Changes to Model Codes Could Spell the End of High-Rise Construction

08/01/2007 |

Changes such as an additional stairway in buildings over 420 feet in height are causing controversy

Changes to the Intl. Building Code could preclude future construction of high-rise office buildings in the United States. The code change at the center of a brewing controversy would require an additional stairway in buildings over 420 feet in height. This is but one of several proposals that would have enormous impact on the design and construction of very tall buildings based on the study of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers by the Gaithersburg, MD-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The additional stairway, along with several other proposals that threaten the economic viability of tall buildings and the future contributions these structures could make in reducing carbon emissions, were approved during the recently completed code-development cycle of the Intl. Code Council (ICC).

Other changes that could negatively impact the construction of tall buildings approved for the 2007 supplement of the Intl. Building Code include a threefold increase in the requirements for fireproofing of steel structural members along with special inspections for application of these products, an increase in the fire-resistance rating of structural components and systems, and the addition of redundant photoluminescent exit pathway markings in buildings over 75 feet in areas already required to have emergency lighting.

Not approved during the 2006-2007 ICC code-development cycle were other NIST recommendations that commercial buildings be designed to mitigate progressive collapse and to completely burn out without collapsing; with severe limitations on the length of exit corridors; with video-monitoring requirements of stairways, elevators, elevator lobbies, and elevator machine rooms; provide an increase in distance between exit stairways; and provide significant increases in the strength of stairway walls that could limit steel construction options that provide the flexibility needed in the design of high-rise structures. Proponents of these changes have vowed to bring them back for consideration during the next ICC code-development cycle starting in August 2007. Decisions made during the next 18 months will determine the content of the 2009 ICC codes and, possibly, the future of tall building design and construction.

BOMA, other representatives of the commercial real estate industry, and many code and safety experts opposed these code changes. BOMA argued that the need for an additional stairway in particular was not demonstrated by NIST and other proponents, and, given current fire statistics, is not well founded. A full cost/benefit analysis necessary to document the societal impact of these sweeping changes was not performed as part of the NIST study, as was repeatedly urged by BOMA and many other groups. This change was also opposed by the ICC technical committees with oversight of egress requirements in the ICC codes. Building construction experts noted during the ICC public hearings that proponents for this change did not demonstrate the need for the stairwell in actually contributing to the safe evacuation of a building - a particular concern in view of comments by the fire service during the hearings.

Overwhelming support for the additional stairway came primarily from members of the fire services. Curiously, supporters of the stairway proposal did not address building evacuation or occupant safety during the public hearings, but instead focused their comments on the need for this additional stairway as a work area during those times the fire service may be called to the building.

Many of the NIST recommendations may not, in fact, serve the public well. By itself, the requirement for an additional stairway will fundamentally alter the economic viability of designing, building, and owning a high-rise office building. In coupling the added initial cost for this stairway with the much greater lost lease revenue for that space over the life of the building, developers of urban spaces will have to rethink future plans in areas where space is at a very high premium. Impacts to society that this and similar changes to the model codes represent must also be considered. What will be the impact on urban sprawl and increased travel times and other transportation problems that result? How will these changes in how we design and construct buildings impact the increasingly critical need to reduce carbon emissions and address global warming? These and many other questions will need to be addressed as future changes to the model codes are considered.

BOMA plans to submit proposals for the next ICC code-development cycle to eliminate the additional stairway and will be working with a coalition of commercial real estate groups to oppose other ill-advised modifications. Mitigating the potential damage these code changes pose to the commercial real estate industry will be a top priority for BOMA in the next 18 months.

For more information on these and other issues, call BOMA Intl. at (202) 408-2662 or visit (

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