California Building Code Fight Starts

BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTORs staff SACRAMENTO, CALIF. Only in California can building codes get as nutty as the states politics. On July 30, the California Building Standards Commission voted to adopt model building and fire codes of the National Fire Protection Association, including NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code and NFPA 1 Uniform Fire Code. As a result of the commissions

BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Only in California can building codes get as nutty as the state’s politics.

On July 30, the California Building Standards Commission voted to adopt model building and fire codes of the National Fire Protection Association, including NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code and NFPA 1 Uniform Fire Code. As a result of the commission’s action, the NFPA codes will provide the basis for the 2004 California Building Code and the 2004 California Fire Code.

“We are pleased that NFPA’s model building and fire codes will be an important part of public safety in California,” said James M. Shannon, president and CEO of the NFPA.

The International Code Council, publishers of competing International codes, immediately slammed the decision, stating, “The NFPA building code is deficient, unusable and unenforceable.”

NFPA and ICC are not friendly rivals.

ICC was formed from the merger of Building Officials and Code Administrators International, the Southern Building Code Congress and the International Council of Building Officials. The groups assembled all their respective codes, such as ICBO’s Uniform Building Code, and created composites such as the International Building Code and the International Residential Code.

NFPA responded by partnering with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, Western Fire Chiefs Association and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers to create NFPA 5000 and the Comprehensive Consensus Codes set.

The California Building Code had been based on an old (and no longer in existence) edition of ICBO’s Uniform Building Code. It was time to update the code and ICC claims that most stakeholders in California — it can provide a list of 400 government and private entities — wanted to stick with the more familiar International codes because they were already using some version of them.

That didn’t take California politics into account. The NFPA codes were affiliated with union-oriented IAPMO and supported by the California firefighters union. The BSC is loaded with union members or sympathizers, according to ICC and its supporters.

The BSC voted 8-2 to adopt the NFPA code.

“We knew since last winter that eight votes would support NFPA,” said Robert Raymer, technical director of home-builders’ group California Building Industry Association. “The rest of country goes one way and California goes the other way.”

What makes the NFPA documents unusable, Raymer said, is that they refer to other codes and documents instead of telling users what to do.

“The NFPA documents were slammed together in less than a year and it shows,” Raymer said. “It is not user friendly. We’ve heard from architects who used it and the [International Building Code] that somebody who works in an office and not in the field could make use of the NFPA book as long as they have a massive reference library. But as soon as you leave your office and the reference library to go to a jobsite, like local building officials and inspectors, you can’t make use of it in the field because it’s just a roadmap to other books.”

The IRC and IBC, in contrast, contain specific, prescriptive code language that covers the majority of common building issues in the field, Raymer said.

The staff of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development agreed that NFPA 5000 is difficult to use and said in its recommendation to the BSC, “In terms of cost related to time and materials, the department concludes that the prescriptive standards contained within the IBC/IRC provide a significant benefit for the regulated public as well as the code enforcement partners at the local level.”

That would make the International codes easier to use and less costly, HCD said in its report.

“The department is satisfied that on the important priorities of ease of use and cost, the IBC/IRC have a significant advantage and, to the extent that this advantage works to the benefit of the regulated public, it enhances the likelihood of consistency of enforcement. For that reason, the department recommends the use of the 2003 IBC/IRC as the basis for the California Building Code.”

That recommendation and the other testimony didn’t sway the BSC. What the commission has cobbled together is a combination of NFPA 5000; IAPMO’s Uniform Plumbing Code and Uniform Mechanical Code; NFPA’s fire code, which the state had already been using; and, ironically, the International Residential Code.

It adopted the IRC because NFPA 5000 didn’t adequately cover residential low-rise construction.

ICC will continue to fight, said Sarah Yerkes, vice president/public policy.

“We’re considering our options,” Yerkes said. “We had a meeting in Sacramento with our coalition and we’re not giving up and we’re not moving away. We have an office in Whittier with 100 people and we’ve been helping California with building regulations for decades. We’re looking at all our options.”

The new code may not be in effect until July 2006, Raymer said, after state agencies recommend amendments, lengthy public hearings are held and the code is finally published.

TAGS: Piping