Where Do Code Changes Come From?

Author: Kerwin Lee, AIA

This article follows up on the last article which laid out the Code change cycles in California. The basic schedule for code changes is pretty straight forward. So where do code changes come from? Let us look at the history of building codes and how they were and continue to be created and evolve.

Code development, the way codes evolve, is mainly based on events and incidences.  The first modern day building codes created by the insurance companies, over a 120-years ago, was a reaction to major event, like the Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Boston Fire in 1872, which like the Oakland Hills fire and more recent wild fires are a major conflagration.  These events were major losses of life and property.  The members of insurance groups decided that there should be a minimum standard for building construction to prevent such events and losses. From these incidents, fire codes were created by organizations like NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). This leads to the modern day building codes.

Codes continue to be influenced by current events. Code Changes come through many channels. We have our national code development process through the International Code Conference (ICC). Legislation created by the Federal Government, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a Civil Right Law. The problem with code language being written in law is that it is there forever, unless the law is changed through legislation. It took 20 years for the original ADA Guidelines to be changed.

Another example of events that influence code changes, almost 20-years ago, was the lost of the World Trade Center (WTC) and the surrounding building is considered a major event in terms of lost of life and cost.  How did this event dictate the building codes and regulations?  Looking back at what played out, and going through the 9/11 report on the failure of the WTC, one would read that more things went right than went wrong.  The building did exceptionally well for what happened to it.

We do not design office buildings to house 20,000 plus gallons of flammable liquids, much less ignite it within the building.  According to the report, there was no panic within the building, people went down the stairs in an orderly manner.  People helped those who needed assistance.  When the fire department entered the building, those in the stairs got out of the way to let them go up the stairs.  In the short time from when the incident began to the collapse, those who could evacuate from the building did. Although the building performed well as constructed, changes were made to the building codes to addresses specific issues, like catastrophic collapse and fire department access/re-entry into buildings. 

In our great State of California, our legislation loves to write laws, because that is what they do and many of the laws are driven by special interests. The State for any given year has thousands bills introduced. Some do have an effect on construction of our built environment. Again, many of the proposed bills stem from current events, a reaction to a disaster and social needs, like housing. When the legislation lacks building or construction details, it is up to our state agencies to fill in the building standards. The State agencies are given a lot of power over writing building standards. In my opinion, too much power. Yes, there are stake holders meetings, but mostly attended by special interest groups and there are public hearings and meeting, but attended by few. The process try to be fair. 

The question related to code development, is what should be changed or what needs to be changed, if anything.  Can buildings be designed to address major events, like a 9/11 or Wild Fires like we have recently seen? What we do design to through the codes is to meet the standard established by the authors/practitioners of the built environment and society assessment on adequate levels of safety. Remember the codes are a minimum standard. 

In more recent times, codes have included convenience elements, more of a political nature. This would include environmental elements, energy conservation and elements for people with disabilities. We will undoubtedly see more changes related to these elements. 

As a society we need to decide what level we desire the design of buildings to take and how to what level of risk/threat we should protect the welfare of the public. This is based on the concept of safety versus risk or convenience vs. cost. Codes and standards embody value judgments as well as facts, technical standards to provide a reasonable level of safety.  Sometimes we use empirical evidence to compensate for gaps or limits in the relevant science.  Codes and standards focus on safety and social trends.  This is reflected upon our understanding of what is required and technological abilities.  Safety is the inverse of risk.  Risk/threat to the public welfare can never be entirely eliminated, and so safety is never absolute. This applies to all aspects of the code. The efforts of codes and standards on what people value bring into play an aggregate of complex factors: social, economic, political, legal, business-competitive and others. This affects how people value safety and how we assess risk/threat and other issues, which then becomes subjective.  This is where we are.  This is the strength of a consensus code which provides a balance of representation of all affected interests.


Erick Mikiten’s Comments: 

It is fascinating to see the cause and effect dynamics of code creation, and the interplay between all the forces that lead to changes:

  1. Catastrophic events as Kerwin describes above.
  2. New State legislation or Gubernatorial Executive Order pertaining to buildings (water use, energy conservation, balcony safety, etc.). 
  3. Model Code changes (from NFPA, ICC, the ADA, etc.) that trickle down to California.
  4. Code users who see problems, inconsistencies, or gaps in the code, and report them to State agencies who take them through the code-amending process for additions and edits.
  5. Interest groups who see opportunities for their constituencies and advocate changes either to the legislature directly or to the various State agencies.

All of these forces can reflect many values that go beyond safety.

What are your values as a California architect? Are there aspects of the buildings you create that make you think “the code should offer other options here”, or “the code is too confusing here”? Whether it’s the code language itself, safety, accessibility innovative materials that aren’t allowed, or something else, you could be the one to help change it.

You can sign up for code change notifications on the Building Standards Commission website at www.dgs.ca.gov/BSC/Contact.  

This page also has a list of the State agencies that participate in creating the California Building Code, along with their regulatory jurisdiction. You can fill out a simple form to make a Petition for a code change or clarification. If you don’t want to initiate a change yourself yet, the easiest way to get involved in the process is by signing on to get notifications of proposed changes for the topics that interest you. Then you can add your comments to the discussion as the language gets written.

Although the agencies’ public outreach is always broad, I’m always amazed, as a Building Standards Commissioner, that there aren’t more architects weighing in on new code changes. So if you want to have an effect on the California code, then sign up, participate, and be a voice for making our code more usable and more effective with the next update.

Erick Mikiten, AIA

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