The Building Codes Are Changing: Should Anyone Be Worried?
Except for a few cities and states that have historically written their own building codes almost from scratch, most building codes are based on a model code that was developed through a lengthy and elaborate process. There used to be three separate and distinct organizations that developed model codes-ICBO, BOCA and SBCCI-and each developed a separate and distinct building code: The UBC, NBC, and SBC, respectively. Those are commonly referred to as the "legacy codes."
To move toward the socially beneficial goal of having one model code for the entirety of the United States, the three organizations joined forces in the '90s, created one common model building code and then formally merged together, combining their assets and personnel. The one joint building code that was created was the International Building Code and the organization that was formed from the merger of the three code development organizations was the International Code Council.
One building codeTo help ensure that the IBC would be adopted as the building code whenever a jurisdiction got to the point of updating its existing code, none of the legacy codes were updated from their 1997 through 1999 versions. This means that for a jurisdiction to adopt a new model code that reflected the latest advances in building techniques and materials, there is only one primary choice, the IBC. Because of this solitary choice, it is reasonable to expect that the IBC will be the model code for 95 to 99 percent of jurisdictions across the U.S. within a few years.
The reason the percentage might not reach 100 percent is that there is another available option. The National Fire Protection Association quickly developed its own building code (NFPA 5000) within the last few years, as an alternative to the IBC. However, it does not seem to be making any serious inroads with regards to being adopted anywhere. The city of Pasadena, Texas, has adopted it. Phoenix had been working toward adopting it but reversed course at the 11th hour and redirected its efforts towards adopting the IBC. California has officially announced its intention to adopt NFPA 5000. However, it is widely rumored that this decision may be changed under the Schwarzenegger administration.
Is the IBC different?In the '90s, the Board for Coordination of Model Codes, a joint initiative of the three model code organizations at the time, issued numerous reports that provided the basis for rationalizing and harmonizing, to the maximum extent possible, the requirements of the three legacy codes. One of the significant accomplishments of that process was that the three codes ended up with just about the same format, with the same types of information being in the same chapter numbers, and analogous requirements sometimes even being in the same section number. That does not mean that the requirements were identical, though. There were definite differences in philosophies that were expressed in the differing requirements in each of the codes.
With the requirements of the three codes aligned almost section for section, a comparison of the three became quite feasible. In the process of merging the fire safety requirements of the three legacy codes to create the IBC, the general philosophy that was implemented was, as to each specific requirement, to take the least restrictive requirements of each of the old codes in deciding what the new IBC requirements should be.
Thus, as a hypothetical example, if a dead-end corridor under a specific set of conditions was allowed to be 25-, 40- or 50-feet long per the three different legacy codes, then the IBC requirement would be an allowance of 50 feet.
Using this "lowest common denominator" approach did help to ensure that arguments against the proposed new IBC requirements would be minimized-at least in so far as cost, constructability, and design options were concerned.
History has shown that there is far more opposition when proposals increase any requirements, as opposed to when requirements are relaxed. Even using a "middle ground" approach of taking the mid-point of three different levels of protection could likely have elicited opposition from a third of the code officials present (those who had been implementing the lowest of the three levels). So, perhaps taking the lowest-common-denominator approach might have been a necessary risk in being able to achieve the objective of agreement on one single model building code for the entire country.
Decrease of fire safety requirements: A wise choice?Now that the code has been developed and is well on its way to adoption across the country, it is certainly overdue for the fire safety community to revisit whether a code that accumulated all of the least restrictive practices of the legacy codes is truly in the best interests of society as a whole.
