2017 and Beyond: Codes

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

As we look back on 2017 and what events had the most impact on codes – it was disasters. The wildfires in Northern and Southern California being the most recent disasters. This always sparks the discussion on what more can be done in the codes to prevent or lessen these types of events.

It was after the 1991 Oakland Hills fire that the state wrote and incorporated Chapter 7A, addressing wildland/urban interface. It was a move to reduce the effects of a wildfire on areas where the urban landscape and construction border on spaces deemed a potential exposure to wildfires. This is usually urban developments that are backed up against open spaces or wooded areas, including areas on hillsides that made firefighting more difficult (because of limited access). The level of risk increases as development continues to push into these areas.

Chapter 7A addresses where urban/wildland interface is considered. For a detailed map of what is classified as “Wildland Interface Fire Area,” there are maps by county, and some by city, defining these hazardous areas where Chapter 7A applies. Here is the link to the state Fire Marshals’ website for the maps and other information related to wildland/urban interface: http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/fire_prevention_wildland_zones_maps

If you find that your project falls in these moderate to high hazard areas, compliance with Chapter 7A is required. This chapter addresses the following:

  • Ignition resistant construction, including roofing, vents and exterior coverings
  • Exterior flooring, such as decks and other construction
  • Exterior windows and doors
  • Vegetation Management

Vegetation is important in our environment. We want to have trees and shrubs around our homes, but there may be a price to pay in the increased risk of wildfires. Vegetation management is addressed in detail in the Fire Code, Section 4906. This drawing is from the state Fire Marshals’ website on defensible space:

The recent wildfires in the California go beyond what Chapter 7A covers. Even if you complied with the current state requirements, your building could still have burned. This is mainly because the fires have been so unique and beyond what the code addresses. There are three main elements in a fire: fuel, ignition source and oxygen (air). The air or oxygen in these fires has been ferocious, driven by extreme winds. It is the winds that make the fires so difficult to control and contain. The fuel load and terrain where the fires are located add to this. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) will come out of these events in the form of legislation and/or codes changes. It will be like after 9/11 and the World Trade Center attack, with people saying something needed to be done in the code to prevent this from happening again. We do not design buildings to take the impact of an airplane with tens of thousands of gallons of flammable liquid. And we do not design buildings to withstand a blowtorch or to sit in a furnace.

Going into 2018 we can expect new changes in the code. The state will be working on amending and issuing our next set of codes, the 2019 edition. Things to be looking at will be environmental issues incorporated into building construction and more energy regulations. Disabled access will continue to expand its application. One thing being worked on is incorporating changes in the latest edition of ANSI A-117.1, 2017, which has not been adopted into the IBC for the 2018 edition. It may be adopted in the 2021 edition. There are some significant space changes in the requirements that will affect all designs, including larger wheelchair space and larger maneuvering space. We will have to wait and see how all of these will affect the codes, if adopted.

If the codes do change, we want it to better society and its needs.


Erick Mikiten, AIA

Erick’s Comments

One of the lessons of the North Bay fires is that just following the Building Code is not necessarily enough. As Kerwin said, the codes are always changing in response to new events and research. As licensed architects, we have a responsibility to design thoughtfully – which can mean going beyond the code minimums.

That’s especially true when changes to the building code are in process, which can take years. Lessons from the terrible balcony collapse in Berkeley in 2015 took over two years to get into the state building code. Less-dramatic but still important changes can take much longer. But there’s nothing stopping us from trying to design our buildings to address these issues right away.

This is something I lecture about a lot in universal design, where change is particularly slow. Next month we’ll look at the new 2017 version of ANSI A117.1 that Kerwin mentions and see the changes coming down the pike. You can start incorporating them now – even before they trickle into the California Building Code.

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