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Codes battle begins as NFPA 5000 hits the streets

Codes battle begins as NFPA 5000 hits the streets

NFPA's 5000 document now competes with the International Building Code

By Gordon Wright, Executive Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200210 issue of BD+C.

With the release last month of the new NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the anticipated battle of building codes is officially under way.

NFPA's document will compete with the International Code Council's (ICC) International Building Code (IBC), initially published in 2000 and championed by a coalition that includes the American Institute of Architects, BOMA International and the Associated General Contractors. The IBC is a single document designed to supersede the codes of the three U.S. model code organizations — Country Club Hills, Ill.-based Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Building Code Congress International, and the Whittier, Calif.-based International Conference of Building Officials.

NFPA dropped a bombshell in March 2000 when it announced it would also develop a building code — an action that the coalition was unable to dissuade. NFPA said it decided to develop NFPA 5000 to offer the industry an ANSI-accredited, consensus-based alternative.

Some observers also see a financial motivation, in the form of increased document sales, behind NFPA's decision. The association derived 64% of its income from the sale of publications last year.

Michael Fountain, associate vice president of Kansas City, Mo.-based A/E HNTB, expressed the dismay of the coalition at NFPA's decision to proceed with the development of a building code, following a decade-long industry effort to foster code unification.

What will be the impact on design firms of the availability of two codes? Todd Gritch, director of code services for Dallas-based A/E HKS Inc., says it is too early to make anything other than "educated guesses." However, he adds that because HKS does a substantial amount of health care work, which involves a number of authorities having jurisdiction, working with multiple codes "is not particularly new for us."

Gritch likes NFPA's occupancy-based orientation. Similar to that of the Life Safety Code, "It has always been more intuitive for me to find what I want," he says. "I go to 'type of occupancy' and am directed from there." Gritch is one of two architect members on NFPA's board of directors.

"When you look at the technical merits of the IBC vs. NFPA 5000, the substance is not that different," says Randolph Tucker, senior vice president of Chicago-based code consultant RJA Group. "The main difference is that the IBC is couched in "you should" language. NFPA 5000 is more performance-based."

Instead of having three model codes roughly distributed by region, "we'll have two model codes in a checkerboard, without a rationale based on geography," says Vernon Woodworth, an architect with Sullivan Code Group, Boston.

Jeff Wade, a principal at architect ADD Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says a possible problem with the existence of the two codes could relate to how fire prevention regulations may be affected through "referencing." "Will there be conflicts, and if so, which code takes precedence? The more stringent, as is the norm? What if they are in direct conflict?," asks Wade.

"All codes are somewhat similar," Fountain says. "The problem is finding where they're different."

IBC code development hearings were held last month in Fort Worth — the final step of the code change process that will result in a 2003 edition to be released next spring. The official merging of the three model code groups is scheduled to occur in January. The ICC says its goal is a "seamless transition," and that it has no plans to close regional offices as part of the reorganization.

Tucker speculates that some jurisdictions that are wavering between which code to adopt may wait until the IBC's 2003 edition before making a decision. "The first IBC document was a little rough," says Tucker. "They may be more comfortable with the second edition of the IBC than the first edition of NFPA 5000."

NFPA 5000, a 540-page document, is available for $59.50 ($53.55 to NFPA members). A read-only version is available for free on NFPA's Web site at www.nfpa.org.

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