WEB EXCLUSIVE: Where Do Codes Come From?

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This Web Exclusive is provided by Theresa Weston, Ph.D., Research Fellow, DuPont Building Knowledge Center. Dr. Weston leads building science and construction technology research for DuPont Building Innovations, has developed and introduced to market numerous products, and is an inventor of four U.S. patents.

Building and energy codes provide protection for public health, safety and general welfare in relation to the construction and occupancy of a building. These codes include specific requirements for building materials, fire protection, weather protection (moisture, wind), structural design, light and ventilation, heating and cooling, sanitary facilities, and energy conservation. While codes are certainly not new, recently there has been increased interest in codes, due to in part to the dramatic enhancement in energy efficiency reflected in the energy codes and the changes in construction, building operation and maintenance that may result from these changes.web exclusive

Despite this sudden interest, there is still a general lack of understanding on how codes are developed, adopted and implemented, resulting in limited industry involvement in the aforementioned code process. There are three phases to the code process: model code development, jurisdictional code adoption, and code enforcement.  Each phase provides opportunities for industry stakeholders to get involved.

Phase 1:  Model Code Development
Model code development is a public process and is open to participation from all parts of the industry.  Model code development in the United States is primarily carried out by the International Code Council (ICC) and leads to new editions of the ICC’s suite of codes every three years. During the three years between editions, each code goes through a public revision process (as shown in image below).  Anyone can submit a proposal to change any of the codes. Each code change must be accompanied by the technical justification as well as a statement of the cost effect of the proposed change.icc code list

To give an idea of the number of changes proposed, the most recent code cycle included 361 proposals to the commercial energy code and 193 proposals to the residential energy code. All of the proposals are published online at www.iccsafe.org. Following publication, each of the code change proposals is evaluated by a 10-to-20 member technical panel during a public hearing. In addition to the information submitted with code change proposal, the public has the opportunity to provide testimony either in support or in opposition during the public code hearing. The panel then recommends that the code proposal be “Approved as Submitted”, “Approved as Modified” during the hearing, or “Disapproved”.  For those who cannot attend, the hearings can also be viewed by live webcast at the ICC website noted above.

The report of the hearing is published, and following publication the panel’s recommendations can be challenged by submitted public comments.Those public comments are then published and form the agenda for discussion at the final public code hearings. The final hearing, which this year will complete the development of the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code, the 2015 International Residential Code, and other 2015 codes, will be held in Atlantic City, NJ on October 2 to 10, 2013.

ICC code process

ICC Code Process

This hearing again allows public testimony for or against proposed code changes and the public comments submitted. At these hearings, the final disposition of each of the proposal is decided by voting members present. Voting members include only representatives from enforcement agencies, such as code officials, fire marshals, and state energy office representatives. ICC has announced that starting with the code hearings in 2014, ICC will institute a remote voting process, which is expected to greatly increase the number voters participating in the final hearings.

Phase 2: Local Code Adoption
The model code development process provides an opportunity for widespread impact in instituting code changes as the model codes are the basis for codes across the country. However, model codes do not take on the force of law until they are adopted by a jurisdiction. Some states will adopt statewide, where other states adopt codes at a local jurisdiction—county or city—level. Many different processes are used at the jurisdictional level, but most have a mechanism for public comment, and so codes can be influenced at this level also. Jurisdictions can adopt develop their own code, adopt a model code in total, or adopt a model code with amendments.

Local code adoption often allows for regional considerations to be included in the code. One example of this is Oregon which, in 2010, adopted enhanced water management requirements as a result of the analysis of water intrusion cases occurring in that state and in consideration of the state’s wet climate.

Phase 3: Code Enforcement
Finally, once a jurisdiction has adopted a code, it needs to enforce it. The code official is the primary interpreter of the code and therefore, is the ultimate authority. As noted in a U.S. HUD Report, “Code officials at the local level have the legal authority to accept or reject the application of any new building product or system innovation. They can be the ultimate showstopper.”1  Enforcement strategies vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from code requirement to code requirement. Code official inspections, third-party inspections, and self-certifications can be used. Products, assemblies, and methods not specifically referenced in the code are approved for use under the “alternate materials and methods” clause in the code. The clause allows that the code is not intended to restrict the use of any product or method of assembly, provided that the material or method can be shown to be equivalent to that required by the code. The code official may require test results or other verification of the product’s equivalence. To aid in the code official’s evaluation and acceptance, several agencies publish code evaluation reports which provide standardized analysis of a product and its suitability for its end-use. As new codes are developed, and new products are introduced to the market, the industry and especially the code official can be faced with a daunting amount of information to process. Education and training in the code requirements is critical and an opportunity to become involved with the code process.

Building and energy codes are critical to maintaining a healthy and safe built environment. As codes continue to involve there are many opportunities for public and industry involvement. The more diverse voices that are a part of the code development, adoption, and enforcement process the better the ultimate product will be.

1 “Overcoming Barriers to Innovation in the Home Building Industry”, Report for US HUD PD& R PATH, April 2005

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