NIST’s research and development program involves experimentation, analysis, verification and demonstration of improved tools to guide the building and fire safety industries. The program addresses work in critical facility areas, including structural fire safety, reducing vulnerability from chemical and biological attack, and equipment standards for first responders as well as human behavior, emergency response and mobility.

The research and development program is one part of NIST’s three-part plan for responding to the Trade Center disaster. The other two — being conducted concurrently — include an investigation into the collapse of the Twin Towers and other buildings that comprised the Trade Center as well as establishing a dissemination and technical assistance program to better prepare facility executives and others in the industry to respond to future disasters.

Several building collapsed at the Trade Center after terrorists hijacked two airliners and used them as missiles to attack the facility on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We have a long way to go in what is an enormous undertaking, but we have made good progress since we launched this investigation in late August,” says Arden Bement, NIST director.

To aid the investigation, NIST is looking for photos, videos and other documents that might help link the chain of events leading to the collapse of several buildings at the World Trade Center site.

Important documents and materials that have not yet been located include the original contract specifications for the Trade Center towers, construction logs and maintenance records for the towers and Building No. 7, and documents related to the ability of the towers to withstand the abnormal load condition of a Boeing 707 aircraft impact that was considered in the original design.

— Mike Lobash, executive editor

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  posted on 2/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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