California sets the standards for lot of norms and trends, but where do they stand with a uniform code system? Greg explores the topic in this month's column.

In the realm of cultural trends, it’s often said that as California goes, so goes the nation—eventually. While this view is considered a source of pride for residents of the Golden State, for most of the rest of us, it’s perceived as a great annoyance. After all, this is the state that originated drive-by shootings, Valley speak and wave after wave of unsatisfying haute cuisine. Progress can be positive, but not all innovation should be considered a step forward.

There is one area, however, where California lags behind a growing number of states, and that is its failure to adopt a progressive statewide building code to replace its current code, based upon the 1997—and final—edition of the Uniform Building Code, which is no longer maintained.

So many codes

During its last triennial building code cycle a year ago, the state’s Building Standards Commission opted to wait it out a few more years rather than rush to embrace the new International family of building codes, which were first published in 2000 by the International Code Council, the national code body formed by the alliance of the three long-standing national model code organizations: International Conference of Building Officials in the West, Building Officials and Code Administrators International in the East, and the Southern Building Code Congress International in the South.

For many code officials, California’s decision was viewed as a slap in the face not only to the ICC, but to ICBO, whose Uniform Building Code has served as a blueprint for the state’s building code for decades. After all, California is home to ICBO, and the UBC had been shaped in large part to address the concerns of Western building officials, with particular attention devoted to earthquake-safe design and fire safety issues.

The Building Standards Commission’s 2001 code adoption also bore evidence of a less apparent agenda to lead the state’s building codes into new territory. While the commission maintained the 1997 edition of the UBC as the core of its state building code, it replaced the UBC mechanical sections of the code with the 2000 edition of the Uniform Mechanical Code, published by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials. The commission also adopted the National Western Fire Chiefs Association 2000 Uniform Fire Code, previous editions of which had been developed in cooperation with ICBO, but which now compete with the International Fire Code.

The year before, the National Fire Protection Association—in alliance with IAPMO, WFCA and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers—announced its intentions to develop a rival national building code to compete against the ICC’s International family of building codes. That code—the NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code—debuted this July, the culmination of a fast-track development process that some have criticized provided fertile ground for influence and abuse by special interests.

While a year ago many in the industry figured it was already a fait accompli that California would adopt NFPA 5000 during its 2004 triennial code cycle, today that seems less certain. Throughout its development, the code has drawn significant criticism as being flawed, self-contradictory and—ironically—reckless in its approach to building fire safety, relying heavily on fire sprinklers in place of fire-resistive construction. More contentious, some of the powers that helped shape the document have been exposed in the mainstream press as reportedly exerting undue influence on the governor’s office and the state Building Standards Commission. Arguably, when building codes are featured in page one stories alleging political graft, there’s something seriously amiss.

Election time

For most of the year preceding this month’s elections, Governor Gray Davis has been portrayed as running an administration for sale to the highest bidder. But while the Democratic governor’s spokesmen repeatedly deny such allegations, insiders claim the only way anyone can even meet with the governor is to arrive with check in hand.

In September, a front-page story in the Sacramento Bee detailed more than $2 million in donations to Davis’ re-election campaign on behalf of plumbers’ trade unions, who are fighting to keep PEX pipe from being adopted in the state’s building code. In May, the Building Standards Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, resisted a bid by pipe manufacturers to gain code approval for plastic pipe. While all parties involve claim there is no evidence of any quid pro quo, the state attorney’s office has announced it will review the matter.

In any other state, at any other time, the allegations surrounding Davis would spell doom at the polls. But Republican challenger Bill Simon has problems of his own, tainted by allegations of corporate abuse connected to his family’s business. In all likelihood Davis will enjoy re-election this month as the least popular governor in the state’s history. To put it in perspective, a recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that nearly two-thirds of voters would prefer a serious gubernatorial candidate other than Davis or Simon.

Should Davis prevail this November, when the state enters its next triennial code cycle in 2004, the Building Standards Commission will consist entirely of Davis appointees who already have demonstrated they are sympathetic to interests of plumbing trades. This commission will most likely decide whether California follows the lead of nearly 20 other states that have adopted the International Building Code, or whether the state goes it alone in adopting NFPA 5000.

While it’s unlikely that the selection will be made free and clear from the taint of political influence, it is expected that clearer heads will ultimately win out. While the Building Standards Commission sets the code agenda, adoption is dependent upon approval of a number of state agencies, including the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, which has a reputation for putting public safety ahead of all other considerations.

Given the deficiencies with NFPA 5000 as it relates to fire safe design and construction, it’s anticipated that one or more state agencies will seek to block the Building Standards Commission from weakening the state’s building code.

“The worst-case scenario is that the state will evaluate both of them,” notes Mike Quiroz, public affairs director for ICBO Evaluation Services. He believes that, ultimately, the better code will prevail.

“We need to provide what the model codes have always provided, and that’s a balanced approach to fire protection,” he says. W&C