Buildings Under Assault from Proposed Building Code Changes

May 1, 2008

BOMA Intl. discusses the development of national model building codes and their impact on commercial building construction and renovation

The development of national model building codes, and the impact these codes have on commercial building construction and renovation, have skyrocketed up the list of critical issues for the commercial real estate industry in the last few years. Two factors are primarily responsible: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the potentially market-transforming interest in green building. They have led to a dramatic increase in the number of proposals to change the requirements in model building codes since 2001.

The primary focus for advocates of the commercial real estate industry in 2008 is the Intl. Code Council's (ICC) code-development process. The ICC publishes a series of 11 model code documents, including the Intl. Building Code, the Intl. Fire Code, and the Intl. Energy Conservation Code, with revised versions available every 3 years. These codes are adopted (with or without modification) by state and local jurisdictions throughout the country. Currently, some or all of the ICC codes are in use in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The first of two public hearings to be held in 2008 took place in mid February in California to consider more than 1,900 proposals to modify the 2006 editions of the ICC codes. This is the second segment of the 3-year cycle that will determine the content of the 2009 codes—almost 2,000 proposals were also processed during the 2006-2007 hearings. ICC's 2008 Final Action Hearings will be held in Minneapolis this September, when the ICC voting members cast their ballots and the content of the 2009 codes is finalized.

The 2008 hearings are especially important for commercial building professionals because proposed changes would add much more stringent and costly provisions to the ICC codes in the areas of minimum required energy efficiency, emergency egress, accessibility, fire safety, and structural systems. Of serious concern to BOMA Intl., proponents of these changes have not provided any cost-benefit or ROI analysis, and the evidence of additional safety that would be provided to building occupants is either nonexistent or extremely questionable. The following list provides a sampling of specific proposals.

  1. Proposals to require two additional fire-service elevators in all buildings more than 75-feet tall, additional stairway monitoring systems for all buildings, and pressurization of exit stairway and elevator shafts, as well as the lobbies adjacent to elevator exit discharge for all buildings.
  2. A BOMA proposal to eliminate a requirement approved during the 2006-2007 code-development process to provide an additional stairway for "fire service use" in buildings more than 420 feet in height. This requirement was approved with no safety benefit provided by proponents, despite the strenuous objections of virtually every group allied with the construction industry, as well as many building officials.
  3. Proposals by several groups to add unnecessary and costly redundant passive fire-protection measures in fully sprinklered buildings, primarily consisting of additional masonry walls throughout the building. Also, there is a series of proposals to eliminate sprinkler "tradeoffs" in buildings taller than 420 feet. If adopted, these changes would eliminate the economic benefits of installing sprinklers in commercial structures that BOMA was instrumental in securing in the ICC codes, and that are critical for cost-effective code compliance.
  4. A series of proposals by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that target much more stringent structural, fire protection, and egress requirements. Among these changes is a proposal to require a "total content burnout" threshold for progressive-collapse-prevention design. This and other NIST proposals requiring that all buildings be designed to prevent progressive collapse stemmed from recommendations in the NIST World Trade Center collapse research study.
  5. A proposal to require costly and complex risk assessments in the structural design of commercial buildings. This would add an extensive new section to the code and significant cost to the design and construction of buildings with no commensurate benefit to occupant safety.
  6. Several proposals aimed at ratcheting up the requirements of the Intl. Energy Conservation Code (IECC) by 30 percent or more. These proposals would increase stringency in virtually all of the IECC sections, including requirements for glazing, insulation of the building envelope, vertical shafts and ducts, mechanical efficiencies, water-heating efficiency, and electrical and lighting systems, and would require complex energy simulations to qualify for an alternative code-compliance path offering more design flexibility. Analyses by BOMA and other real estate trade groups showed that most of these proposals would have 75- to 100-year paybacks and would, therefore, not be economically feasible.

With the first hearings of the 2008 code-development cycle now complete, BOMA members will be gearing up to educate ICC-voting building and fire officials around the country about the negative impacts many of the code-change proposals will have on commercial construction activity in their communities.

To find out how you can help protect the interests of commercial real estate by participating in BOMA's 2008 Grassroots Code Campaign, visit BOMA Intl.'s website.

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