A primary question that would reasonably be asked is whether the legacy codes were already so demanding and restrictive that buildings in the U.S. ended up having more fire safety built into them than was really justified. If so, then it would make complete sense for the new code to ease things up somewhat. One way to get such an overall perspective is to compare U.S. empirical fire history with other countries around the world. A comprehensive global study of fires and fire death statistics has been conducted and is published.1
The news is not all bad but not glowingly good either. The U.S. does have the highest number of fires per inhabitant, with the UK coming in second. Apparently, we are quite careless or accident prone when it comes to setting our things on fire. Fortunately, the great majority of those fires must not come to much, as the U.S. is 24 out of 28 for the number of deaths per 1,000 fires. Perhaps our legacy building codes have served us well, in preventing fires from escalating to the point where people are killed.
However, even though an unusually small percentage of fires result in fatalities, the high number of fires is succeeding in killing an inordinate amount of people, sending the US back into a more troubling range compared to other countries. The net result is expressed as the Average Number of Fire Deaths per 1,000 Inhabitants-in other words, how likely is a person to be killed in a fire.
Using this as a measure, the U.S. beat only 12 of the 28 countries considered in the study, with 15 countries reporting lower per capita fire death rates. Several of the countries with a smaller percentage of their residents killed by fire include many of the old east-bloc countries,2 as well as Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom (remember, the number two fire-setters in the world after the U.S.), Germany, Israel and the Netherlands. Although we are not the worst, we certainly do not have the bragging rights to call ourselves anything near the best. How likely would you be to hear an American crowd at an international event yell with pride: "We're number 16!"
If we decide that international comparisons could possibly be skewed or unfair, perhaps due to differing ways in which data might be collected or made available, we can turn inward and compare different parts of this country. Each of the three legacy building codes was enforced in specific regions of the country, as shown in Figure 1. Fire statistics are available from the NFPA, which can allow for an examination of how well each of those regions performed fire-wise. The data is presented in Table 1. Although the correspondence between the NFPA-reported regions and the regions using different legacy codes is surely not perfect, the categorizations of "northeast", "south" and "west" do provide a similar enough breakdown of large parts of the country to make the comparison useful.
In examining the table, some trends do emerge. We can see from looking at the first three columns of data that the western states have a significantly better performance, notably in the critical categories related to life safety. Does that mean that the people in those states are less accident-prone or just "luckier"? Highly unlikely. A better explanation would be that there is something about their building construction, finishes and furnishings that results in accidental ignitions leading less frequently to reportable fires, deaths and injuries. Knowing that they have fewer reportable incidents per capita to begin with, the next logical question is how well the buildings and the occupants do when the fire does grow to a reportable size. Table 2 takes the data in Table 1 and converts it to death and injuries per fire, rather than per capita, so that we can factor out the fact that in western states fewer fires grow to be significant.
Once again, the previous trend is reinforced, although by a lesser margin. The western states have the lowest death rate per fire, and the second lowest injury rate. Glancing at the data, one might be tempted to ask what good things are happening in the southern states to account for the fact that they have the lowest rate of injuries per fire. It needs to be noted that the south has by far the highest death rate per fire. Perhaps an explanation for the low fire injury rate is that more individuals are dying from those injuries, thus moving them from one column to the other, and reducing the number of people who are listed as "injured."
The data implies that codes do make a difference. There is no debate within the fire protection community that it is the Uniform Building Code, enforced in the western states, which required the most stringent fire safety provisions. Yet, the provisions that were required by UBC but not required in either the SBC or NBC did not make it into the IBC. And therein lies the issue that most people should be concerned about: Not only did the IBC not include some of the above-average fire safety requirements that the UBC had but it also did not incorporate some of the more stringent requirements from the SBC and NBC if those were not the "lowest common denominator."
