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Building Codes to Local Laws

As we start a new year with the 2024 International Building Code now available, we also start a new code development cycle. Every three years, the International Code Council starts a new iteration of updating codes, which is a series of activities that culminates in a new building code. The code development process is long, complex and political, but here is a summary of how the rules are developed and eventually become the laws we must follow to build safe buildings.

How are codes developed?
There are a dozen different codes published by the ICC. These range from the IBC to documents like the International Zoning Code that have little effect on walls and ceilings. There are some codes, like the International Existing Building Code and the International Energy Conservation Code, that indirectly affect the work of AWCI members but are still part of the rules for building construction. All of the international codes are free to read online but locked so readers cannot download text or images. So, when a new code cycle starts, the ICC never starts from scratch but starts with the current code.

Companies, associations and individuals can all propose code changes. Researchers, building officials, fire services, product manufacturers, architects, engineers and others involved in building design and construction are some of the most common authors of code changes. Often, associations such as AWCI pool the resources and interests of multiple contractors and even multiple associations to get a broad base of support for a code change. If no changes are proposed, or if a code change proposal is defeated or withdrawn, then the code language stays the same as it was in the previous code version. Anyone can sign up to monitor the code development process through the ICC website.

How does the code become law?
The ICC is a for-profit company that not only publishes and sells codes but also has affiliated businesses related to codes and building safety. ICC develops codes through a consensus process to ensure all opinions are heard. Once developed, the codes are available for adoption by individual jurisdictions, such as state or local governments.

Many people are surprised to learn that the United States does not have a national building code. Several states have no statewide code, and some rural areas have no code at all. In the first few pages of the IBC, there is text for “sample legislation for the adoption of the International Building Code.” It is written in a format that allows for the legal requirements of becoming a state or local law. Typically, before a code is adopted, it is reviewed by experts and building officials within the jurisdiction, and most states make multiple changes before it is sent to the legislature for a vote.

Why have building codes become more complex?
When our only building materials were brick, mortar, stone, steel and concrete, it was fairly easy to write a simple code based on just a few materials and construction methods. As materials and methods have become more complex, and as the types of materials have grown, the code has grown to incorporate these technological advances.

For example, in chapter 14, “Exterior Walls,” there are sections on metal composite panels, EIFS, high-pressure laminates, insulated metal panels, plastic composite decking and building-integrated photovoltaic. In the original (2000) version of the IBC, only one section on aluminum composite materials was included.

Researchers have worked tirelessly to make buildings safer, more efficient, more comfortable, accessible and user-friendly. This research has made its way into the codes in the forms of charts, tables, equations, data and hundreds of referenced documents, all listed in Chapter 35. Another issue that adds to the complexity is the political nature of anything that is adopted into law. Interest groups want to make sure their particular product or constituency is protected, and they work to get rules that will help their special interests into the laws and codes. Although most of these rules and code changes are well-intentioned, some have unintended consequences, like increased building cost or reduced fire resistance.
How can I participate?

Some of the initial code changes for the 2027 IBC have already been submitted; the first deadline for proposals is Jan. 8. I will be monitoring code changes on behalf of AWCI, and others in affiliated industry groups such as the Gypsum Association and Steel Framing Industry Association have code advocacy functions as well. If you have a particular issue with your current or local code, let me know and we can discuss available options, including submitting your own code change proposals.

Don Allen, PE, SE, LEED AP, is AWCI’s director of technical services.

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