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Single-code saga

After more than 25 years of prodding, NFPA has launched its own integrated building code. Will it mean consensus for the built environment?

May 01, 2002 |

More than a quarter century ago, the American Institute of Architects called for a single national building code. The benefits were obvious — major developers, designers and contractors would not have to constantly adjust to regional or local codes every time they shifted geography. The call, however, went unheeded. In fact, it would not be until the next century that any of those entities would enact such a standard.

The wheels of change finally set in motion in 1994 when the suburban Chicago-based Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), the Whittier, Calif.-based International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and the Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) united to create the International Code Council (ICC) — an agency dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive, coordinated model construction codes. That code, the 2000 International Building Code, came to fruition two years ago. Since then, South Carolina, Alaska, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia have adopted the code or at least significant parts of it. New Hampshire adopted it in March.

Not everyone, however, was completely happy with ICC's effort. A prime detractor was the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Quincy, Mass.-based organization that produced the widely adopted Life Safety Code and National Electrical Code.

"We were quite content to do the various codes we were doing, and we tried to negotiate with the ICC to get them to agree to use some of our codes, but we were unsuccessful," says George Miller, NFPA's president and CEO.

In further investigating the matter with various adopting authorities in a number of states prior to the release of the IBC, NFPA discovered that many states were uninterested in further use of its codes in favor of a single code. "So it be-came apparent that if we wanted people to keep using our codes, we had to put them together in a package," says Miller.

NFPA responds with its own code

That was two years ago, and now NFPA is finalizing its offering —NFPA 5000, Building Code — before its membership this month for a vote of approval at its annual conference in Minneapolis. The obvious question: What makes it any different from the IBC?

"It harmonizes different elements like the Life Safety Code or the National Electric Code into one code that also now directly relates to a structural code," says Miller.

Second, NFPA, steeped in fire-protection tradition, has placed an emphasis on firefighter safety.

According to Stephen Rondinelli, an architect with the Denver office of the Chicago-based RJA Group and the former head of NFPA's Denver regional office, NFPA 5000 requires that buildings be designed and constructed to provide a reasonable level of safety for firefighters and emergency responders during search and rescue operations. "It is gratifying to see that there is now consideration for the safety of the firefighter during the initial rescue operation," says Rondinelli, a member of the technical committee that helped develop the new code.

NFPA 5000 also has embedded in it an option for performance-based design. The proposed code allows for compliance with building design and life-safety requirements either by using prescriptive or performance-based provisions. However, the performance-based design method is required to achieve the goals and objectives related to the code's five tenets: safety from the perspectives of fire, structural failure, unwanted entry, hazardous materials and building use.

NFPA 5000 proposes to incorporate the classification system used in the Life Safety Code. This method, Rondinelli explains, has long utilized the concept of clearly defined occupancy definitions both for new and existing occupancies. Unlike the way other model building codes address the subject, Rondinelli says NFPA 5000 describes construction types and height/area requirements in a completely different manner.

Another first, according to Martin Reiss, president and CEO of the RJA Group and also a member of NFPA's board of directors, is that NFPA 5000 will be the only model building code developed using an American National Standards Institute-accredited, open-consensus process.

Finally, Miller adds that NFPA 5000, like the Life Safety Code, is organized in a clear, occupancy-based format, making it easier for code enforcers to apply the provisions to whatever type of building they're dealing with.

States take wait-and-see attitude

Success with local building officials, however, is the acid test. A single building code doesn't really provide any major benefits to individual communities, says Miller, adding that such authorities have operated quite successfully for years with a mix of codes from different code bodies. Pressure for the single code, says Miller, will come from groups like AIA, Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and the states themselves, who have been migrating toward single codes.

"By and large, most states are holding off, and the word we're getting back is that they're waiting to see what we come up with," says Miller. "I'm convinced NFPA 5000 is going to be a quality product and will be highly competitive. Having said that, I don't think I can honestly say it's going to be adopted all over the U.S. — at least in the early stages — because many people are committed to the ICC. And it makes sense because many local building officials are heavily involved in the organization, so a lot of the ICC code will still prevail. But I am optimistic that NFPA 5000 will be widely accepted."

That opinion is shared by BOMA. "At first, I think there will be relatively few states that adopt it — it's definitely in play in California, maybe Arizona and some areas of the Northwest," says Ron Burton, vice president of advocacy and research for BOMA. "But what will likely happen is that there will be a mixed bag."

That's bad news for his membership. "It's a problem for us because it really stretches our resources," says Burton.

BOMA has not lost total hope. Burton, pulling out his crystal ball, sincerely believes a single building code will emerge down the road. "That's my hope. But it will be a real tragedy if the two instead try to beat on each other."

If approved at the NFPA conference this month, NFPA 5000, Building Code, will go before the group's Standards Council, who will review it in August. If the council gives it the green light, the NFPA 5000 could be published by Sept. 1.

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