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Safety Only Starts with the Codes

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

The origins of building code and standards have always been reactive to major events. The first building regulations were established jointly with fire service and insurance companies in an effort to minimize losses due to major fire events.  The following is a short list of major events that have shaped our building codes:

  • City of Chicago fires of 1871 and 1874, about 250 and 20 fatalities, destroying 812 structures
  • San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, about 3,000 fatalities and 80% of the city destroyed
  • Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, 602 fatalities
  • Coconut Grove nightclub fire of 1942, 492 fatalities
  • Oakland Hills fire of 1991, 25 fatalities and 3,469 structures lost

After the recent tragic fires in Oakland (Ghost Ship and San Pablo), there has been a lot of talk on what needs to change in our codes to prevent this from happening again. The simple answer is nothing – we need to enforce the building codes we have. This is where it becomes tricky: who is responsible for enforcing the codes and to what extent? Some would say the city; I say it is all of us. We are all responsible for our own safety. We all need to be aware of possible dangerous conditions and if we are not, we should learn them.

I don’t expect the common person to know when an electrical panel is overloaded, but if the power keeps going out because something is plugged in, like a heater, that should be a sign that something is not right. I don’t expect everyone to know when a corridor or a stair enclose is rated, but know where your exits are and how to get to them. If you see a blocked exit door, know that this is not right and a potential hazard. When you see problems like these, it is good to be aware and to report it.

After 9/11 there was a lot of talk among authors of the code, and the general public, as to what code changes were needed to prevent this from happening again. Firstly, buildings are not designed to take the impact of an airplane with tens of thousands of gallons of flammable liquids. Secondly, the portion of the twin towers below the impacted floors, not cut off to grade, performed well and most of the occupants were able to exit the buildings. Even still the authors of the code did make relevant changes, which can be found in the high-rise sections.

Oakland and other cities are already looking at their inspection programs and what needs to be done. There have been cries from the community that the reason for this event was because of the housing shortage, which is a different issue and needs to be addressed in the zoning regulations. There were suggestions to reduce building code requirements to accommodate artists and allow for more housing. This would be a wrong step. Lowering the standards from what is already considered a “minimum standard” would not provide a reasonable level of safety consistent for the community.

What needs to be done is bring buildings into compliance, whether it is housing or places of assembly. This may mean zoning changes to adapt industrial uses to housing or a live/work community. The city is already working on this. Building owners will have to agree with the changes and cost necessary for a safe building for whatever the use. The city may have to establish a timetable for things to happen, but we cannot allow non-code compliance to go unnoticed. We cannot let another incident like this happen ever again. We are responsible for a safe environment.

-Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

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