Off the Wall

For code officials, it was to have been the supreme achievement, a defining moment for the new millennium.

In 1994, the three national code bodies, International Council of Building Officials, Building Officials and Code Administrators and the Southern Building Code Congress International, forged an agreement to supplant their respective model codes the Uniform Building Code, the National Building Code and the Standard Building Code with a new, comprehensive International Building Code.

Putting aside their differences, the three organizations allied together as a unified body—the International Code Council—and last year published the debut edition of the “International” family of codes. It was hoped that, in short order, the old model codes would be put out to pasture as state and municipal code jurisdictions embraced the new national code, and for the first time in the history of the nation, building practices would be governed by a single standard.

In the year since its completion, however, the International Building Code has made only modest headway in altering the landscape of the nation’s building codes. Only a handful of states have moved toward adopting the new standard, while two prominent states—California and Florida—have clearly stated the IBC doesn’t meet their needs.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of the IBC’s predicted success is the emergence of a strong rival—the National Fire Protection Association—that has set out to create a national building code of its own to compete head-to-head with the IBC. When the “NFPA Building Code” is published next year, the nature of building codes across the country could soon begin to resemble a patchwork quilt, with individual states choosing to adopt one or the other national model codes or none at all, in a seemingly random fashion. The once regional characterization of building codes will be wiped away, and the dream of a national unified standard may well be lost for good.

Clearly, this is not the way things were supposed to turn out.

United or Independent?

In one sense, the battle being waged between the ICC and NFPA was brought about by the very alliance forged by the three regional model code organizations. Prior to the formation of the ICC, each of the three organizations enjoyed a sort of monopoly in its respective region of the country: ICBO in the West, BOCA in the Northeast and SBCCI in the Southeast. Any potential rival to the model code bodies would not only have to wage a battle on three fronts, but it would also have to overcome decades of acceptance of the three model codes within those regional strongholds.

With the creation of a single national code, not only were the old barriers to competition knocked down, the conditions were made most inviting for a new rival upstart. With the IBC as the only model code available, code jurisdictions were left with few options: to adopt the IBC or write its own code.

Alternatively, jurisdictions could choose to hang on to one of the earlier regional model codes. However, as those codes are no longer being supported by the three model code groups, over time they will lose their relevance and need to be replaced.

The 2000 edition of the IBC was completed in September 1999 and published late in spring 2000. In the interval between, the ICC enjoyed a brief moment in the sun when New York state officials announced in late 1999 that the state would move to adopt the new International family of building codes. The move constituted a major success for the ICC, as New York was one of two states that had never previously adopted a national model code, but instead maintained its own state building codes. The other holdout, Wisconsin, is currently holding hearings on a proposal to adopt the IBC.

But before the ICC could get even the new codes in print, in March 2000 the NFPA dropped a bombshell by announcing its plan to create a new national standard building code by 2002. NFPA President George Miller clearly let it be known that from the NFPA’s perspective the ICC had not been inclusive enough in its code development process.

“Now we move forward, decisively and with the intent to produce the best, most appropriate building code for our nation,” Miller said in announcing NFPA’s new initiative. “NFPA’s entire code development process is based upon the core belief that it is essential to have input from all affected parties.”

In response to the NFPA announcement, ICC Chairman Dan Nickle questioned “if another model building code is really needed or even desirable” with the introduction of the complete family of International codes.

“The ICC International Codes 2000 are available and meet the needs of all levels of government, industry and the public,” said Nickle.

War of the words

The ICC had been negotiating with the NFPA to be involved in the development of the International codes for several years prior to the completion of the IBC. In 1997, the two organizations signed an agreement to develop a joint fire code using a parallel code development process. A year later, however, the NFPA notified the ICC they were not going to honor that agreement. Further complicating matters, in 1999, the NFPA signed Memorandums of Understanding with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials and the Western Fire Chiefs Association, forming a new alliance that set the foundation for NFPA’s national standard code initiative.

The implications of that alliance became clear late last fall when California code officials announced the state would not adopt the International family of codes, but would continue to use the 1997 edition of the Uniform Building Code. The state also adopted the 2000 editions of WFCA’s Uniform Fire Code and IAPMO’s Uniform Plumbing & Mechanical Codes. As all three of those codes will be included in the 2002 edition of the NFPA Consensus Codes, some industry observers already consider California the first of many anticipated NFPA successes.

Of course, until the NFPA completes and publishes its new code, there are no guarantees on anything. Some industry wags have questioned whether the association that is primarily focused with fire safety issues possesses the technical expertise to draft a building code that deals with all aspects of construction. However, the NFPA is not starting from scratch in its code development efforts. The new building code will be based in large part on the EPCOT Building Code, promulgated by Reedy Creek Improvement District in the development of Disney properties in Orlando, Fla.

In the meantime, the ICC’s top priority is getting its codes adopted in as many jurisdictions as it can in hopes of establishing a strong national presence. As of this writing, South Carolina, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin have adopted or are planning to adopt the International codes in whole or in part, along with many other municipal jurisdictions, including Fort Worth, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas. However, one state that will not be adopting either the IBC or NFPA codes anytime soon is Florida, which is currently developing its own state code. That code is tentatively slated for adoption on July 1.