Infrastructure & Environment

The Code War

As governments move toward uniform building codes, they are being lobbied by two rival groups that offer competing sets of standards.
by | January 2006

Public meetings on building codes are typically subdued. Which is why Glenn Corbett, a fire-safety expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, found it both satisfying and amusing when a code hearing last winter in Manhattan drew a raucous, standing-room only crowd.

"This is a code person's dream city council hearing," recalls Corbett, who has been working with governments on code issues for 20 years. "The place is packed. There's code officials there wearing suits, and union guys in denim jeans with tattoos. It's wild. People are screaming and swearing. The chair is slamming her gavel, threatening to take people out of the auditorium. It's unheard of, for a code hearing."

Building codes may be the DNA of all construction, but they are also the sorts of arcane regulations that most people hardly ever think about. What made this riotous council hearing especially strange is that everybody in the room agreed on the basic issue at hand: New York City's voluminous building code desperately needed streamlining. Where the fighting broke out was on a secondary question: Which of the two "model codes" in the United States should the Big Apple use as a blueprint?

It is a question that has boiled over, with a curious ferocity, in quite a few places lately. For years, the business community has been pushing governments to standardize building codes from state to state and city to city. The goal is to create enough uniformity nationwide to lower building construction and management costs--while still addressing unique local safety issues, such as hurricanes, earthquakes or, in New York's case, high-rise buildings. If that sounds fairly straightforward, the reality is anything but. Governments face an intensely lobbied choice between two rival sets of codes, each of which has its own fanatical base of supporters.

On one side is the International Code Council, a group dominated by government building officers and code enforcement officials. ICC's strongest supporters include architects and people who own or manage buildings in numerous states. On the other side is the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA draws its primary support from fire chiefs and unions representing certain building tradesmen. Not only do the two code-writing groups compete fiercely against each other for state and local business, they're also suing one another, each claiming that the other has ripped off chunks of their model codes.

The feud is something of a sideshow to an important and serious task. Model codes aren't just a boon to the building industry. They're also integral to public safety. Both code-writing groups revise their codes every three years--in fact, both have just released new versions for 2006. When states and cities adopt the codes, they are getting the latest thinking on how to handle new building materials and construction techniques. Contrast that to New York City's code--which was last comprehensively updated in 1968--or to Louisiana, which had no statewide code for single-family houses before Hurricane Katrina hit. "My experience with state and local officials," Corbett says, "is that codes tend to be a very ho-hum kind of thing. But it's also one of those fundamental regulations that, when a building burns down and a bunch of people are killed, it's propelled to the top of the heap."

BATTLE LINES

The code standardization movement is actually about a century old. As you might expect, the push for uniformity arose out of tragedies. Corbett points to Baltimore's great fire of 1904 as an early rallying point. Others look to New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. To varying degrees, cities across the country had responded to their own local disasters with homegrown codes intended to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

What evolved during the 20th century was a regionalized approach. States and cities in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes collaborated on one set of building codes. Southern states developed a separate set. And Western and Midwestern states did their own thing. Other groups, meanwhile, developed ancillary codes that were widely used around the country. NFPA, formed in 1896, wrote model fire and electrical codes. Another organization, known as IAPMO, developed model plumbing and mechanical codes.

Pressure built on the code groups to consolidate as building and construction became more of a national business. That's when the current battle lines were drawn. The three regional groups merged to form the ICC, and published one integrated compendium of codes for the first time in 2000. When talks to bring NFPA into the fold broke down, it developed a brand-new building code of its own. It also formed an alliance with IAPMO in order to offer governments another full package of codes to compete with ICC's. This was horrible news, as far as many people in government and industry were concerned. What they had wanted all along was one code for states and cities to adopt as a baseline. What they got instead was two.

The result? Governments must choose between ICC and NFPA. If that sounds mundane, consider how intense the lobbying became in Phoenix. When city councilors presented the two codes side by side in 2004, they couldn't believe the volume of e-mail messages that poured in. NFPA supporters besieged residents with automated phone calls, claiming that the NFPA codes were safer. ICC, meanwhile, ran a full- page ad in the Arizona Republic. As in New York, council hearings were jam-packed with partisans on both sides. After leaning initially toward NFPA's codes, Phoenix ultimately picked ICC. "I've been in the code business 38 years," says Larry Litchfield, of the Phoenix development services department. "There was more attention to this code adoption process in Phoenix than anything I've ever seen."

A similar story unfolded in California, where a re-write of the statewide building code is now underway. In 2003, the California Building Standards Commission selected NFPA's model code as its baseline. Given the state's size, California's decision sent shockwaves through the building industry. Other than a few small localities in Texas, Maine and Illinois, the Golden State was the first jurisdiction to adopt NFPA's new building code. At the time, the Building Standards Commission consisted mostly of Democratic Governor Gray Davis' appointees. They were largely seen as sympathetic to labor unions, who generally favored the NFPA codes.

NFPA's big victory was short lived, however. Within months, voters recalled Davis in favor of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose appointees changed the commission's outlook. After several tense hearings last winter, the commission reversed course in March. It dropped the NFPA codes in favor of ICC's. NFPA called the change "a purely political move." Not surprisingly, ICC called it a step forward for public safety.

