The Codes are a Sign of the Times

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp ICC Certified-Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner ICC - Certified Building Plan Examiner

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp ICC Certified-Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner
ICC – Certified Building Plan Examiner

Kerwin says:

The building regulations need to change and evolve to reflect changes in technology and 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 loses, the benefit is to all society. Recent code changes reflect more sociological movements, including Green Buildings. 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 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 dis-abilities, 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, that is why the code requires what it requires. It takes this understanding to improve on the minimum. The second and most often reason is cost. For a more robust building, it will cost more. As architects, we will push designs for a better aesthetic material, but not increased lateral support.

Flashing is addressed in two only sections of the code; Exterior Walls and Roofing. Each of these sections only address that flashing is required and in certain locations, but the code does not say in any details how the flashing should be installed. The basic intent is to limit the infiltration of moisture/water into the membranes of the building. Water can be very destructive, as we have seen in the Berkeley balcony collapse.

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. That is why we all need to be involved in the code devel-opment process and not let others determine our building standards. Building regulations reflect society’s needs and are a minimum standard of how safe we want them to be. As a minimum standard, building codes are a balance between risk and safety.  I use the following when using the code, “Risk is never eliminated and safety is never absolute it is something in between we live with.”  So right after the incident in Berkeley with the balcony collapse,  the newspapers began their scearch for the guilty.  The first question they always ask is what is wrong with our building regulations?  The answer is nothing.  The basic assumption is that the building was built to code at the time of construction.

Steven R Winkel, FAIA,  CASp The PREVIEW Group, Inc. Architects providing regulatory solutions

Steven R Winkel, FAIA, CASp       The PREVIEW Group, Inc. Architects providing regulatory solutions

Steve says:

Codes are always in the news after a catastrophe like the collapse of the apartment balcony in Berkeley, or after a big building fire. Kerwin is quite correct about the fact that there is really nothing wrong with the codes in place now in terms of the cause of the latest failure. The media is always looking for instant answers to very complex questions and they seem always able to find “experts” to accommodate those questions with very little time available to really ascertain the root causes. What we do know now about the collapse is that the balcony was designed structurally for more live load than the code required and for more load than was likely on the deck at the time of the collapse. The basic cause was deteriorated wood framing, but precisely why the wood failed will not be known for a long time, if ever. The cause was surely water intrusion, but how, where, and why? As we all know, wood-framed apartment buildings are site-built and are complex systems with lots of intersections of materials, trades and craftspersons. Was the water leak caused by a membrane gap, cracked concrete topping, wrong slope on the deck, fasteners on the door threshold going through the membrane, wrong laps on the building paper at the wall base, gaps in flashing, flashing nails through the membrane, lack of ventilation for the deck structure, poor sealant joints, reliance on sealant instead of flashing, or something none of us has yet thought of? The intent of the code is that the envelope protect vulnerable materials, but the code does not get into specific details or methods of how to do that.
Note also that there is a set of conflicting life safety provisions in the code that the City of Berkeley will need to reconcile in their new balcony provisions. This is a Type VA 1 hour building. The model code basically forbids ventilation in such balconies as a breach in the fire rated membrane. The new Berkeley pro-visions require ventilation in deck soffits and inspection panels for deck structure. How can both fire and ventilation requirements be met? A conscious decision seems to have been made that the collapse danger is greater than the fire danger on a cantilevered deck in a fully sprinklered building. As Kerwin notes, the code must prioritize risks and mitigations to achieve the maximum level of safety for a complex set of potential hazards.
One can argue that the building in Berkeley was not built to code in that the intent of the code is that buildings be weather protected for the anticipated use and anticipated life of the building. The balcony on that building failed prematurely under a load the structure had been calculated to withstand. Whether the failure was detail-related or construction-related, or as is more likely a bit of both, is not an issue the code is intended to resolve or mitigate at the detail level. ■


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