The Construction Industry's Tower of Babel

A move to introduce a nationwide building code is making slow progress through a tangle of local jurisdictions

If you build it, they will come. Or that's what three construction-industry organizations thought back in 1994, when they embarked on the daunting task of drafting a single building code for the entire nation. Designed to establish consistent safety standards, the initiative was aimed at easing the lot of builders and making the U.S. a more attractive market for foreign developers.

The champions of the common code have been pitching the result of their efforts -- the International Building Code (IBC) -- since January, 2000, but the road to its across-the-board implementation is turning into an obstacle course. California has rejected it, and another group of organizations is drafting a competing product.

Currently, building codes used in the U.S. are based on one of three prototypes: -- Most of the Northeast follows the National Building Code, authored by the Building Officials & Code Administrators International in Country Club Hills, Ill. -- The Standard Building Code by the Southern Building Code Congress International in Birmingham, Ala., is used throughout the South. -- And the Uniform Building Code by the International Conference of Building Officials in Whittier, Calif., is popular in the West.


  These three groups joined forces to author the IBC at the behest of organizations such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Washington, D.C. The AIA has been trying to consolidate the building codes for 20 years, according to David Collins, a Knoxville (Tenn.), architect and AIA committee chair. Collins sees the IBC as a giant step that would make it easier for architects to work around the country rather than just in their own localities. Also, Collins says uniform standards would attract foreign developers who now "find it very disturbing to come to this country and deal with one code in New Jersey and another in North Carolina," he says.

Insurance underwriters also stand to benefit, says Gerry Lederer, vice-president for government and industry affairs at the Association of Building Owners & Managers International, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and represents owners of office buildings throughout the country. Because the new code is state-of-the-art in terms of safety issues, underwriters "would go into projects with a level of confidence knowing what their exposure is," he says. Furthermore, he expects that contractors will be able to cut construction costs because "they can realize volume discounts on materials."

All good reasons to switch over, but getting there will remain difficult. The problem is that no two states now approach building codes the same way, according to Soy Williams, legislative affairs director of the International Code Council in Falls Church, Va., which was set up to develop and market the new code. While some states have adopted one of the three predecessor codes, others have written their own versions. Still other states eschew setting standards, leaving counties and cities pretty much to their own devices. The result is that some 20,000 jurisdictions nationwide will be affected by, and weigh in, on the issue.

And those bodies will be doing so on their own timetables. In some localities, the issue comes up every three years with the publication of new editions of the three main building codes. Others consider it annually. Williams predicts that all users of the three main codes will be on board by 2003, which is when the next edition of the IBC comes out. The three predecessor codes are not going to be updated, so communities that want to use the most modern building code possible will have no alternative but to accept the new International Building Code, she says.

Great in theory. In practice, however, the wheels of local government turn slowly: Some jurisdictions today are still using 1993 editions.


  An even more troubling development for the IBC is the appearance of a competitor. The National Fire Prevention Assn. (NFPA), which is based in Quincy, Mass., and develops fire-safety standards, is going to be working with the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials and the Western Fire Chiefs' Assn. to come up with its own code, which is set to be unveiled in late 2002.

The NFPA provided input to the IBC drafting process for several years before deciding in March that it could do better on its own, says NFPA Vice-President Gary Keith. "When you don't have full participation by groups that have a vested interest in that document, our feeling is you don't end with the best document -- or the best possible call from a safety standpoint," he says.

So much for the idea of a single national standard. Building owners are "chagrined by this development," says Lederer, who adds that his organization of business owners and managers was turned down when it offered to pay for a mediator to work out the NFPA's differences with the IBC.

Still, the IBC has time on its side. Thus far, South Carolina, Maryland, and New York have agreed to adopt the IBC. But one place that has been rejected the IBC is California, where the state's Building & Standards Commission voted 5 to 1 in late October to turn it down, despite a blue-ribbon panel's recommendation that the state needs to change standards. Commission member Stuart Posselt says the measure was rejected because it required extensive amendments that couldn't be made in time to meet state deadlines. Local hospitals also expressed concern that meeting the code's new earthquake standards would greatly boost building costs.


  Shopping-center owners and builders also have complained about requirements in the proposed code -- provisions they say increase costs without commensurate gains in safety. Earning their ire, in particular, is a provision that mandates 44-inch aisle widths without adequately defining what constitutes an aisle, says Dale Scott of Keene Construction in Orlando, Fla., who sits on a joint taskforce of the International Mass Retail Assn. and the International Council of Shopping Centers. If implemented, "a department store could lose up to 30% of its sales floor," he says.

Scott is also critical of provisions that ban flat roofs in shopping centers and require installation of firewall separations and standpipes that he says are unnecessary. As his group lobbies for amendments, Scott remains optimistic about the chances for success. "We think if we try hard enough, we're going to win," he says. After all, construction codes, like Rome, weren't built in a day.

By Stephanie B. Goldberg in Chicago

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