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Code Fusion
by Andrew N. Siegel - December 1998

In an effort to improve the way building code's impact on construction, an amalgam of building code officials and administrators announced four years ago this month (December 1994), the establishment of the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated national building codes by the end of the year 2000.

The ICC founders - the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), and the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) - created the ICC in response to "technical disparities among the three sets of model codes now in use in the US." The lack of a uniform building code can make it difficult for building industry professionals to design, construct, or interpret their work from place to place.

Every major jurisdiction in this country has adopted a building code. The simplicity ends there. In the spirit of great American individualism, the major regional code bodies have fought over turf and authority in the past. As a result, government officials have frequently adopted different sets of codes from one county to the next. Local building code officials usually choose BOCA, ICBO, SBCCI, or the Council of American Building Officials (CABO) in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of building occupants. To make matters worse, local governments always have the right to modify these model codes as they see fit. So in many places there is a complex web of codes promoting inefficiency, confusion, frustration, and non-compliance.

Building codes are not a function of modern civilization but, rather, have evolved from the ancient world. After all, shelter has been around at least as long as the oldest profession. One of the earliest requirements regarding regulation of structures dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, the Code of Hammurabi (1800 BC). Section 229 from what many believe was the first known building code says, "If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain." That seems fair to me. As you can imagine, most of the builders took the threat seriously and the effectiveness of codes was empirically proven.

Sometime in the 19th century, when lawyers began to rule the world, all kinds of laws and contracts used the clause "according to the code." This was an attempt to make sure the liability for anything could be pinned on someone for the pain and suffering caused by a structure that was not built "according to the code." That language inspired the establishment of many different codes as demonstrated by the alphabet soup of organizations listed as the founders of the ICC. Few paid attention to the manufacturers, builders, designers, and inspectors charged with the awful job of applying the codes to their products, trades, and buildings.

Here is an example of the problem the ICC will try to remedy. In order to get people out of a burning building, the fire code requires the activation of illuminated exit signs in the event of a fire alarm. No one argues the code concept because it makes perfect sense. At this point, however, code idiocy strikes with a vengeance.

It seems code gnomes have a dispute over what color the exit signs should be. Some insist that panicked building occupants need to see a red sign, while others insist green be the emergency color of choice. I will not bore you with the arguments. Designers who draw a set of plans, for more than one locality, revert to the ominous language to provide exit signs "according to the code," thus relieving themselves of any liability. The point is, that depending on what jurisdiction you are being fried in, you could encounter either color because that is the downside of decentralized regulation. In some places it's a green sign, in others it's red.

Big deal you say, you have always been pro-choice. Who cares what color they are as long as the signs work? Read on my fellow building occupant. Manufacturers of exit signs must allow for the color differences and, therefore, have a problem. Some choose to sell their products packaged with both colors. That is a wasteful and expensive solution to the problem. It is however a safe way to buy the product.

Many vendors sell the color specified by the buyer. This response guarantees a certain percentage ordered in the wrong color, requiring the restocking, repurchasing, and reshipment of the exit signs. Furthermore, the building completion is delayed while all the "re" stuff is happening. More time is then wasted as building team members argue over who was at fault for the mistake and incumbent delay. All because the codes are inconsistent about the color of a sign.

Is this all starting to make you mad? Well it should, because guess who ultimately pays for this "economy of fail" - I will not insult you by telling you the answer. However, this is an example of a situation over which you may have some control, because participation in the revision process is open to anyone. Contact the International Conference of Building Officials at (800) 423-6587 for more information about how you can participate in the code revision process.

"Code fusion" is definitely a good idea. I hope the ICC will be able to meet their goal and remedy the code morass by the end of year 2000. My optimism is, however, somewhat tempered by the fact that many of the same people who caused the confusion in the first place are now trying to solve the problem.

About The Author

Andy Siegel is a third generation builder, developer and consultant who writes from his code compliant home in Owings Mills, Maryland. His professional career spans over 23 years during which he has worked on a wide range of construction projects. With experience in historic rehabilitation, commercial structures, multi-family low and high rise units, single family detached and luxury custom homes, Andy has acquired a wide range of knowledge about the construction process. His writing is often inspired by real life experiences and we are pleased that he has decided to share his insights with us.

Copyright © 1998 by Andrew N. Siegel

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