Since 2000, when three regional building code organizations (BOCA International; SBCCI; ICBO) combined to form the International Code Council, the ICC has exercised near-total control over the United States building code creation process. While some towns and cities continue to enforce one of the legacy regional codes and a small number have adopted NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, most jurisdictions enforce a version of the International Building Code or the International Residential Code. Simply put, the ICC family of codes governs the model building code process in the U.S.

Streamlining the code development process from three regional codes to one set of national codes and eliminating supplemental code updates has significantly reduced the number of public hearings required to create a new edition of a code. Because one set of codes is used throughout the U.S., code language is more consistent between jurisdictions than it was twenty years ago. One can make the argument that the ICC codes have less regional flavor when compared to the predecessor codes; however, the IBC and IRC can be tweaked when adopted by a jurisdiction. A merger that many thought would never work has worked and model code documents are as strong now as they have ever been.

However, not all is rosy in “codeland” as the current process does have its detractors. To its credit, the ICC is listening to them. What is being said, to a certain extent, is that its process needs to evolve to meet the needs of a changing constituency and marketplace while still retaining much of what has made it work in the past.

The Challenge to Integrate

One challenge faced by the ICC is the need to integrate modern technology into its ballot process. With a few exceptions, U.S. model codes have traditionally been created in face-to-face meetings that incorporate public testimony and a “one person, one vote” in-person approval process. While this process has historically worked well on a regional level, many ICC members, notably code officials with small office staffs, can no longer afford the cost or time involved to travel nationally to participate in the face-to-face process. As a result, many ICC members are pushing the organization to examine ways of using remote participation methods to facilitate individual participation in the code creation process.

This was borne out in a 2010 survey conducted for the ICC by McKinley Marketing where 85 percent of the respondents surveyed (who self-identified as being current non-participants in the process) indicated that if remote participation were available, they would be more likely to participate in the code development process. In addition, more than 70 percent of the total survey respondents indicated that remote participation would increase the “interest of state and local officials in the code development process.”

At the same time, however, less than one-third of the total respondents wanted the ICC to go “total tech” and redevelop the entire process from the ground up. Instead more than half of the respondents wanted the ICC to integrate technology into the process while at the same time preserving some of the face-to-face development process as a primary vehicle for participation.

While this sounds like a “cake and eat it, too” situation, it’s not. To the contrary, it points out the strong historical underpinnings of the current code development process and supports the premise that it produces strong text which creates safe buildings. What it really seems to be saying is that users of the code respect the current code development process but want to point out that it has become a bit dated in an era where contemporary standards-development activities are integrating electronic balloting and review technologies.

Seamless Adjustments

Another challenge is ensuring that the creation process is transparent. As in-person voting participation has decreased over the past five years, the potential for special interest groups to manipulate or attempt to manipulate the final voting process has become apparent. When only a handful of individuals are present to vote on a specific item, it doesn’t take much effort to round up a support group of legitimate voters and bring them into the hearing room to vote. Never was this more apparent than during the residential sprinkler debate when a pro-sprinkler phalanx descended on the final action hearing, voted and departed. While their efforts likely were legitimate and they out-maneuvered the anti-sprinkler lobby by being more organized and efficient, the entire escapade looked suspicious, which in turn opened the ICC to significant criticism.

So what should change and how should that change be accomplished? The ICC has spent much of the past year reviewing its code development process and has been sequentially releasing a series of meeting reports and documents identifying the topics discussed during the review process. The documents clearly point out the desire of the ICC to modify its procedures to meet the needs of its changing constituency. However, they also point out the difficultly of making change.

I had the opportunity to sit in on and participate in some of the meetings and, as a consequence, I fully understand the challenges that the ICC faces. One major factor hindering the change process is that codes are now developed on three-year cycles, not a one-year cycle as in the past. Consequently, if you implement a process change and it doesn’t work, then you must wait at least three years until the next cycle to attempt a fix.

It’s all being given a lot of very serious thought by the ICC and its elected leaders. When change comes, and it likely will come, it will take a significant leadership commitment by those in charge to implement the needed modifications. What do I think is going to happen? Some thoughts:

I think the ICC will implement some type of remote balloting process or remote participation process. The masses are crying out for remote participation and the technology is there to accommodate it. It won’t be easy to implement, but it needs to be done in some form.

I don’t think face-to-face public hearings are going to disappear. Eliminating public hearings altogether would seem to strike directly at the heart of the code development process and would eliminate the vetting and discussion of code proposals that is an essential part of the development process. But how do you integrate public hearings into a remote process? Do you bring participants to a location and broadcast everything on the internet? Do you keep the committee hearing part of the process intact and make the final vote remote? Do you have committee hearings over the internet and bring everyone together for the final vote? How to combine the public hearing function with a remote voting process is a real challenge for the ICC and easy solutions are not apparent.

The ICC likely will tighten up the requirements for voting members in an attempt to preclude individuals from obtaining memberships in order to vote on specific issues. While this was rumored to be a part of the aforementioned sprinkler voting situation, it has never been shown to have actually occurred. However, the ICC has taken the accusations to heart and appears to have identified some remedies that should address some registration loopholes.

I doubt that the current three-year cycle calendar will change in the next couple of decades. In the past decade, the U.S. model code process has gradually evolved from three regional codes with one-year cycles to one national code with a three-year cycle. That’s considerable change and the marketplace needs a chance to adapt.

In my opinion, the ICC will not be well served if it fails to take advantage of the available technology to meet the needs of its voting constituents. I don’t think that will happen. Conversely, I don’t agree with those individuals who have urged the ICC to completely scrap and re-build its current code development process. While I appreciate some of the logic involved in such an approach, it strikes me as a bit rash. The existing code development process does work and has worked for many decades. Hopefully the ICC will respect it but will modify it in an attempt to move the organization forward.