For anyone involved in construction—whether you are an architect, contractor, builder, installer, owner or component manufacturer—building codes are a major part of your business. Codes are jurisdictional laws or regulations intended to keep occupants safe and encourage good building practices. They can impact the way a building is put together, how it operates and the materials specified. But while the contents of adopted codes impact everyone in the design and construction industry, for many those codes exist in a black box. How do they come into being? Who makes the rules?
National model building codes and the standards upon which they are built are constantly evolving and growing. This does not happen behind closed doors, out of range of the building and construction community. In most cases, national model codes are out in the open for public debate and comment before localities adopt them into law. There are opportunities for anyone to get informed and get involved.
In this, the first part of a continuing series, Metalmag will examine the process behind the development of national model codes and standards. In future installments, we will delve deeper into some of the specific codes and code changes that currently are in the works and that could impact your business in the coming years. By better understanding how the code development process works, you can prepare for what’s to come or get involved to help shape the future of construction in the U.S.
Standards and Codes
The concept of building codes is anything but new. Codes for public safety related to buildings can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, a set of ancient Babylonian laws dated circa 1700 B.C. They were rudimentary and straightforward, but set a standard for enforcing quality construction practices. Today’s codes and standards are much more sophisticated, going beyond simply requiring a structure that won’t collapse to address things like energy efficiency, fire mitigation, and occupant health and comfort.
Before we get into the process of code development and adoption, let’s cover some basics, beginning with the differences between codes and standards. Each serves a different purpose and relates to projects in a different way so it’s important to understand what’s what.
Standards are the technical supports upon which building codes are developed. They can cover details ranging from energy efficiency and mechanical systems to best practices for building with metal, concrete and other materials. Standards are developed by a number of technical and trade groups. Three prominent examples are the Reston, Va.-based American Society of Civil Engineers; West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International; and the Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc. Because codes often can’t delve into the technical details without being endlessly long, they reference applicable standards to provide more in-depth background. For example, the International Building Code refers to ASCE 7 (Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures) to provide the necessary technical background to design the structural framework of a building.
Building codes are laws or regulations that are adopted by state or local governments to establish minimum requirements for the construction and maintenance of buildings. Most state and local governments rely heavily on national model codes developed at a national or international level. The primary code-development body today is the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council. ICC is a membership association that develops a set of codes called the International Codes, or I-Codes, which address building safety, fire prevention, energy efficiency minimums and other topics related to construction of residential and commercial buildings. I-Codes are made available to local and state governments and can be adopted locally as-is or with changes and adjustments made to suit that particular region. It is important to note that although ICC develops the model codes, those codes are not enforced until a local government chooses to adopt them.
Building codes differ from building certification programs, such as the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED or the Washington-based Department of Energy’s Energy Star program. Building codes are designed as a minimum requirement for acceptable construction and maintenance, while certification programs are aspirational in nature, aiming instead for something above the minimum. Both rely on standards for technical depth, but certifications are optional and building codes are mandatory.
Standards and codes constantly are evolving as construction changes and new issues arise. Some standards-making bodies, such as ASHRAE, use what is called a continuous maintenance approach to keep its standards up to date. “Anyone who wants to propose a standard modification can submit a continuous maintenance proposal to ASHRAE,” explains Steve Skalko, chair of the ASHRAE Standard 90.1 (Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings) Project Committee and a former code official in Macon, Ga. “The project committee looks at the proposal to determine if it has merit and is reasonable to consider. We have to follow certain procedures to ensure we looked at it fairly and if we don’t incorporate it, justification is required.”
When an update proposal passes the committee, it is posted for public review. This is a completely open process and anyone can read the proposed change to the standard and comment on it. During the process, the committee will look at all the comments and make any changes or refinements deemed appropriate. Significant changes or changes of a technical nature are required to be sent out for another public review. This review process continues until the committee is satisfied sufficient consensus has been reached. Because standards are so tied into the codes that reference them, standards bodies work closely with ICC to keep their standards updated and in sync with the codes.
Code changes within ICC are handled in a similar way, but take place on a set timetable. “ICC updates their codes every three years. The next set of publications will be the 2012 edition, and then the new process will begin for the 2012 to 2015 cycle,” explains Jonathon Humble, regional director of construction codes and standards with the Washington, D.C.-based American Iron and Steel Institute. “During that three-year period, there are code hearings. Code change proposals from the general public can be submitted by a set deadline. The proposals are collated to produce a monograph of all the proposals being considered for the I-Codes. About two months after that document is published, there is an open public hearing where anyone can come in and either support or oppose any of the proposals to before a code committee, which consists of about 15 to 18 people.”
These code committees are assembled by ICC’s board of directors following a strict set of rules. The committees must represent a broad scope of interests and can’t, for example, primarily consist of representatives of a particular industry or trade group. In the public hearings, the code committee is interested in the technical basis for any arguments for or against a code or code change proposal.
Following the public discussion, the committee will discuss each proposal and vote whether they want to support it, support it with modifications or reject it. Following the hearings, the recommendations of the committees are published and there is a second chance for the public to comment by issuing a code challenge. In this phase of the process, the discussion is more focused and refined, but the public still has an opportunity to voice support, disagreements and suggestions.
At the end of the comment period, there is a final hearing where ICC membership, which is made up of code officials, fire officials, residential inspectors, members of government and others, hear testimony about the proposed codes. The government representatives in attendance—i.e. code officials, fire officials, etc.—vote to accept proposed changes or to go with the code committee’s recommendations. That is the final action to create a published model building code.
When ICC finalizes national model codes, they do not immediately go into enforcement. At this point they simply are documents on a shelf. The rubber meets the road with local governments. “Each state has its own process for code adoption,” Skalko says. “When I was a code official in Georgia, every city and county could decide which codes they wanted to adopt. Macon, for example, would look at some of the latest code additions and go through a process to adopt them but we might make some local amendments to suit our local needs or because we don’t agree with everything in the document. When Georgia went to a statewide code, we used a similar process but now it occurs at a state level with a state committee made up of technical people who will consider which codes to adopt and which sections to amend to suit state needs.”
Some states handle building codes on a statewide basis, and others allow local municipalities and counties to make decisions regarding their building codes and which to adopt. In either case, that local or state government can adopt the code as a whole, or take whatever pieces it feels applies. “Sometimes there are states that try to develop their own, more stringent codes,” Skalko adds. “For instance, California has Title 24 to set a higher bar for energy conservation.”
Although many may have the impression that building codes are rigid rules chiseled in granite in a closed-off tower, the truth is there are opportunities to get involved, make suggestions and be a part of the process. Whether it’s commenting on new standards or codes, attending code hearings or being involved with your state or local governments as they consider code updates and changes, there are a multitude of places to make your voice heard.
Building codes have an impact on the metal design and construction industry, so it is important to be vigilant of changes and updates coming down the road so the metal industry’s perspective can be heard and taken into account. “[The metal construction industry’s] interests traditionally have been the structural and material provisions, thermal issues, energy code, weathering requirements, water penetration and moisture condensation, fire codes and things of that nature,” Humble says. “There also is plenty of discussion surrounding things like wind uplift, seismic issues and lateral support. One new thing entering the market is how to handle vegetated roofs with established roofing products. There are always new things on the horizon.”
In the next issue of Metalmag: Part 2 of Metalmag’s continuing series on building codes will examine some of the code issues on the horizon for our industry. In particular, we will take a look at the International Green Construction Code, which is currently in draft form, undergoing public comment and aiming for publication in 2012. We will discuss possible benefits, challenges and opportunities our industry may face with these and other future building codes.