The Codes are a Sign of the Times
Building Code Issues
Building regulations reflect society’s needs and are a minimum standard of what we want in our buildings to be. If you don’t think that you have a stake in this, you are wrong. The loudest voices are the ones that are mostly heard. These are voices that attend code development hearings and work in the political arenas to bring forth their agenda. Most of the time, the agenda serves society as a whole, but other times it is sometimes self-serving and driven by special interest. Special interest would include special political groups or organizations. The codes are for the most part a consensus document, but only by those who are interested.
The building regulations need to change and evolve to reflect changes in technology and understanding of ways to promote the intent of the code. The origin of the codes is from the prevention of calamities, like the Chicago Fire or the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Society decides that we cannot afford such tremendous losses, monetary and human life. Although many of the first building regulations/codes were from insurance companies facing great losses, the benefit is to all society. Recent code changes reflect more sociological movements, Green Buildings for example. We may all agree that a greener approach is the right thing to do, but what is that green standard? The ICC is in the process of writing a Green Building Code. The debate is on as to what goes into this document. Although this document/code may not be adopted by many jurisdictions (optional), it will be a standard that will be available. Since California has their own CALGreen code (Part 11 of Title 24) we will not be adopting the ICC’s version. It will be interesting to see how many states and jurisdictions will be using/adopting this code.
The building code is to “…establish the minimum requirements to safeguard the public health, safety and general welfare through structural strength, means of egress facilities, stability, access to persons with disabilities, sanitation…”, taken from Section 1.1.2 of the CBC. The word “Minimum” has been underlined to point out the code is the bottom line and seldom do we design above this bottom line. So, for the most part, why don’t we design better buildings by go beyond what the code requires? One reason is the lack of understanding of what the “intent” of the code is, why the code requires what it requires. It takes this understanding to improve on the minimum. The second and most frequent reason is cost. Making a building more robust will cost more. As architects, we will push designs for a better aesthetic material, but not increased lateral support.
The City of Oakland had a requirement in the 2010 edition of their code, that any change in occupancy requires the entire building to be brought up to the current code. There were no ifs, ands, or buts (exceptions). This change was created by the Building Department. The reasoning/justification was that Oakland has a higher number of earthquake-vulnerable buildings (older building stock) and this would
spur needed improvements.
I for one think earthquakes are over rated, when was the last time there was a loss of life or significant monetary loss due to an earthquake in the USA? Compare that to a hurricane or tornado or any other natural disaster where is the danger? The basic intent of the code is good and we do need codes, but it is up to you and the rest of society to decide what is the standard we need to live with. Remember that risk
is never eliminated and safety is never absolute, it is something in between we live with. That is why we all need to be involved in the code development process and not let others determine our building standards.