MIX AND MATCH

To understand the battle between NFPA and ICC, it is useful to avoid thinking of the two groups as associations of code geeks. Rather, think of them as two publishing houses engaged in a war for book sales. Codebooks are a big business in the United States and abroad. When a city or a state adopts one model code or the other, it means that thousands of code officials, architects, engineers and others must purchase new copies to keep on their desks. In 2004, NFPA pulled in $58 million from publication sales, while ICC earned $25 million. (Both are nonprofits.)

Both organizations can make big claims when it comes to their influence. That's because jurisdictions commonly mix and match certain codes from each group. NFPA's electrical code is the single most widely used model code in the world. As far as building codes go, however, ICC is way out in front, with its code in use in 45 states. The building industry views ICC's building code the way most consumers view Microsoft's Windows: It's seen as eccentric and risky to test the alternatives. ICC is also helped by the star power of its CEO, James Lee Witt, the former FEMA director who took the job in 2003.

While partisans will claim one code to be better than the other, neutral observers generally agree that both are sound. "Building codes are based on physics," says Phoenix's Larry Litchfield. "That doesn't change from one book to the other." The major difference between them is a procedural matter relating to the way they update their codebooks. This, too, is a fine point. But considering that each group writes codes that are used across the country, it is an increasingly important process that receives very little outside scrutiny.

Both ICC and NFPA update their codebooks at conventions of their members. In each case, anybody--members or not--can propose a code change. What's different is how the two groups vote. At ICC, only building officials from government are allowed to vote. ICC believes this prevents special interests, such as trade unions or manufacturers of building materials, from advancing hidden agendas through the building code. By contrast, NFPA opens up voting to all of its members--although checks and balances theoretically prevent any one special interest from commandeering the code.

The difference in voting procedure explains why the fire services and trade unions generally support NFPA over ICC. "At NFPA, professional firefighters have a place at the table," says Peter Gorman, President of the New York City Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "The NFPA code addresses building safety from a firefighter's perspective." This also explains another curious wrinkle in the fight between NFPA and ICC--an oddly heated debate over plastic pipe that rears its head in one state after another.

ICC codes generally allow plastic pipe to be used in a building's plumbing system; NFPA codes generally do not. NFPA's stance reflects worries firefighters have about the fumes plastic pipe gives off when it burns. It also reflects some job-related concerns of plumbers. Plastic pipe, it seems, is easier for do-it-yourselfers to work with. More plastic pipe means less work for professional plumbers. That's why plumbers turned out in force at that heated New York code hearing. "The national plumbers union is extremely political," says Patricia Lancaster, the head of New York's buildings department, who is spearheading New York's code re-write. "The plumbers' storming of the first hearing was noted by a number of city council members."

WINDOW FOR REFORM

The plastic pipe question is only one of hundreds that New York has to sort out. Over the years, the city's building code metastasized to the point that it spawned a cottage industry of consultants and "expediters" to help businesses decipher it. Tragically, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers opened a window for reform. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered an overhaul in 2002, riding an outpouring of goodwill that has, with a few exceptions, quelled political squabbling.

New Yorkers usually take pride in being different from the rest of the United States. But in the case of its building code, New York City officials have come to believe they might be better off looking a lot more like other states and municipalities. Bloomberg appointed a commission to weigh the ICC building code versus the NFPA code. It settled on ICC, largely because it's what most other governments are using.

What has been going on ever since is a painstaking line-by-line vetting of the old code and the ICC code. New York wants to keep some of the tougher provisions from its existing code, particularly those pertaining to high-rise buildings. To sort through it all, some 400 executives and technical experts from all parts of the building and construction industries have volunteered their time. They've divided into 13 committees and 72 subcommittees, and keep track of each other's work using a special Web site set up by the Buildings Department.

There are hundreds of examples of absurd local legacies that will disappear from the building code. Lancaster's favorite one is the initials used to designate "office occupancy" and "residential occupancy." "In the 1968 code," she says with disbelief, "office is called 'E' and residential is called 'J'." The new code, following ICC conventions and common sense, will call office "O" and residential "R." Lancaster says that New York may amend the code in ways that make it different from the rest of the country, "but for the most part we'll all be talking about the same thing."

As the committees were quietly working through arcane details, however, NFPA and its allies were lobbying the city council. The push was strong enough to persuade the council to revisit the city's original choice of the ICC codes. That's when the unruly code hearing happened. One plumber after another stood up to testify to the superiority of NFPA's code-writing process. As Karen Headley, a member of the major plumbers' union put it, "Don't you think that someone like me, with years of experience working in construction, would have some valuable input when it comes to safety codes? ICC doesn't really care what I think."

In the end, the plumbers' concerns were resolved. The code was amended to limit the use of plastic pipes to certain circumstances. The council went on to unanimously approve the first part of the code re-write in November, by a vote of 48 to 0. Lancaster hopes that the rest will be finished by next year.

At last, it seems, New York's bitter debate over model codes is winding down. Just about everyone involved is relieved. "If it were NFPA, it'd be perfectly fine," says Professor Corbett, who serves on one of the technical code committees. "The fact is that years ago, we picked ICC, and that's the horse we're riding.

"To tell you the truth," he adds, "I wish we didn't have two building codes."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Infrastructure & Environment