At this point, the reader may be curious to know what all of these lost features are, or should we say "were," since they will be eliminated as the IBC is adopted. Without going into a lengthy explanation of any of them, below is a bulleted list of some ways in which the IBC has less stringent fire safety requirements, with many of these relaxations granted when sprinklers are installed in a building:
• Increased allowable egress distances
• Reduced widths for egress corridors
• Reduced stairwell widths
• Larger amounts of flammable liquids allowed indoors without special protection
• Reduction of fire-rated walls for separating "incidental uses" (i.e. rooms with above-average hazards)
• Elimination of fire-rated tenant separations for business occupancies
• Reductions in the fire rating for building structural elements, sometimes down to a zero rating
• No limits on the permissible hazard at floor level of an atrium
• Elimination of vertical smoke movement protection for elevator shafts
• No limit on the size of protected openings in a fire wall
• More flammable wall and ceiling finishes allowed
• Elimination of manual alarm pull boxes in some buildings
• Elimination of portable fire extinguishers in some buildings
• Elimination of fire rating for egress corridors in some buildings (e.g. elementary and high schools)
Imagine a loved one in a building that is on fire and one can immediately appreciate how the lost or reduced fire safety features are ones that you wish were still there. Amazingly, this is only a partial list of the fire safety reductions allowed by the IBC. The Web site of the Building Performance Research Institute (www.bpresearch.org/ubcibc.html) is one source that provides a far more complete analysis and listing.
Specific impacts of the code changesNo article for Walls & Ceilings would be complete without a specific discussion of how the IBC reductions in fire safety features might directly impact the industries, tradesmen and building owners or managers who may be reading this.
Aside from the potential impact on the level of safety in the buildings themselves, one of the largest impacts of the code changes will likely be on the fireproofing industry and the fireproofing trades. When structural element fire ratings are decreased, it leads to a reduction in the material and labor required for fireproofing. In zero-rated buildings, the fireproofing is eliminated altogether.
For interior finishing trades, the elimination of some fire-rated compartmentation will result in some percentage of walls not being built, or being built with far less attention to detail, due to the lack of a needed fire rating. In cases where a fire-rated ceiling membrane might have been built (most likely out of gypsum board), as part of a rated floor/ceiling assembly, the reduction of the floor fire rating down to zero would mean that such a rated ceiling is no longer required. The structure, even if it is lightweight wood or steel, could be exposed and still meet code. Thus, any type of ceiling, or even no ceiling, would be acceptable, since no fire resistance is required of it.
For building owners, the lack of multiple levels of fire safety features, such as from alarms, portable extinguishers, and fire and smoke-resistant construction, means that life safety and property protection can become a nearly all-or-nothing proposition based on whether the sprinkler system will actuate and then succeed in controlling the fire. The IBC is the first building code ever published that has such a heavy reliance on sprinkler systems for fire safety. Building owners, their agents and employees would be prudent to recognize the added dependence on the sprinkler systems. The design, installation and maintenance should obviously be second-to-none. Otherwise, not only could unwanted liability issues creep up if there were an incident, but the risk to the business may also be unacceptable.
If the sprinkler system is temporarily shut off, which does occur for maintenance, repair, or retrofit reasons, the question should be asked as to whether the building is safe for occupancy, and appropriate measures should be taken. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there remain about 30 million potentially defective sprinkler heads that have been recalled that have never been replaced. Building owners would be prudent to verify the sprinkler heads that have been installed within their facilities, and to replace those that have been recalled without delay.
The IBC can be viewed as essentially an experiment, one which will, over time, determine if stripping away the numerous fire safety provisions of the legacy codes can leave the population with a risk that is still of an acceptable magnitude. Clearly, the cost of a building without these various safety provisions is reduced. That would seem to be a desirable outcome. However, just as cruise ships would also be cheaper without lifeboats and water- and fire-tight bulkheads, and airplanes would be cheaper without lifejackets, rafts, three back-up computers and spare fuel capacity, we might all ponder whether fire safety is the part of the building that we want cost savings to come from.
Footnotes:1 Fire Statistics Report No. 8, International Technical Committee For The Prevention and Extinction of Fire, Center for Fire Statistics, Brushlinsky, N.N., Sokolov, S.V., Wagner, P., Moscow, June 2002
2 Having traveled to some east bloc countries, I have been repeatedly surprised regarding how conscientious some of them are with regards to fire safety issues.
3 "Fire Loss in the United States During 2002", Table 6, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, September 2003