Which Building Code? It Does Matter

March 26, 2003
Washington, D.C. — There are now two competing national model building codes – the International Building Code developed by the International Code Council (ICC), and the NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code developed by the National Fire Protection Association. The question of which is adopted by your local or state government is a critical one, because the impact of this decision on your business, both now and in the future, will be substantial.What happened to the promise of a single family of coordinated national model codes that the real estate industry has been working to achieve for the past two decades? We do have that single family of coordinated national model codes for the built environment – the result of work done within the ICC since 1994. The ICC published a complete family of codes in 2000 that includes the International Building Code (IBC), as well as codes for residential, plumbing, mechanical, and other building elements harmonized to eliminate the conflicts that have plagued our industry since the first codes were published in the United States.However, in spite of heavy pressure from the real estate sector to get ICC and NFPA to cooperate in the development of a single family of national model codes, disputes between NFPA and ICC could not be resolved. As a result, NFPA, in partnership with other organizations that publish plumbing, mechanical, and energy standards, has launched an effort to develop a competing family of codes.The competition is intense and we are now faced with determining which one of these building codes is best. Today, despite the fact that both codes encompass essentially the same elements of building construction, the IBC is clearly the better document.What makes the IBC the better choice today? The IBC represents the collective input of the three regional model code organizations that have been developing building codes for well over half a century. The IBC also provides the gateway to the other coordinated ICC codes and the support services essential for regulators, code users, building owners and managers, and the public, including training and education, product evaluations, and commentaries and interpretations.The coordination of the other ICC codes with the IBC is a critical element in the choice of code documents for adoption into the laws of state and local jurisdictions. Not only does this provide the code user with a harmonization of requirements from the building code to the plumbing, mechanical, and other construction documents, it makes the adoption and enforcement of the various building regulations as cost effective as possible for cities, states, and all taxpayers.The IBC is also produced in the common code format used by most cities and states today. This facilitates the design and construction processes and eliminates the learning curve required when a new format is introduced.Accessibility requirements that conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act are also part of the IBC and its companion documents. These requirements provide the industry with the tools needed to comply with these critical federal requirements.Currently, 19 states have adopted one or more of the ICC codes statewide and a significant number of major local jurisdictions in 36 states have followed suit. This makes the IBC the predominant building code adopted in the United States today.Finally, the ICC code development process affords representatives of industry groups like BOMA an effective voice that, along with other participants representing the full range of views needed for consensus, results in the development of the most responsible and cost-effective regulations.Will NFPA 5000 become a viable alternative to the IBC? It is possible. NFPA has an impressive reputation in developing standards for the construction industry. The National Electrical Code has been in continual development for a century and is adopted by virtually every jurisdiction in the country as the industry standard. Many communities also adopt NFPA’s Life Safety Code and Fire Code, NFPA 1.NFPA 5000 has the flaws one would expect in a first-edition document, but many of these problems may be eliminated in subsequent editions. However, NFPA will need to better coordinate its companion code documents if it hopes to see widespread adoption. The amendments required to make these codes compatible and harmonious are expensive and place an unnecessary burden on state and local adopting jurisdictions. Finally, while the NFPA and ICC code development processes are both designed to achieve a consensus of the various interests and viewpoints. However, the NFPA process requires significantly more time and expense on the part of BOMA and other groups and individuals while providing no additional benefits either to the code user or the public interest.Which building code will your community adopt? It definitely does matter.For more information about the issues discussed in this column, visit BOMA International’s website (www.boma.org) or call (202) 408-2662.

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